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Scouting Pitchers: C.C. Sabathia

James Benkard

James Benkard writes about fantasy sports for RotoWire.

Last year's AL Cy Young winner made a huge impact on this year's NL Wild Card race. Sabathia came over from Cleveland to Milwaukee on July 7th for Matt LaPorta, Zach Jackson, Rob Bryson and Michael Brantley. He won his first four starts, picked up a no-decision on August 24, then won his next four. Sabathia was 11-2 with a 1.65 ERA in 17 National League starts after going 6-8, 3.83 in 18 AL starts. He led the major leagues in innings (253) and complete games (10), ranked second in strikeouts (251), third in quality starts (25), fourth in ERA (2.70) and eighth in wins (17).

Sabathia became a legend in the past month by starting four straight games on three days' rest. He threw a complete game at the division-champion Cubs on September 28, limiting them to one unearned run as the Brewers won the Wild Card. Unfortunately for interim manager Dale Sveum, the Phillies battered Sabathia on October 2 for five runs in 3.2 innings to take a 2-0 lead in the NLDS. Sabathia denied afterwards he was tired, saying: "I just didn't make pitches when I needed to." A free agent after the season, the Yankees, Mets, Red Sox, Angels or Dodgers are sure to offer him something comparable to Johan Santana's six-year, $137.5 million deal.

80 Outstanding (96+ MPH fastball, 88+ MPH slider, 82 MPH curveball)
70 Well above average (94-95 FB, 86-87 MPH SL, 80-81 MPH CB)
60 Above average (92-93 MPH FB, 84-85 MPH SL, 78-79 MPH CB)
50 Average (89-91 MPH FB, 82-84 MPH SL, 75-77 MPH CB)
40 Below average (86-88 MPH FB, 79-81 MPH SL, 73-75 MPH CB)
30 Well below average (83-85 MPH FB, 76-78 MPH SL, 71-72 MPH CB)
20 Poor (80-82 MPH FB, 71-75 MPH SL, 69-70 MPH CB)

Cleveland chose the left-handed Sabathia (6-7, 290, Born 7/21/1979) with the 20th overall pick of the 1998 draft out of a California high school. He dominated Rookie ball and Low-A in 1999, leading to stints in High-A (3-2, 3.54 in 10 starts) and Double-A (3-7, 3.59 in 17 starts) in 2000. He made his major league debut April 8, 2001. With low-key Charlie Manuel at the helm, Sabathia went 17-5, 4.39 with 171 strikeouts and 95 walks in 180 innings. He finished second in the AL Rookie of the Year voting to Ichiro Suzuki. Sabathia signed a four-year, $9.5 million contract heading into 2002. He struggled badly out of the gate and carried a 6.31 ERA into mid-May, when he was robbed at gunpoint. 2002 is the only year Sabathia has allowed more than 100 runs (13-11, 4.37).

Elbow and ankle scares in early 2003 made the Indians limit Sabathia's workload throughout the year. He benefited from the rest as he lowered his ERA to 3.60 and improved his control. 2004 was another in-between year, as a strained biceps tendon in April slowed Sabathia. He looked great upon his return (3.33 first-half ERA) but came down with a mild shoulder problem that limited his effectiveness in the second half (5.12 ERA). An oblique strain in early 2005 delayed his debut, and his ERA was 5.27 as late as August 5. Sabathia then ripped off an 8-1, 1.79 stretch in his last 10 starts.

Sabathia continued to improve his control in 2006, when he went 12-11, 3.22 in 28 starts. Another oblique injury and a poor June (7.27 ERA) delayed his breakout year until 2007, when he went 19-7, 3.21 to beat out Josh Beckett for the Cy Young. Beckett had the last laugh after he beat Sabathia in Games 1 and 5 of the NLCS, sending the Red Sox on to their World Series win. The Indians tried to sign Sabathia in the offseason, reportedly offering him four years at $17-$18 million per season, but he declined. He rebounded from a poor April (7.76 ERA) to make himself the most attractive player on the trade market. Milwaukee landed him for LaPorta, a future slugger, and three lesser parts.

CC Sabathia: (G/F 1.39)

		Rating:  %Thrown:
Fastball	70		50
Curveball	N/A
Slider		65		25
Changeup	70		25
Control	65
Delivery	50
Composure	80

Sabathia has retained the 95 MPH fastball he brought to the majors. Although he no longer regularly reaches 97-98, he sits at 92-94 and touches 97. Sabathia has become a complete pitcher by mixing in his 84-89 MPH changeup and 76-82 MPH slider. The Hardball Times' Josh Kalk points out in his excellent article that Sabathia doesn't throw a curveball, but a slider. Perhaps the confusion comes from Sabathia throwing his slider at the velocity of a slurve. Most pitchers throw their slider at least as hard or harder than their changeup. Sabathia is a rare exception in how much slower his slider is than his change. Not many pitchers throw an upper-80's changeup. Felix Hernandez is the only one who immediately comes to mind.

The uniqueness of Sabathia's repertoire extends to his body and motion. He drops and drives behind his immense, 300-pound frame and seemingly throws himself at the hitter. Sabathia has calmed down his arm action somewhat, and doesn't jerk his arm around at the midpoint of his delivery as much as in the past. He has stayed more fluid and under control in 2008. Since his motion is more coiled than free and easy, and his weight is a question mark, people have wondered about giving him $150 million. His latest heroics have ensured one of the teams mentioned above will take the chance.

Left-handed hitters don't have much chance against Sabathia, who has limited them to a .204 average and a 164-19 strikeout-walk ratio the past two years. He commands his slider very well and sends them back to the dugout after flailing at one in the dirt. Sabathia also pounds right-handers inside with the slider to keep them honest. With many major league hitters still crowding the plate, a power pitcher who isn't afraid to come inside can force the hitters either to back off or strike out. Sabathia also has great feel for his changeup. He can fade this inside to right-handers or well as away from them. This forces hitters to make an additional adjustment. Assuming a right-hander correctly identifies Sabathia's change, he has to gauge whether the pitch will move in or away from him. That's too many adjustments for most hitters to make.

Sabathia can be reached when he struggles to command his fastball, as happened in his 10/2 start in Philadelphia. He is an intense competitor and has battled his emotions in the past. This seems to be behind him, yet the innings of the last two years have taken a toll. Sabathia might respond to his reduced stuff in the postseason with increased intensity, leading to him rush his delivery and miss his spots. His fastball doesn't have the movement of his other pitches, so he needs to locate it if he doesn't have his best velocity. Often overthrowing will subtract from a fastball's movement.

People often perceive the flaws in a superstar's game as larger than they actually are. Alex Rodriguez, for example, has a career postseason OPS of .852 - much lower than people might believe. Some were forecasting Johan Santana's obituary at mid-season this year, and I don't exempt myself from this. He ended up leading the majors in ERA. Until Sabathia conquers October, he might continue to be known as Peyton Manning - the best player who's never won the big one. Yet I wouldn't bet against Sabathia hoisting a trophy some day wherever he lands.


Next week: AL West: Matt Harrison


Article first appeared 10/4/08