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Go Bold Or Go Home: CC Sabathia Will Regain His Form

Players with so-called "bad bodies" are easy targets for criticism, seemingly no matter how they perform on the field.  Every offseason brings with it a new round of speculation that THIS will be the season that CC Sabathia finally breaks down, since obviously a pitcher who has flirted with the 300-pound threshold for much of his career can't POSSIBLY keep being effective at that weight. 

And, of course, when Sabathia did struggle in 2013, the critics had a field day...ignoring the fact that it was Sabathia's 13th season and he turned 33 in July, so he's around the age when a lot of pitchers start to decline anyways.  If you're wrong about something for 12 years, you can't suddenly blame victory on the 13th try.  Ironically, there's a school of thought that suggests Sabathia struggled because he weighed less, having dropping roughly 20 pounds over each of the previous two offseasons.  Between that and a minor elbow surgery in October 2012 that essentially curtailed his offseason throwing program, Sabathia was entering the 2013 season on a totally different level of preparedness.

It's for that reason I believe that Sabathia is due for a rebound this season.  Sure, it's his age-33 season and he's put a lot of miles on that left arm, but it seems like a lot of factors conspired against Sabathia last winter and it all snowballed into arguably his worst professional season.

Now, "worst."  Sabathia posted a 4.78 ERA, 7.5 K/9 and 2.69 K/BB rate over 211 innings.  His 13% home run rate was the highest of his career, and his 44.7% ground ball rate was his second-lowest of his past eight seasons.  The southpaw's advanced metrics?  A pretty respectable 4.10 FIP, 3.76 xFIP and 3.95 SIERA, and the discrepancy in ERA could be explained by his slightly-inflated .308 BABIP and a slightly-below average walk rate (67.4%).  Batters were making good contact against Sabathia (his 22.3% line drive rate was the third-highest of his career) but his grounder/fly ball ratio was just about at his career average, so I feel safe in saying that the inflated home run rate might've been somewhat of a fluke, though it also had a big spike in 2012.

Sabathia only averaged 91.1 mph on his fastball last year, losing more speed after averaging 93.8 mph in 2011 and 92.3 mph in 2012.  The loss of velocity isn't a good sign, yet Sabathia has been trending away from the use of his fastball anyway over the last three years.  2013 saw him put a renewed emphasis on his changeup, throwing the pitch 15.3% of the time, his highest usage in three years.

It's a testament to Sabathia's quality over the last decade that 2013 was seen as such a major dropoff for him, since as noted, his numbers last season weren't really all that bad if you factor in the peripheral stats.  Of course, fantasy owners expected much more than "not all that bad" and the Yankees sure needed more than that from the guy they still owe $76MM to over the next three seasons.

Let's presume, however, that 2013 is Sabathia's new standard.  If that's rock bottom for him and his ERA evens out to his xFIP or SIERA, I think most fantasy owners would be pretty satisfied with that at the back of their rotation.  So Sabathia at his worst is still a good rotation option; an improved Sabathia (with a proper offseason throwing regimen and more time to get used to his slightly-lighter frame) provides that much more value, with even a chance that he'll come all the way back and be able to headline a rotation.

If you're drafting Sabathia this spring, don't trust him to actually be the ace of your staff.  Instead, pounce on him as a third or fourth starter, and you'll probably have relatively free reign to do so given how many people have been scared off by his most recent season.  There's a lot of room for upside with Sabathia and I feel he'll perform much closer to his usual standards than his 2013 numbers.  Unless, y'know, this is the year he breaks down since you just can't trust those overweight players!*

* = editor's note: Mark is literally eating a hamburger and french fries as he's writing this




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