10 Years in the MLB: CC Sabathia's Arsenal
How does a pitcher's arsenal and plan of attack change (or not change) over time? Specifically, after a decade of pitching dominantly in the Major Leagues. This is a thought I had recently and decided to explore. What things change? What do not? How can someone stay dominant for so long despite aging? Hopefully I can gain insight into studying pitchers who ;act in the MLB for very long times. My first subject, a personal favorite of mine growing up, CC Sabathia.
I posted a thread on twitter briefly describing these findings but thought I would write this up without the 140 character limit. I decided to analyze CC based off of velocity, pitch usage (%), location, and movement. Let's take a look.
In 2010 CC Sabathia was an All-star at age 29. In 2019 he retired at age 38. Throughout this time frame he lost nearly ~4-5 mph on every pitch, which is certainly not a ground-breaking fact. Age is age. Pitching thousands of innings takes a toll. Injuries, general health, outsider variables can effect a pitcher's velocity. So velocity dropped, but how did CC stay dominant despite his lost velocity? A pitcher USUALLY can't pitch with the same pitches and same plan of attack with an arsenal 5 mph slower. So what else changed?
Overlook of his pitch usage from 2010-2019. First, his 4s fastball dropped from over 40@ to non-existent at less than 1%. Initially, the sinker and slider were used as a result of the lost 4s percentage until 2017 with the addition of the cutter. At age 37, CC added a new pitch to his arsenal and used it at roughly 43% of the time. Over his last 9 years of his career, his 4s fastball was initially a very important pitch for him and then dwindled to never being used again. The sinker picked up the slack until the cutter arrived. His slider use slowly doubled. In 2019, 72% of CC's pitches were a cutter or a slider, one pitch that didn't exist in 2010 and another that was only thrown ~22%.
R/L Pitch usage
Due to changes in overall pitch usage, there were changes in the usage to both righties and lefties. in 2010, he was 84% 4s/slider to lefties and 66% 4s/changeup to righties. So primarily, he worked 4s fastball and an off speed pitch that broke away from the batter. Pretty standard. In 2019 however, he was 91% sinker/slider to lefties and 78% cutter/slider to righties. Now, it was not as simple. The sinker was used to go in on lefties, while cutter was used to go in on righties. In 2010, he was throwing his 4s fastball nearly 50% of the time to both hitters. Now, he was throwing a fastball tailored to work against a specific batter and an increased slider use.
Here are the heat maps for R splits in 2010 vs 2019. In 2010, the plan of attack was low and away regardless of hitter. For lefties, he continued throwing low and away in 2019 (maps not included). For righties the change was significant. The heap map is no longer limited to low/away, but he attacked them all over the zone, now throwing them up and in. Keep in mind this was while he was throwing at significantly lower velocities. When he threw 95mph, he never came inside. Now utilizing cutters and sinkers, he was able to pitch hitters inside with command and control both sides of the plate.
Lastly, lets look at pitch movement differences between 2010 and 2019. Mostly less movement on his sinker and changeup, but the highlight here is the slider. Originally, a pitch he hardly threw, transformed by adding 4 inches, getting more glove side sweep. The cutter was added and the slider got significally better. Those were his two main weapons towards the end of his career and he threw those almost 75%of the time.
Baseball is an ever-evolving game. The result of evolution is adaptation and if you do not adapt, you get left behind. I think studying successful MLB pitchers can tell us players and coaches volumes. When we sharpen that down to pitchers who have been successful for a decade, there is certainly something to learn. I rarely wonder how people get to the big leagues. CC Sabathia was a 6 foot 6, 1st round lefty who could hit 98 mph. I don't question how he got to the show, I question how he stayed there and dominated for over 10 years, despite changing variables around him and variables within his own game. After looking at the changes he made, it is a true testament to his willingness and pride to adapt and reevaluate his craft to be successful. Give yourself the best change to succeed. Study hitters, study your arsenal. What can you do to give yourself an advantage? If he stuck with throwing low and away with 4 seamers his whole career, CC Sabathia might not be a legend and hall of famer. But he is (or will be).