Starting CC Sabathia Tonight is Perfectly Reasonable

In July, the Yankees sent a significant package of talent to the Oakland A’s in order to acquire Sonny Gray, hoping to improve their rotation for both the stretch run and the postseason. But now that they’re in the postseason, and their season is on the line, Joe Girardi has chosen to hand the ball to CC Sabathia instead.

On the surface, this looks like another example of one of Girardi’s primary weaknesses; overreacting to recent performances. We saw him do this with Luis Severino, bumping him to Game 4 of the ALDS after he was bombed in the Wild Card game, despite Severino being pretty clearly the Yankees best starter right now. And while Gray has a clear edge over Sabathia in track record, he didn’t finish the season very well, allowing a season-worst .330 wOBA in September, and he wasn’t good in his first outing in this series either.

Despite his struggles of late, though, Gray is pretty clearly a better pitcher than Sabathia at this point. I’d generally suggest that a team is better off relying on projections than on what-have-you-done-for-me-lately reactions, and so from a process standpoint, I don’t think picking Sabathia over Gray is a great choice.

But Girardi’s recency bias aside, there’s actually a pretty good case to be made for starting Sabathia tonight.

Thanks to Severino’s dominance on Monday and yesterday’s off-day, the Yankee bullpen is in very good shape for tonight’s Game 5. Chad Green hasn’t pitched in four days. David Robertson has had two days off since throwing nine pitches, and he had the day before that off too. Tommy Kahnle threw 22 pitches on Monday, but had two days off before that. Aroldis Chapman hasn’t pitched since Sunday.

Between those four relievers, I think it’s perfectly reasonable to expect the Yankees to get something like 6, 7, or maybe even 8 innings of work tonight. There’s no real reason why each of those guys couldn’t go two inning each if need be. So, while Sabathia is going to throw the first pitch of tonight’s game, the reality is that tonight’s starting pitcher kind of doesn’t matter.

At most, I’d imagine Sabathia gets something like nine outs tonight. It’s difficult to see Girardi sticking with him into the 4th inning unless he’s throwing a perfect game, given the alternatives he has available. In reality, the bullpen will probably start to warm the minute Sabathia allows his first baserunner, and he’ll be pulled as soon as two guys get on at the same time. With those power arms ready to go, the Yankees just aren’t going to let any starter put them in a hole too early.

So, when deciding between Sabathia and Gray, the question isn’t which pitcher is better; the question is which one is less likely to give up runs in a hurry before the bullpen can be called in to bail them out. And right now, that probably is Sabathia.

This year, the average exit velocity on a ball hit off Sabathia was just 84 mph, tied with Kyle Hendricks for the best in baseball. The average EV on flies and liners was 91 mph, tied for sixth-best. Gray is at 87 mph/93 respectively, two ticks above where Sabathia resides on both counts.

The quickest way to get behind early is to give up a couple of rockets in the gap, or balls over the wall, before Green or Robertson can come in and strike everyone out to end the rally. And for the last few years, few pitchers in baseball have avoided giving up hard contact as well as Sabathia. Because he doesn’t strike as many guys out as Gray does, he’s more likely to give up a couple of singles, but he’s less likely to have a few extra base hits strung together before Girardi can get his bullpen warm in time to keep runs off the board.

And with the reinforcements likely to be ready very early, a couple of singles isn’t the end of the world. The starting pitcher’s job tonight is to just get something like three to nine outs. Given Sabathia’s ability to minimize hard contact, he’s probably the one best suited to getting a few outs without digging a big hole before the bullpen takes over.

Plus, if the Yankees win tonight, they already know they’re facing the Astros in the ALCS. The Astros best hitters are all right-handed. Gray is a significantly better match-up against Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, and George Springer than Sabathia is, and having him available to start Game 1 or 2 of the ALCS, if need be, is a nice little benefit to starting Sabathia in this game.

So, while I don’t necessarily buy into the idea that Gray isn’t trust worthy enough to choose over Sabathia given their recent performances, I think the end result of starting Sabathia tonight could work out for the Yankees just fine. Given how many innings the Yankees relievers should be expected to throw, Sabathia tonight for a few outs is probably just fine.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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4 years ago

Plus, it gives the Yanks the platoon advantage against Kipnis, Brantley, and Bruce (and Chisenhall, though Jackson is the probable starter there).

4 years ago
Reply to  Jim

Both Ramirez and Lindor hit better from the right side, although Santana is slightly worse. If Encarnacion plays DH, I’d say the platoon is in Cleveland’s favor.