The Detroit Tigers were about as bad a matchup on paper as CC Sabathia could have possibly gotten for his opening start of the 2016 season. Eight of the Tigers' nine batters were righties, including sluggers Justin Upton, Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez and J.D. Martinez. Sabathia's splits against righties and lefties were drastic last season with righties having a .370 wOBA against Sabathia compared to a .231 wOBA for lefites.
The Yankees were desperate for a six inning start since neither of their first four starting pitchers achieved that. Since you can't predict baseball, Sabathia was able to do it as he allowed three earned runs over six innings, including retiring the first nine Detroit hitters. It was extremely clear that Sabathia was trying to reinvent himself as a new pitcher trying to follow what Andy Pettitte did with great success at the end of his career.
Sabathia has never really thrown a cutter in his entire career, yet Brooks Baseball had him with 38 cutters in his start and ESPN TruMedia had him with 34. He even featured it more than Pettitte during his final year in 2013, as Brooks Baseball had Sabathia throwing cutter on 42 percent of his pitches compared to 32 percent for Pettitte that season, but you can probably chalk that up to all the righties Detroit featured. However, most teams will try to stack righties against Sabathia, so we could be seeing this a lot in 2015.
Sabathia located the cutter very well for it still being a new pitch for him. It was in off the plate when he missed. The few cutters that were closer to the middle of the plate he did not get burned with. One thing that Sabathia definitely lacked in recent years was the ability to pitch inside to righties. This was not only important for Pettitte, but for Mike Mussina when he won 20 games in his final season. Here is a chart of all of Sabathia's cutters from ESPN TruMedia:
The effectiveness of the cutter was a bright spot for Sabathia in his first start, but there were some causes of concern. Sabathia threw 38 balls, 34 strikes and had 18 pitches put in play as he trying to nibble and keep the ball away from the middle of the plate. That ratio is not something that he can continue to have success with. It was clear that after the first time through the order the Tigers adjusted and were not swinging at balls off the plate. According to Fangraphs, the Tigers only swung at 26.5 percent of pitches out of the zone against Sabathia. For comparisons sake, that number was 33.3 percent for Sabathia last season.
Sabathia walked the bases loaded in the fourth inning, and if Mike Aviles' deep drive to left field isn't run down by Brett Gardner we may have a whole different feeling about the start. That's why luck often plays a crucial role in baseball.
Sabathia ended up walking four batters and striking out three, and again it's impossible to have success over the long haul with that ratio. The big mystery last year was how was Sabathia having such poor results averaging 7.37 K/9 and 2.69 BB/9. The answer was a 16.6 percent HR/FB ratio and the reason why Sabathia only allowed three runs Saturday was he didn't allow any extra base hits.
Another reason for pause was the velocity for Sabathia. I normally hate obsessive velocity talk, especially this early in the season. However, for all the talk about Sabathia's velocity in the past he still averaged 91.22 MPH on his fourseam fastball last season and 90.48 MPH on his sinker. Brooks Baseball didn't have Sabathia throwing any fourseam fastballs on Saturday and his sinker was down about three miles per hour. It's almost impossible to win topping out at 87 MPH. Even Pettitte was able to average 89 MPH on his fastball in 2013. The hope would be that Sabathia always historically gets better as the weather heats up.
Sabathia gave reasons for optimism and pessimism during his first start. The bottom line is that he did get the job done when the Yankees needed him and it's hard to ever discount the intangibles he brings. It will be very interesting to see where Sabathia goes from here as he adapts to his new style of pitching.