For the Minnesota Twins, the road to the ALCS goes through CC Sabathia.
Barring a sweep, the Twins are due to face CC twice in the next five days. That's two games against one of the best pitchers in baseball, who very well may end up with another Cy Young award on his mantle this off-season. Do the Twins need to beat Sabathia to win the series? No, not necessarily. Does winning at least one of the two games against Sabathia put the Twins in the driver's seat? Absolutely.
Given the important role Sabathia will play in the series, I thought we'd look a little closer at what has made him so successful in 2010.
How He Pitches: Well, let's start with the basics: Sabathia is a big, tall, hard-throwing southpaw. His average fastball in 2010 was measured at 93.5 mph, good for 10th in the majors among qualified starters.
Despite his velocity, Sabathia is not really a high-strikeout pitcher. Sure, it's not unusual to see him post big strikeout totals in individual games, but on the season he struck out "just" 7.46 batters per nine innings. Not bad for a mere mortal, but for CC it's a pretty steep drop from the career high he set just two seasons ago (8.93 K/9). In fact, his strikeout rate ranked 35th in the majors among qualified starters, below his opponent in Game 1 (Liriano - 9.44) and even a guy not good enough to crack the Twins postseason rotation (Scott Baker - 7.82).
Sabathia throws two fastballs: a hard, 94-mph four-seamer that he'll throw anywhere in the strike zone, and a 93-mph sinker he throws down and away to right-handers and middle-in to left-handers. The sinker, while not a new pitch for Sabathia, has certainly gained prominence in his repertoire in 2010. Pitch F/X classified about 3% of his pitches as sinkers in 2009. This year, about 14% of the pitches he threw were sinking fastballs.
Sabathia relies heavily on his fastball early in counts - both his four-seamer and his sinker. He tends to go away from the fastball when he gets ahead, especially when he has two strikes. When he falls behind the hitter, however, he'll go back to his fastball nearly three-quarters of the time.
When Sabathia gets ahead of hitters, he turns into a completely different animal. When ahead of right-handers, he turns to his tumbling change-up that features a sharp break and a sharp drop in speed (mid-80s). He throws it outer-half to righties, placing it just off the plate or below the knees as frequently as it throws it for a strike. It's not necessarily a pitch that generates a lot of Ks, but it does generate a lot of poorly-hit balls that turn into outs.
Against lefties, Sabathia relies on his filthy slider when ahead in the count. This is a true strikeout pitch: lefties whiff on it nearly 20% of the time, and are able to put it in play just 11.5% of the time. It's truly one of the most effective sliders in the game, and is a big reason why lefties have so much trouble against CC.
On top of all of this, Sabathia also mixes in a curveball, which is somewhat similar to his slider (just with greater vertical break and less horizontal movement). Like his slider, he throws it more frequently to lefties, but tends to use it earlier in counts than his change-up and slider.
The Results: As I noted above, Sabathia has seen his strikeout rate drop considerably over the past two seasons. Additionally, his walk rate has risen from an elite 1.38 BB/9 in 2007 to a respectable 2.80 in 2010. In fact, his strikeout-to-walk ratio in 2010 was just 2.66, barely in the top-third of qualified starters.
What CC has given up in strikeouts, however, he's taken back by generating groundballs and eliminating line drives. By relying more heavily on his sinking fastball - combined with his off-speed and breaking pitches that are thrown almost exclusively low and away - Sabathia is now generating groundballs on about half the balls put in play against him. What's more, only about 15% of the balls hit off Sabathia were line drives, one of the lowest marks in the majors. In fact, he's now generating just as many outs via groundballs as he is strikeouts this season.
The truth is, Sabathia is a much different pitcher than he was in previous years, but no less effective. He finished the season with a 3.18 ERA, despite pitching in the toughest division in baseball. From ERA to FIP to xFIP, he's every bit as good as he was in 2009, even while his strikeout and walk rates are moving in the wrong direction. His sinking fastball has helped him generate a great deal of groundballs, and hitters have an incredibly difficult time making solid contact on his off-speed and breaking pitches. He's even proved equally adept at getting lefties and righties out (despite much better peripherals against left-handed hitters).
Bottom Line: While this is not the same Sabathia as we've seen in recent years, that shouldn't fool you into thinking he's any easier to beat. The good news, I guess, is that by allowing more balls into play, Sabathia increases his exposure to the randomness of lucky bounces, "seeing-eye" singles, and misplays from such defensive luminaries as Derek Jeter.
The even better news? The Twins have a pretty good lefty pitching tonight, as well. Looking just at peripherals - K/9, BB/9, HR/9 - Liriano out-pitched Sabathia by a fairly wide margin in 2010. Liriano's groundball rate was almost equally as impressive as Sabathia's, too. Sabathia might be tough to beat, but Liriano has the ability to match him pitch-for-pitch tonight.
Who's ready for some baseball?