Short Nerd Chief

A tale of two pitchers: Sabathia and Lee

Posted by Fred on April 22, 2008

Call it the circle of blogging – first Jason Kottke posts an ode to the knuckleball.  Then I pointed him toward the fascinating pitchf/x charts Josh Kalk has compiled from the Sportvision/MLB data, and Jason posted that.  Then I ended up finding a bunch more pitchf/x resources.  MLB posts the raw data in a bunch of XML files that you can parse via Excel (crudely) or SQL (more sophisticated).  I took a look at Cliff Lee and C.C. Sabathia to see if there are any trends that may explain why C.C. is winless with a 13.50 ERA and Cliff is undefeated with a 0.40 ERA, when by all accounts those results should be reversed.

Here is some pitch location data for their last respective starts, courtesy of Dan Brooks (Jnai from the Sons of Sam Horn board) and his Totally Unofficial PitchFX Graph Tool.  For C.C., it’s the 11-2 thrashing by the Tigers, in which he got lit up for 9 runs again.  For Cliff, it’s a dominant 4-0 win over the Twins, in which he gave up no runs and struck out 8 in 8 innings:


C.C. is on the left and Lee on the right.  The sense we all have that Sabathia can’t find the plate would appear to be true.  Further, he is invariably missing belt-high and up on both sides of the plate.  Lee’s pitches are largely in the strike zone, and when he misses he is missing inside to righties and low.  Some of this is undoubtedly explained by Sabathia’s reticence to throw his slider – his percentage of sliders has dropped from 22% in 2007 to 12% this year – and reliance on his changeup.

When C.C. has thrown his slider, it has significantly less break than it did last year.  Here is the horizontal and vertical break data for C.C. in 2007, from Josh Kalk’s data:


Here is the same data for 2008 to date:


Some of this can be explained by the smaller sample size, but the general trend seems clear.  Sabathia’s pitches don’t have the range of movement they had last year – his slider is breaking horizontally out of the zone, but it’s staying essentially flat vertically.  A slider that doesn’t slide is just asking to be turned into a screaming line drive.  Lee’s pitches, on the other hand, are anything but flat.  He doesn’t throw very many sliders (6 so far), but his curve, fastball and change are all breaking vertically and horizontally (as we examined yesterday), making him more effective even though his fastball is 5 MPH slower:



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