How could a star player like C.C.Sabathia be a sleeper going into the 2015 season? Because most people have written him off due to age, overuse, poor performance and injury. It has been quite a while since Sabathia was a true fantasy asset. He spent most of this season on the disabled list, and when he did play he was awful. He had a 3-4 record with a 5.28 ERA in 46 innings before being shut down for the season after only 8 starts. Last year in 2013 he pitched a full season but had a poor statistical showing with a 14-13 record and woeful 4.78 ERA.
Before his recent downturn Sabathia was one of the most elite pitchers in baseball for more than a decade. He anchored many championship-caliber fantasy rotations by averaging close to 20 Wins and 200 strikeouts per season with ERAs near 3.00 when that was a rare thing. But does it really matter how good he used to be? Is there any reason to believe he can be that good again? I say yes and I will tell you why.
While Sabathia's 2014 fantasy stats look terrible, if you dig a little deeper you can see he actually pitched quite well. His 5.28 ERA was awful, but his 3.11 xFIP was really good and so was his 3.07 SIERA. We know that xFIP and SIERA are much more accurate at predicting future ERA than ERA itself is. That means C.C.'s 2015 ERA will probably be closer to 3.00 than 5.00. Sabathia struck out 9.39 batters per nine innings this year, which is by far the best ratio of his illustrious career. Not only that, his 1.96 BB/9 is also one of the best of his career. Knowing that makes it no surprise that Sabathia's critically important K%-BB% of 18.2% was much better than his career K%-BB% rate of 13.6% (major league average is 12.7%). You can see a similar effect in 2013 when his xFIP and SIERA were a full run better than his 4.78 ERA. All of these advanced metrics indicate that despite the ugly numbers Sabathia actually pitched very well before he got hurt.
The poor ERA can be traced to a very unlucky .350 BABIP and flukishly high 1.96 HR/9 home run rate, neither of which are likely to continue given that they are much worse than his career rates. In other words, his bad 2014 numbers were due to bad luck. The small sample size of 46 innings is another factor to consider. Should we really believe that Sabathia is washed up because he had a bad ERA in an 8 game sample? No, we shouldn't.
The injury that cost Sabathia the season was a knee injury, not an arm injury. That is a good sign. The knee has been healing and he is now back throwing again. Knee injuries can linger and cause problems long term, but it is a much lesser concern than an elbow or shoulder injury would be. Given an offseason to heal there is a very good chance that Sabathia will be back to full health at the beginning of next season.
Although Sabathia has been around forever he is still not truly old. He broke into the big leagues when he was 20 in 2001. He will be 34 years old next season. That is not young but it is not ancient either. There is no reason to think he won't be a quality starting pitcher for a few more years. Sabathia has been a bulldog on the mound his entire career, averaging well over 200 innings per season. This was the first year that he has missed any real time due to injury - and it was not an arm injury. The odds say that Sabathia will likely throw 200 innings again next year.
This presents the savvy fantasy baseball player a real opportunity in drafts next Spring. Due to Sabathia's artificially poor stats the last couple years along with his injury he is likely to be severely underrated on most rankings lists and will make a very enticing sleeper pick in the later rounds of drafts. Fantasy drafts are not won in the early rounds. Anyone can make good picks in the early rounds. The later rounds are where smart team owners make the picks that win their leagues. If you can get 10th round quality in the 18th round it makes a much bigger difference than snagging 1st round value in the 2nd round. I don't think Sabathia will be a Cy Young contender who will win your league by himself, but he will be a strong contributor to your rotation and can be obtained for practically nothing. When your leaguemates are drafting low-upside rotation filler like Alfredo Simon, Dillon Gee, Edinson Volquez and Kyle Lohse you should take potential Comeback Player of the Year CC Sabathia instead.