Chris Sale: How an Ace Gets Better

Chris Sale made his debut for the Chicago White Sox in 2010, and since then, he has placed himself in the conversation for best pitcher in the American League. Though Sale hasn’t won a Cy Young award yet, he’s come extremely close in each of his first four years as a starter.

Early this season, Sale is adapting his game, leading the White Sox to an impressive 15-6 record, including 5-0 in his starts. But to see how Sale has changed, we first have to see how he got to this point.

Then

To begin his career, Sale pitched 23.1 innings strictly from the bullpen in 2010. Sale then pitched 71 more innings in 2011, again from the bullpen. In those seasons, Sale pitched well, with a 1.93 and 2.79 ERA respectively. Finally in 2012 though, Sale had his breakout opportunity.

USP MLB: CHICAGO WHITE SOX AT MINNESOTA TWINS S BBA USA MNThe White Sox turned to Sale again, now a part of their starting rotation, and he was an instant star. Though his ERA climbed slightly to 3.05, Sale managed to sustain his production over 192 innings across 29 starts, and the Cy Young voting was telling; in 2012, in his first year as a starter, he finished 6th overall.

In 2013, his second year as a starter, Sale continued to mystify hitters, holding a 3.07 ERA in 214.1 innings. Sale’s FIP actually dropped from the previous season, from 3.27 to 3.17. As for his strikeouts, he saw an improvement in that department as well, going from 192 punchouts to 226. Once again, Sale garnered some Cy Young attention, now moving into the top-five.

451122290.0Sale turned in his best season as a pro in 2014, dropping his ERA all the way to 2.17, and increasing his K/9 from 9.49 to 10.76, both of which were career-high figures. If not for even more impressive seasons from Corey Kluber and Felix Hernandez, Sale would have won his first Cy Young. Instead, Sale settled for a 3rd-place finish.

Last season though, Sale took a step backwards, at least in some aspects. His ERA jumped to 3.41, a career-worst, although his FIP was a cool 2.73, meaning Sale might have pitched into some bad luck. Since his BABIP was .323, again a career-worst, it’s likely that Sale was better than his numbers. The voters recognized this, as Sale finished 4th in the Cy Young in 2015.

Now

Coming into this season, fellow JailHouse writer Kevaghn Hinckley picked Sale to finally win the Cy Young award, and I have to say I’m inclined to agree. With some bad luck last season, it makes sense that a pitcher of Sale’s caliber will bounce back in tremendous fashion, and at least early in the season, Sale is on top of his game.

021916-MLB-Chris-Sale-Chicago-White-Sox-PI-DP.vresize.1200.675.high.12

The most significant difference this season is Sale’s shift from a strikeout pitcher to a groundball pitcher. What do we mean by that? Let’s take a look at a few statistics from this season compared to Sale’s first four seasons as a starter compared to his numbers from this season.

Please note: these statistics are updated through 4/25/16

Year Games ERA FIP K/9 BB/9 GB%
2012 29 3.05 3.27 9.00 2.39 44.9%
2013 30 3.07 3.17 9.49 1.93 46.6%
2014 26 2.17 2.57 10.76 2.02 40.7%
2015 31 3.41 2.73 11.82 1.81 42.6%
2016 4 1.80 2.63 7.80 0.90 50.0%

Remember that we’re dealing with a very small sample size this season, so we can’t make any certain predictions from this data. But we can see, so far, what Sale is doing differently. The GB% is up more than 7% from last season, and maybe more striking, the K/9 is down more than 4 K/9.

cc9e55a2235f8b0e930f6a706700e493Sale is evolving, and the “new” groundball specialist Sale is improving in one less obvious area: Sale is pitching much deeper into games. Sale is averaging 7.6 innings per start this season, compared to 6.73 innings per start last season. If we go back further, we see 6.69 in 2014, 7.14 in 2013, and 6.62 in 2012. By pitching to contact and allowing his defense to make some outs for him, instead of relying on the strikeout so much, Sale is eating up more innings.

To win a Cy Young award, traditionally a pitcher must pitch deep into games. Last year’s AL winner, Dallas Keuchel, averaged 7.03 innings per start. Clayton Kershaw, who won both the NL MVP and the NL Cy Young in 2014, averaged 7.35 innings per start. Justin Verlander, who won both AL awards in 2011, pitched 7.38 innings per start. Sale’s 7.6 figure this season, though perhaps a little too high to sustain, would firmly plant him in the conversation among the game’s elite workhorses.

Let’s look at some examples of Sale’s more effective groundball-pitching this season. Three of his starts in particular are noteworthy, as Sale was inducing groundballs at a good rate. In his other two starts, though Sale was excellent still, he relied more heavily on his strikeout stuff. First, we’ll look at Sale’s first start against the Oakland Athletics, on April 4th:

Note: Analysis from these games current through 4/26/16

Sale induces a groundout from Josh Reddick, and covers first nicely here. Though the ball was hit a little bit harder than Sale would’ve liked, he forces the power-hitting Reddick to roll his wrists over and groundout to the pull-side.

Now on to April 9th, another strong performance from Sale, this time against the Cleveland Indians:

Carlos Santana, on a 3-1 count, grounds out weakly to Sale, who tosses it to first for the out. Sale relied on his 2-seam fastball in this at-bat, forcing Santana to hit the top of the ball for the soft grounder. Sale is throwing the 2-seam fastball 55.1% of the time this season, compared to the last two seasons where he only tossed the 2-seamer 51.6% of the time.

We’ll skip Sale’s third start, in which he struck out 9 batters in a complete game. Since it seems that Sale was relying on his old strikeout skills that game, it won’t help us to look at his groundouts so much, but it’s still worth noting that Sale was pitching at an extremely high level.

So finally we’ll look at Sale’s start against the Los Angeles Angels last Wednesday, in which Sale pitched 7 scoreless frames. Note that Sale only struck out 3 batters, but induced 10 groundouts:

To finish the 7th inning, Sale makes slugger Albert Pujols groundout, again on his 2-seam fastball. The previous batter, Mike Trout, also grounded out on Sale’s 2-seam fastball. In fact, 5 of Sale’s 10 groundouts in this game came on his 2-seam fastball, making it his go-to pitch to induce weak contact.

Sale’s latest start, Tuesday against the Toronto Blue Jays, was another great game from Sale. This game though, much like his third start, was more of the “old” Chris Sale: strikeouts and popups. Going 8 innings and giving up just 1 run, Sale was once again on top of his game.

Conclusion

Chicago-White-Sox-ace-Chris-Sale-rips-team-president-Kenny-WilliamsTime will tell if Sale is really changing into a groundball pitcher, as his history indicates Sale has always been a strikeout king. But as players mature, they figure out ways to make themselves better. If Sale can keep his strikeout numbers respectable, while forcing more groundouts, he’ll have a great chance to pitch a lot of innings this year.

And if Sale can pitch a lot of innings this year, it could be the first year Sale wins the Cy Young.

Statistics provided by: FanGraphs.com, MLB.com

Images thanks to: MLB.com, Sportingnews.com, USA Today, SB Nation, Yahoo, upi.com, Fox Sports

 

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