Watching Chicago White Sox ace Chris Sale pitch is always a treat. He’s a magician, cutting through a line up, and making hitters just disappear. It doesn’t matter what the club’s record is, every Chicago fan, or casual fan in general, is obligated to watch the lefty pitch because he truly is must see TV.
2016 isn’t any different. Well kind of, but it’s the good kind of different.
Watching Chris Sale go through a potent Toronto Blue Jays line up on Tuesday was nothing short of amazing.
However, there was a part of me that wondered if I was watching Chris Sale. The lanky lefty had notched only three strikeouts through five innings, and would eventually tally just six; a mere fraction of his typical output.
I watched him mow down a line up thinking about that one month tear he went on last season, in which he was a lock for ten strikeouts and fourteen was really just another day. But the lack of flashy tactics is hardly a concern, because in the 7th inning I realized this Chris Sale is so much better. And if Chris Sale is better, then it goes without saying that we’re being exposed to a generational talent.
I was skeptical when I read that Sale was going to try to pitch to more contact. Strikeouts are an easy sell, and nothing is more appealing than a Sale slider running into a hitter’s leg for a swinging strike.
Plus, I kept coming back to the colloquial phrase “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” In this case, the fix was adding a super engine to a Ferrari.
Hear it from the man himself via Scott Gregor of the Daily Herald:
"“You can’t strike a guy out on strike one or strike two,” Sale said. “Just try to get quick, easy outs. That’s the name of the game. It’s just throwing more quality strikes earlier in the count.“I think a lot of coaches everywhere say you want them on or out in three pitches. If you can live by that, you’re doing all right.”"
It’s a formula that raises eyebrows when the White Sox had one of the league’s worst defenses, but with competent gloves behind him in 2016, this is a strategy that just might work.
Last season, Sale struck out batters at a 32.1% clip (a career high as a starter). On the flip side, he developed a boom or bust approach where he got in trouble when a pla
yer did happen to put the ball in play.
His batting average allowed on balls in play last season was .323, significantly ahead of his career .298 mark. His HR/9 spiked to 0.99 from a shining 0.67 the year prior. That was fueled by a career high 12.5% HR/FB ratio. Obviously, Ryan Raburn inflates some of those stats but the lefty had his share of uncharacteristic starts.
In fact, he had a 4.33 ERA in the second half and a dismal September (5.04 ERA in 5 GS). It begged the question of whether or not fatigue set in for Sale. He threw 208.2 innings, but it’s important to remember that with 274 strikeouts, that’s a lot of pitches. He ranked third in pitches per start, with 107.2.
Averaging 15.9 pitches an inning, Sale would’ve on average needed to throw 143.1 pitches to go a full nine innings. In 2015, Robin Ventura was praying that he wasn’t in the midst of a late no-hitter at the 120 mark.
It’s no surprise then that hitters slashed .289/.326/.453 during innings 7-9, an indication that he wore down toward the end of games. In fact, hitters hit .316/.337/.516 in the 7th inning, traditionally when batters were seeing him for the third time.
In contrast, here’s what innings 7-9 looked like in his other years as a starter.
Once again, 2015: .289/.326/.453
In September last year, Sale’s soft-contact percentage dipped to 12.7%, while his hard-contact rose to 36.4%. Yes, it’s just one month but this paints the picture of a pitcher who was simply “out of gas.”
My epiphany moment with refined Sale came in Tuesday’s 7th inning, when he turned it up a notch to blow away Jose Bautista.
Sale’s two-seam fastball velocity is down to 93.2 mph so far, below his 94.5 mph average last season. That’s not a sign of an injury. During the Bautista at-bat, Sale started touching the 95-96 mph range again. He was in that arena too when he struck out Josh Thole in the 8th.
Suddenly, it dawned on me that if Sale could live at 92 mph for most of the game, why shouldn’t he. It’s not going to blow hitters away and rack up strike outs, but batters simply are not squaring him up. His slider lives in the upper 70s and is nasty anyway, but it hasn’t been as effective as usual this year. You can expect it to start generating more whiffs.
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The real difference appears to be in his change-up. In the past, he’s used it as a strikeout pitch. It earned him a “K” 21.6% of the time in 2015 and 28.8% of the time in 2014.
In 2016, just 3.1% of the time. Now this is only a five start sample, but from what I’ve extrapolated it appears as though Sale’s change-up is giving hitters fits, just not in the form of strikeouts. Hitters are making contact on his change 93.8% of the time but it is generating more ground balls and fewer line drives thus far.
Sale has stated he’s pitching more to contact. The question
was how he intended to do it, and it appears that the answer is couched in how he’s using his change. He’s not really using it as a strikeout pitch at all, yet it’s working. Of course, you could scream small sample again but seeing that he’s admitted to taking a new approach, the change-up seems to be central to that.
Sale’s new contact-centric approach is tied up in his “change” no longer being used as a strikeout pitch.
Contact on his fastball is relatively the same, despite the drop in speed, which further fuels this idea.
So no wonder Sale’s strikeouts are down. His fastball is less powerful and the change-up isn’t being used as an out pitch. The results however are the looks of a Cy Young waiting to happen.
Chris Sale is 5-0 with a dazzling 1.66 ERA and a 2.92 FIP to go with it. His BABIP is a measly .186. That’s unsustainable but speaks to just how little he’s been squared up. What’s more? He’s averaging 7.6 starts an inning and consistently pitching into the 8th. In fact, he leads the league in innings with 38.
The strikeouts will come. He has so much swing-and-miss ability in his game that they’re just inevitable. What didn’t used to be inevitable is that Sale could get to the 8th inning every night, and with this approach that seems to be just as inevitable as death and taxes.
The Bautista at-bat is what revealed a new blueprint for Sale. Give 80 percent through the first few innings, jam hitters with the change-up, and then fire up the fastball the third time through the order. In this new format, Sale will have an extra gear late, a luxury he hasn’t had in the past.
This single game blueprint can be parlayed across the whole season as well. If he coasts early, then when crunch time hits in September and quite possibly during the postseason, we’ll see Sale turn on a button he’s probably never even touched before.
Conserving Sale is good. If you could be conservative and have a 1.66 ERA, then why wouldn’t you want to save your 96 mph fastball for when it really counts.
Chris Sale is one of the best pitchers in the game because he combines top-tier “stuff” with a pitching IQ that just keeps getting better and better. Chris Sale is different in 2016, but that disparity is the difference between a Cy Young finalist and a Cy Young winner.