Clayton Kershaw is the best pitcher in baseball, and by definition, that makes him also the best pitcher in the National League. In the American League, though, things are not quite as clear. The AL is home to a handful of truly excellent pitchers, and differentiating between them is the ultimate in picking nits. The last four Cy Young Awards have been won by Max Scherzer (still awesome), David Price (him too), Justin Verlander (yep), and Felix Hernandez (ditto), and they’re all still — for now, at least — in the American League. Yu Darvish hasn’t won a Cy Young Award yet, but he was the consensus favorite among the FanGraphs staff in our preseason picks. That’s a pretty fantastic starting five, and I’d have no qualms with anyone making an argument on behalf of any one of those as the AL’s premier starting pitcher.
But the more I watch him pitch, the more I think I might just pick Chris Sale.
Let’s start off with some numbers. Here’s the AL leaderboard since Sale became a full starter in 2012.
Over the last two years (and a the first week of 2014), these are the five AL starters who have been worth +10 WAR or more by both FIP-based and RA9-based methodology. As you might expect, there’s little or no separation between them, with the first-to-fifth spread over several years being +2.1 FIP-WAR and +1.4 RA9-WAR. Verlander comes out on top by FIP, with Sale leading the way by runs allowed. Realistically, though, no one has any kind of commanding advantage here.
That’s past performance, though, and not even weighted for more recent seasons. Verlander’s dominant 2012 is weighted equally as his good-not-great 2013, and he’s also the oldest of the bunch, so we’d expect that he’d be further into his decline phase than the rest of the group. Projecting forward, Verlander’s age, 2013 decline (minimal, but still real), and reliance on home run prevention make him maybe the least likely to sustain his spot on the list above.
That leaves four terrific younger arms in Scherzer, Hernandez, Darvish, and Sale. You can’t go wrong with any of them, but my feeling is that Hernandez and Darvish are viewed as the top two, with Sale and Scherzer maybe a step behind. That’s how it played out in our staff Cy Young predictions, and when I polled the audience on Twitter this morning, Felix and Darvish got the most support. Of course, my Twitter followers probably include a disproportionate number of people from Seattle, so I would have been surprised if I wasn’t overwhelmed with Felix love, but I think even the national audience views King Felix as one of the league’s premier arms right now. And he certainly has the track record to back them up.
But I still might take Sale, in part because it looks to me like he might just be getting better. Here are his recorded velocities for each of the last three years, per Brooks Baseball.
Yes, 2014 includes just two starts, but those two starts come in April, when velocity is usually lower than the overall season average. And every single pitch is being thrown harder this year, with the slider being up three mph over last year’s average. Here’s what that looks like on a monthly basis.
His change-up isn’t up quite as much compared to his 2013 average, but has averaged 85 with it over his first few starts, when it was 82 at this time last year. Last year, his velocity crept up as the season went along, and now he’s starting off where he finished 2013, at least in terms of how fast the ball is getting on the opposing hitters.
Velocity increase doesn’t always mean that a pitcher is going to get better, and especially at this level, we shouldn’t expect Sale to take a huge leap forward simply because he might be throwing a tick harder than he used to. He’s already great, so there isn’t that much more room for him get better, but velocity gain is at least an encouraging sign that questions surrounding how well he’d hold up under a full starter’s workload haven’t yet proven prophetic. And Sale isn’t just throwing harder; he’s also throwing smarter.
Here is his change-up usage chart for the last three years.
When Sale moved into the rotation, he was mostly a fastball/slider guy, but he’s steadily increased the use of his change-up, and in his first two starts of the season, it has actually surpassed the slider as his second most used pitch. Last year, he was 50% fastballs, 30% sliders, and 20% change-ups, but this year, the change-ups and sliders have flipped, and he’s now 50/20/30. And he’s using the change-up more because it’s awesome.
Over the last two years and change, Sale’s change-up rates as the 4th best in the American League by our Pitch Type Linear Weights, behind only Jason Vargas, James Shields, and Tommy Milone. It’s easy to look at Sale’s arm angle and think of him as a left-handed Justin Masterson, but he’s a left-handed Justin Masterson with the addition of one of the best change-ups in baseball. And now he’s featuring it.
This is bad news for teams that stack the deck with right-handed batters against Sale, hoping to take advantage of the platoon splits he’s shown earlier in his career. He’s never been bad against right-handed hitters, but his arm angle has made him absolute death on lefties, and his career FIP platoon split has run 1.94/3.59. That’s primarily been a home run issue, as 47 of the 50 dingers he’s allowed in his career have come against right-handed batters.
A slider from his arm angle to right-handed batters can be a meatball if it’s not located perfectly. Change-ups, on the other hand, do a much better job of keeping the ball on the ground, and if Sale continues to replace his slider against RHBs with his change-up — as he has in his first two starts this year — then it wouldn’t be too surprising to see him post a lower home run rate than he has thus far in his career.
And home runs are really the only thing that have held him down. Move him down towards 9% or 10% HR/FB instead the 11.7% rate he’s posted in his career, and Sale might start to look like the clear cut winner as the AL’s best starting pitcher. Toss in the velocity gains and the fact that he’s still just 25 years old, I might just have to take Sale over any other starting pitcher in the American League right now.
Felix is awesome. Darvish has incredible stuff. Verlander’s track record is impeccable. But Chris Sale, especially this harder-throwing, changeup-featuring version; I don’t know that there’s anyone in the American League that is as good as the White Sox ace.
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