In Celebration of Chris Sale

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.

Name IP BB% K% GB% HR/FB LOB% BABIP ERA- FIP- xFIP- WAR RA9-WAR
Chris Sale 421.2 6% 26% 46% 12% 78% 0.289 72 76 76 10.5 11.9
Justin Verlander 470.2 7% 24% 40% 8% 75% 0.292 73 75 88 12.6 11.6
Felix Hernandez 450.2 6% 25% 50% 9% 75% 0.309 77 70 72 12.2 11.2
Yu Darvish 408.0 10% 30% 43% 12% 77% 0.281 77 76 78 10.2 10.8
Max Scherzer 410.0 7% 29% 36% 9% 76% 0.293 78 72 79 11.3 10.5

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.

Year Fourseam Sinker Change Slider
2012 93.6 90.4 83.3 79.4
2013 94.5 93.0 83.7 79.3
2014 95.1 94.3 85.2 82.3

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.

Brooksbaseball-Chart

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.

Brooksbaseball-Chart (1)

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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Dave is a co-founder of USSMariner.com and contributes to the Wall Street Journal.

41 Responses to “In Celebration of Chris Sale”

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  1. Alec says:

    Felix is still only 28. Chris Sale is only 3 years younger than him, but Felix has been doing this for almost a decade and Sale is on season #4. This doesn’t change anything about your conclusion (although I’ll still take Peak Felix – not necessarily average Felix, but Peak Felix, over anyone in baseball – even Kershaw). Just wanted to point this out, and say Long Live the King.

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  2. froglegs_jackson says:

    “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.” Isn’t that just life as a pitcher at US Cellular Field?

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  3. Tom Cranker says:

    “He’s never been bad against right-handed hitters, but his arm angle has made him absolute death on lefties…”

    Very different type of pitchers, but the ability to wipe out lefties reminds me of Randy Johnson’s best years when the other team would put their bullpen catcher in the lineup if he hit right handed just to avoid giving their lefties PTSD from having to face Randy.

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  4. MikeS says:

    The way I heard it, he was basically Fastball/Change when drafted and the change was always his best pitch. He really added the upped the slider use his first few years and people in the White Sox organization were surprised how good it was since he hadn’t thrown it much in college. This may just be Sale getting back to what he used to do.

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    • Paulie says:

      Mike S, you are correct.

      From 2 years ago.
      http://chicago.whitesox.mlb.com/news/article.jsp?ymd=20120608&content_id=32983490&vkey=news_cws&c_id=cws

      “But the notion that the changeup is a new pitch to Sale is inaccurate. It just was temporarily shelved when he worked in relief during the past two years.

      “That was his best pitch when we saw him as an amateur,” said White Sox director of amateur scouting Doug Laumann of the changeup for Sale, who was the 13th pick in the 2010 First-Year Player Draft. “His changeup got better each time. It was his second-best pitch.”

      “I didn’t even have a slider in college,” said Sale with a laugh. “So that changeup is something we’ve been working on more than any other pitch in my repertoire.”

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  5. Will says:

    While I agree that Sale very well could be the best pitcher in the AL right now, I still give the slight edge to Felix. The scary thing about Felix is that his fastball velocity has tanked the past three seasons about ~5 MPH, but he’s gotten even better despite the decrease. The fact that he can succeed with slower pitches is a testament to how much movement he gets in his arsenal.

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  6. Dave says:

    It’s kind of ironic that Sabrmetrics which started as a way of analyzing baseball in an interesting and novel way now often looks at pitch velocity when evaluating players which is the most basic method really

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    • Cool Lester Smooth says:

      You can’t evaluate them effectively without looking at their velocity.

      It’s better to be right than to try to be smart.

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    • Mike says:

      It’s a pretty obvious place to start. In most cases, the less time a batter has to react, the better it is for the pitcher. I don’t find it ironic at all that sabremetrics uses quantifiable data like velocity to evaluate players…

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    • sarcasmftw says:

      Linear pitch weights, brohan. They are badass, and also useful. Plus, guess what: Velocity is the single factor most strongly correlated with pitcher success. It’s not like Dave Cameron just picked it out of a PitchF/X spreadsheet at random.

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      • asdf says:

        Linear pitch weights might be the worst advanced pitcher stat out there. I’m a little surprised DC opted for it in this case, given it’s known flaws.

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        • sarcasmftw says:

          Why do you think they are the worst? I ask out of genuine curiosity.

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        • asdf says:

          Because pitches don’t exist in isolation, but linear pitch weights measures outcomes on single pitches, regardless of their context. The influence of a pitch’s context is not sufficiently isolated. So a pitcher who gets lots of outs on his changeup may not have a great changeup, but rather a ridiculous fastball/slider combo that allows the changeup to shine. I don’t believe there is any better data out there, but it’s a little misleading to say someone has the “best ___ in baseball” because of linear pitch weights. Pitches just aren’t that clear cut.

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  7. Billy says:

    If you put Chris Sale on the same team as Bartolo Colon, and had them back-to-back in the rotation, would that be considered giving the opposing hitters a “different look” on the mound the next day?

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  8. Eminor3rd says:

    Very cool. Thanks for the White Sox love

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  9. Table says:

    David Price was mentioned in the beginning….but it seems he was then forgotten?

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    • Table says:

      nevermind Price was worth less than 10 WAR..my bad

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      • Bearman says:

        I think your right though he should be mentioned. Its about who is the best pitcher in the AL right now, not who meets Dave Cameron’s arbitrary cutoff lines. I liked the article but I do think it needs David Price in the comparison some how.

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        • asdf says:

          Why would a 30 year old projected for ~3 war be in the conversation for best pitcher in the AL?

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        • Schuxu says:

          As David Cameron is the author of the article his cutoff line is quite essential to which players are featured.

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        • Tim says:

          @asdf: david price is only 28

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        • asdf says:

          @Tim – You’re right, I can’t math. I was going off of “he turns 30 next year”, although technically it would be his age-29 season.

          Either way, though, I think David Price is just a little less fantastic than people give him credit for.

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  10. DD says:

    Looking at the FB velocity chart on Brooks, as well as the slider chart above, it looks like his stamina was an issue in late 2012 – understandable as he just moved back to the rotation. Looking at his velocity in his relief days, its basically dead on where he is right now. My worry with him is that his confidence is up, so he’s airing it out more, and that could lead to the arm injury many scouts feel is inevitable.

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    • Eminor3rd says:

      As a guy who’s watched him regularly for the past few years, he absolutely did run out of gas at the end of 2012. They even had him skipping starts at the end of the year.

      Last year though — smooth sailing.

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  11. Feeding the Abscess says:

    Why not compare Sale and Kershaw? SIERA likes the starter version of Sale by a nose. K/BB rate is also in favor of Sale. Groundball rates are similar. Kershaw had a better first pitch strike rate in both 2012 and 2013, but Sale allowed fewer contact in 2013.

    Furthermore, these numbers were put up with Sale pitching in the AL, in a homer-happy park, and facing one of the top 7 offenses in baseball versus lefties (by wOBA) in 17 of his starts. By comparison, Kershaw had 1 such start. How much better would Sale look if he got to regularly face a pitcher, as well as pitch in a better than neutral park?

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  12. Royals Fan says:

    I still hate seeing the guy.

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  13. I have bookmarked this page and after work I read interesting things to update myself and to refresh my mind. I just wanna say thank you and wish you all the best for your writing. Keep it up.

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  14. camisadelgolf says:

    Could anyone link an article/study about increased velocity correlating with injury?

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  15. Johan Santa says:

    I am simultaneously relieved and a touch disappointed that the term “Sale-a-bration” was not used in this article.

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  16. db says:

    Chris Sale is awesome. But doesn’t everyone who look at his pitching motion think, that can’t be healthy. With such a violent motion, I hope he can stay off the dl.

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  17. colinmramazing says:

    I watch Chris sale every chance I get, as I am a huge whitesox fan. It is about time someone shows the Sox come love. This kid honestly gets better and better with every start. He is better than older Felix, however, Darvish is also a freak.. I just hope sale will stay away from injury.He easily has the best slider in baseball

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  18. colinmramazing says:

    I’ve watched homers get hit off of him, they are just dinky fly balls that get caught in the wind and find their way into the bullpen in left. Im not saying his era would be drastically lower if he played for someone else, but I gotta believe it would be down at least a tenth

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  19. ryan says:

    i feel sorry for the people that are sox fans because the sox and their fans are a bunch of fucking losers

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  20. Andy says:

    The numbers say Sale is one of the best. My issue with him (and it’s very minor), compared to the others mentioned herein, is that he looks like he’s going to be derailed by injuries at some point with such a violent delivery on such a small frame. Something looks like it’s going to give one day.

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  21. dannyrainge says:

    Is it statistically safe to say that Billy Butler owns Chris Sale?

    (I love Sale…was just watching his start against the Royals with my MLB.TV account and noticed he was 14/34 going into the game against him o.O).

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