The Chris Sale Conundrum

In recent seasons, teams have come up with inventive ways to utilize their young pitching prospects. One of the more popular strategies among teams is to let their prospects gain experience in the bullpen. Some pitchers (Neftali Feliz) stick in the bullpen permanently, some (Phil Hughes) are eventually moved into the rotation, and some (Joba Chamberlain) are jerked between the two roles. 

While it has already been determined that Sale will prepare as a starting pitcher this off-season, his stay in the rotation may depend on Jake Peavy‘s health. Since the White Sox have five solid starters, Sale would be the most likely candidate to move back to the bullpen once Peavy recovers. Although this looks like the most likely scenario for Sale in 2011, let’s explore the thought of employing Sale in one role.

After throwing only 10.1 innings of minor league ball, Sale was promoted to the White Sox bullpen. Despite his inexperience, Sale’s performance out of the bullpen was exceptional. In 23.1 innings out of the bullpen, Sale accumulated 32 strikeouts with a 1.93 ERA (2.74 FIP). Sale also proved himself in save situations, going a perfect 4 for 4. Although it was a limited sample of innings, Sale proved that he has strong potential out of the bullpen.

While it’s tempting to leave Sale in the bullpen, the White Sox could extract more value from Sale in a starting role. Although obvious, the more innings a player pitches, the more opportunities he has to accumulate WAR. For example, even though Neftali Feliz had a great season out of the bullpen, he produced the same WAR as both Bronson Arroyo and Chris Narveson. Even if Sale manages a season like Feliz’s, he may produce the same value as a league average starter.

Although Sale has experience as a starter, there are concerns about whether he can succeed as a starter in the majors. Many analysts point to Sale’s unorthodox delivery and thin frame as signs that he might breakdown under a starter’s workload. Sale also throws at a lower arm slot than most, which could lead to problems with opposite handed batters (see Justin Masterson). Then again, Sale was drafted as a starter and it would behoove the White Sox to see if he can succeed in that role. 

At the same time, Jake Peavy is expected to miss an early chunk of the season and Sale is the logical candidate to take his place in the rotation until he recovers. White Sox Pitching Coach Don Cooper has already expressed concerns about moving Sale between roles, but it seems like the most likely outcome in 2011. Although it comes with more risks, moving Sale into the rotation permanently gives the Sox the best chance to maximize his value but creates a logjam once Peavy returns. While it’s possible Kenny Williams trades one of his starters to allow Sale to start the entire season, it’s more likely Sale reprises his bullpen role once Peavy is healthy. If the White Sox do utilize this strategy with Sale, however, they will be no closer to determining his long-term role once the season ends, leaving them in the same conundrum the following off-season.




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Chris is a blogger for CBSSports.com. He has also contributed to Sports on Earth, the 2013 Hard Ball Times Baseball Annual, ESPN, FanGraphs and RotoGraphs. He tries to be funny on twitter @Chris_Cwik.


44 Responses to “The Chris Sale Conundrum”

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  1. snapper says:

    I don’t know why teams have gone away from using young SPs as long relievers.

    It seems like the transition back and forth from 1 IP setup man to SP is much more difficult and stressful, in terms of limiting and then expanding pitch selection, and losing and building up endurance to throw 100+ pitches.

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    • fergie348 says:

      Usually for young pitchers to be successful they need to pitch frequently, preferably on a regular schedule.

      Most young pitchers are still working on command or mastering secondary pitches or both, which requires a regular throwing program. Long relievers in the bullpen are anything but regular in their game throwing, so it’s not a good situation for a pitcher who’s still mastering his craft. Better to put a veteran there who already has progressed as much as he is likely to, that way no potential is wasted.

      I do agree that it’s hard for a pitcher to train for 1 or 2 maximum effort innings every other day as well as conditioning for starting and throwing 6-8 innings every 5 days. That’s why most young pitchers who project as starters are left in AAA when they’re almost ready. That way, they get regular work and can step right into a big league starting slot when needed. It’s a luxury to have good, ML ready AAA pitching, especially when bullpens get worn out at the end of the season, thus the pressure to bring young pitchers up as relievers.

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      • philosofool says:

        You don’t need to throw in a live game to practice pitching. I thnk the issue has more to do with bullpen management than player development.

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  2. Sox27 says:

    I happen to agree with Cooper that having Sales go from starter to reliever during the season is not good for him or the 2011 White Sox. There needs to be a determination made as to what his role will be. Obviously, he has more value as a starter than a reliever; however, with the White Sox all in approach for 2011 I think Sale actually may be better served staying in the bullpen for 2011. The pen already has some question marks and a two-headed monster of Sale and Thornton can prove to be nasty, especially against the strong left-handed hitters for that evil team from the North. After 2011 the Sox have 2 holes in their rotation with Buehrle and E-Jack’s contracts running out, so he slides in for 2012. If the objective is to win the Central and make a run at the World Series in 2011, I think Sale is better suited to stay in the pen personally then moving to the rotation thereafter.

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  3. Mitchello says:

    Given his lack of experience, wouldn’t it make sense to just keep him in AAA until a starter gets hurt?

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  4. Detroit Michael says:

    Regarding the article’s penultimate sentence, I disagree. It probably is more likely than one of the five starters will be injured or ineffective when Jake Peavy is ready to move into the 2011 White Sox starting rototation so that the problem of having six starters will solve itself. If everyone is healthy and effective simultaneously, then yes the most obvious move is to shift Chris Sale back to the bullpen.

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    • MikeS says:

      Certainly pitchers get hurt and that could happen but the White Sox have been one of the healthier teams in baseball for years. There were some articles written around here to that affect fairly recently. It is possible that all the starters stay healthy all year. Except for Peavy, good health is the rule, not the exception in that organization.

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  5. realitypolice says:

    The signing of Ohman implies they really do intend to keep him in the rotation.

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  6. Sox27 says:

    Sale spending a day in AAA this year doesn’t make sense for this team. Kenny Williams has clearly indicated he’s going for it in 2011, so having a pitcher of that caliber down in Charlotte just doesn’t serve a purpose for this team, this year.

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    • Jacob says:

      Sale only has 33.2 IP combined between MLB and the minors. So starting him off in AAA at the beginning of the season and letting him get his feet wet a bit more wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world. Peavy’s health is always a big question mark, and even if he doesn’t break down at some point during the season there is a high probability that someone else in the rotation will. Sale would then be ready to fill in for the White Sox whenever he is needed.

      He may have more value to the team as a fill-in starter for a portion of the season than as a reliever for the entire season, depending on how much time the White Sox starters spend on the DL. It would also put him in good position for 2012 to enter the rotation permanently when Buehrle and Jackson come off the books.

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  7. CircleChange11 says:

    David Price and Adam Wainwright as the two most successful recent examples of young reliever, very good starter.

    IMO, it’s what should happen with both Chapman and Sale.

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    • The Duder says:

      Except Chapman needs another pitch…100 mph cutter? That might do…

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      • tbr says:

        Long term I don’t think either Sale or Chapman is going to be a starter because neither has solid secondary pitches.

        Sale looks to me like his arm is going to fall off at any time.

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      • The Duder says:

        Chapman’s slider is filthy nasty, but I don’t think he even has a third pitch. If he can squeak by with an average changeup then he’ll be fine.

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      • SeanP says:

        He could probably learn a splitter.

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      • blackout says:

        “neither has solid secondary pitches”

        You must be kidding. Chapman has an 89-mph slider with plus break and a changeup that he rarely uses in relief. Sale has an above average change and a no worse than average slider. The Sale’s arm falling off remark pretty much cements the impression that you have no idea what you’re talking about.

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      • Terry says:

        Where are you getting Sale doesnt have solid secondary pitches. That’s wrong

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      • CircleChange11 says:

        I think Chapman needs a 3rd pitch, perhaps even just a 2-seamer with slightly less velocity that breaks away from RHBs.

        If he’s just [1] fastball, [2] slider, then I worry about him using the slider too often and having a Liriano-esque situation.

        A changeup never killed anyone.

        A cutter and slider having similar movements that I’m not sure that would be my 3rd pitch.

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      • spaldingballs says:

        Tbr- Most scouts said Sale’s change up would be his primary pitch in the majors. Not to mention his slider is nasty (though I don’t know if it can translate when starting)

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    • baty says:

      The problem is that Sale might be the only minor league option the Sox have as a pitcher in general for 2011. I imagine he’ll definitely get jerked around this year.

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  8. Mike H says:

    Have you seen Chris Sale’s slider?!

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  9. gdc says:

    Seeing how teams sometimes “shut down” a young pitcher late in the season, having Sale shift to long relief in the summer if Peavy comes in relatively strong and no one has gotten injured or pitched themselves out of a job. Then if someone needs a replacement later in the year you can spot him back in and get 140 IP if he hasn’t had any injury problem and say he earned a spot and didn’t get overworked.
    That is assuming Sale has not pitched himself to the top of the rotation.

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  10. wickethewok says:

    “The Chris Sale Conundrum” is the worst prog-rock band name ever.

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  11. CS says:

    Did I miss the memo re: Feliz being a permanent closer?

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  12. tonysoprano says:

    For this year you keep Sale in the bullpen. Sale, Thornton, Ohman, Pena, Santos, Crain should be the six in pen.

    I think you also sign Freddy Garcia to a one year, veterans minimum, salary. He can be the fifth starter until Peavy hopefully comes back healthy.

    Once Peavy comes back you can potentially either move Freddy to long relieve or just waive him.

    Also, like stated above, the time to move Sale to the starting rotation is for the 2012 season when we may lose a pitcher or two. I don’t think bouncing him back and forth in-season is the best option.

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  13. Pg says:

    When Sale was drafted, his changeup seemed to be the pitch that had the organization so excited about him, with Ken Williams comparing it to Mark Buehrle’s. His slider was the main question regarding his repertoire, and it wound up being a solid offering at the major league level. He hardly even used his change coming out of the pen, and I’m very excited to see what he can do as a starter using all of his pitches. I’m also excited at the prospect of him possibly learning a cutter, much the same as the White Sox taught Danks.

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  14. Baggs says:

    Very poor mechanics, I don’t really care if The White Sox are a “relatively healthy team” Sale WILL get hurt.

    I highly doubt he makes it through the 2011 season without at least a month on the DL. (More likely TJ surgery in his near future)

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    • Terry says:

      I havent heard Don Cooper say that once. He’s not exactly shy.

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    • Sox27 says:

      Right because guys who are perceived to have flawless mechanics (i.e. Mark Prior, Stephen Strasburg) don’t get hurt it’s only guys who have “poor mechanics”

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      • spaldingballs says:

        The problem is, looking back, neither of them did have perfect mechanics. Both pitched with the infamous “Inverted W” which, though not responsible for injuries, creates a timing problem that puts stress on the elbow and shoulder. Unfortunately, Sale throws with the same “inverted W’

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      • Sox27 says:

        Clarification the “perception” that they had perfect mechanics. I understand the inverted W all too well from when I played. I’m sure you can go through history and find pitchers who had flaws in their mechanics that didn’t get hurt. The greater point I was making is the statement that “he WILL” get hurt just based on perception. There’s no way to determine if a pitcher will get hurt or not, everyone’s body handles strains on your arm differently.

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  15. Z says:

    I don’t think joba is not a good pitcher because he had to both start and go from the pen. I think it’s just because he is not a great pitcher. He was always overrated because he was a Yankee prospect with good stuff, but he has a poor make-up. Him getting jerked around was potrayed poorly by the media because the wonderkid they had lavished praise on ended up being a stuff only guy who lost some stuff due to poor mechanics and make up. And people like to blame the yankees for everything.

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  16. Saying he’s likely to get hurt because of his delivery doesn’t make a lot of sense. There’s very little substantial evidence that suggests any particular delivery will or will not hurt you. Big body, small body, awkward delivery, fluid delivery, pitchers just get hurt; it’s the nature of doing something that the body was not meant to do in the first place.

    I do think using Sale in a relief role when Peavy gets healthy is a good idea because then you don’t have to limit his innings late in the year. Starting him in the Spring and early in the season stretches out his arm sufficiently so a return to the rotation late in the year wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibilities.

    A stint in the bullpen mid-season could keep him fresh.

    Also, I fully expect Sale will have a slight regression at some point during the year. Last year he was great, but it’s a very small sample size. Once major-league hitters adjust to him, he’ll have some rough outings. Very few pitchers are consistently dominant with so few professional innings under their belt. I expect he’ll see at least some time in AAA in 2011.

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  17. BigDonkey says:

    “Saying he’s likely to get hurt because of his delivery doesn’t make a lot of sense. There’s very little substantial evidence that suggests any particular delivery will or will not hurt you.”

    That is not entirely true. There is no delivery that a pitcher can have that guarantees injury but pitchers like Mark Prior and Stephen Strasburg both had the inverted W, or whatever they called it, and that puts a lot of extra stress on the arm, which has led to injuries for both players.

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  18. CircleChange11 says:

    I don’t want to be *that* guy, but here we are talking about another young pitcher and everything about him is “totally awesome”. He has tremendous heat, but his change-up is his best pitch, and OMG have you seen his slider? It’s outstanding.

    So, a lefty with good heat, a good slider and a great change, isn’t going to be in the starting rotation.

    It reminds me of the Casey Kelly discussion where has 4 “plus pitches”, awesome control and command, yet did not come close to dominating AA (even as a 20yo).

    I mentioned Price and Wainwright earlier. One difference with those guys is that they were starters in the minors and were late-year call-ups, ewho closed late in the year and during the playoffs. The following year, TB reissted putting Price in the rotation, and he spent the year in the minors. The year after that he was a CY candidate.

    Wainwright went right to the starting rotation following 06, but he also had more MiLB development as a SP than Price.

    If Sale is to be a SP, then having him work the 8th inning in games of May and June does not make much sense. Let him start in MiLB and work on command/control and endurance, and then call him up in August to work the bullpen and pitch in the playoffs (if in the playoffs).

    Starting him off in ’11 as a reliever if the plan is to be a SP does not make much sense. I see the appeal though.

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    • Sox2727 says:

      As a Sox fan who follows this teams every move, I will tell you that it will not be good for THIS team, THIS year to have Sale in AAA. They’re going “All In” this year as is clearly advertised with their marketing campaigns. It really is true, if you look at the composition of this roster. If there is a team in the majors that has a “Win Now” mentality more than the White Sox I would like to see them. They’re so depleted at the lower levels management knows they have a small crack in the proverbial championship window that they have to capitalize on. For that reason alone, they know they have to have Sale in Chicago all year because having him on the roster as one of their 11 or 12 pitchers gives them the best chance of winning the AL Central and making a run in October.

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