One of the things I find amusing about playing fantasy baseball is that I regularly flip-flop on my assessment of players. One year I will hype a player and believe him to be undervalued, then the following year I will switch gears and suggest that same player won’t be worth his price. This is precisely what happened with Chris Sale. In 2012, he transitioned into the White Sox rotation and I was the head cheerleader. I liked him so much in fact that I boldly predicted that he would not only be the most valuable White Sox starting pitcher, but that he would also outearn every member of the Diamondbacks rotation. He did just that. But then the 2013 season came along and I was singing a different tune.
Even though Sale ended up ranking as the 12th most valuable starting pitcher, doing exactly what I hoped for and even more, I was suddenly pessimistic. Between a declining velocity trend through the season and questions about the health and durability of his elbow, I felt that he was too risky to roster at his expected cost in 2013.
Those concerns led me to project some regression this year and a nearly identical innings total. Instead, Sale laughed off those worries and continued sailing along.
Most importantly, his fastball velocity did this:
Not only did it jump from last season, but it actually increased gradually throughout the season. It did peak during the summer, but he was able to maintain close to that speed by the end of the year.
He also adjusted his pitch mix slightly, though it’s probably not such a great move for his long-term health.
He threw both his slider and changeup more frequently at the expense of his fastball. Both pitches are excellent swing and miss offerings, which likely led to the boost in strikeout rate he enjoyed. Furthermore, he pumped in first pitch strikes at a significantly higher rate, turning around a below league average mark to a better than average one. That led to an elite walk percentage that was 15th best among 81 qualified starters.
Unfortunately, he remains on a pitiful White Sox team that failed to score runs when he took the mound. He actually received the fifth lowest run support in baseball this year with just 3.20 runs in his outings. That probably has to get better, but a lot will depend on how Jose Abreu performs and whether younger players like Adam Eaton, Avisail Garcia and Matt Davidson can deliver. The defense is unlikely to do him any favors either, but Sale has lucked out so far with BABIP marks around the league average the last two seasons.
Sale is a highly skilled pitcher on a weak team and in a bad ballpark. Wins are a fantasy category in most leagues and as difficult as they are to project, you have to assume that he will garner fewer of them than other aces with comparable ratios and innings pitched. Still, with all the concerns I had with him heading into the year now gone, he’s a rather safe investment if you could stomach those seven inning, one run games where he loses 1-0.