What a season for Chris Sale. I was a huge fan of his before the year began, going as far as predicting that he would outearn every White Sox and Diamondbacks starting pitcher. Although I ended up being right, I never expected that he would finish the season as the 12th most valuable pitcher overall, earning $20. Not only was Sale making the transition from reliever to starter, but it was only his second full season in the Majors, after throwing a paltry 10.1 innings over his entire minor league career. So in other words, we really had little clue what we would get from him. It is safe to say that Sale won’t come as cheaply during this year’s drafts as he did last year!
As a reliever, Sale posted a strong ground ball rate and a fantastic strikeout rate and displayed acceptable control. He averaged in the mid-90’s with his fastball and possessed a three pitch mix. He induced a ton of swinging strikes and even threw first pitch strikes at an above average clip, suggesting his control was just fine. He did start in college, so becoming a member of the rotation wasn’t completely foreign to him. Given his skills, he had as good a chance as any to succeed after making the transition.
Sale’s results dazzled over the first half, a time when confusion over his role over the rest of the season became evident. They obviously stuck with him in the rotation and he finished June with a 2.27 ERA and 0.97 WHIP. While he did display strong skills with an 8.9 K/9 and 2.3 BB/9, he benefited from some great fortune that showed up in his BABIP and HR/FB ratio. Judging solely by ERA (which jumped to 3.82 over the final three months), it would appear he tired down the stretch and/or hitters adjusted. However, his strikeout, walk and ground ball rates were nearly identical. The sole difference between the two halves can be seen in the luck metrics. That lucky BABIP regressed and spiked above .300, while he suddenly began to allow home runs, at triple the rate he had in the first half.
So, Sale really was no different from a statistical standpoint throughout the season, which is a good sign. However, there are some red flags. First and foremost is his velocity. Typically when relievers move into the starting rotation, they lose one to two miles per hour off their fastballs. Sale lost 3.7 miles per hour. That’s significant. Then, there’s this:
That’s not a good trend. It’s certainly conceivable that the diminished velocity helped lead to the “poor luck” suffered over those final three months. When the White Sox suddenly appeared to reverse course about Sale’s role early in the season, it was due to concerns about his elbow and durability. Elbow issues usually lead to control problems, not velocity, and his walk rates do not paint a picture of a man that was pitching hurt. But, his F-Strike% was well below the league average for the season, so his control really wasn’t all that good to begin with, even though his walk rates were strong.
I still love Sale as a pitcher. Combine ground balls with strikeout stuff and I’ll do the happy dance. But, he truly scares me for next year. Between the elbow issue, the velocity decline through the season and the huge innings jump, he looks like a huge risk to me, especially at the price you’ll likely have to pay to secure his services on your fantasy team.