It’s no secret the Red Sox are going all in for a championship window over the next few years. With recent free agency signings such as David Price, and then of course selling off some top notch prospects for players currently in their peak – in particular the subject of this piece, Chris Sale.
When Boston traded for Sale they knew they’re getting one of the most dominant and durable left-handed starters in the entire league. Sale has generally stayed around the low 3.00’s in ERA and high 20% marks in strikeout rates, and the higher ups in Boston would of course be thrilled for him to perform anywhere near that level heading forward.
What Sale has done in 2017 so far hasn’t just been replicating those numbers, but he is on pace to set career bests in every area. He is set to double his fWAR totals from last year, reaching almost an entire win over the rest of the field. Of course, there’s some danger involved in extrapolating barely over a months worth of work over the course of an entire season, but what Sale has shown so far has been evident of real improvement – which is a scary thought for one of the most stacked divisions in the league.
What is immediately notable about Sale is his strikeout rate of 38.8%, leading the league by over five whole percentage points. The difference from the first spot to the second spot is the same from number two to twelve. It’s an exceptionally steep difference being isolated so far from the rest of the pack, and the reason seems to be lying at least partially in his pitch choice.
Over the past few seasons Sale has thrown his two-seamer over half the time, but so far in 2017 he has dropped that to only 19%, letting his four-seam heater come back into play at a 29.4% clip. While the sinkers tend to get more grounders and weak contact, which is generally a good thing, the four seamer will generate more whiffs – even though it might come with some harder contact if squared up.
It appears with a shift to Fenway, Sale has opted more for strikeouts that in-play outs such as weak grounders, and it makes sense. The monster in left plays big, especially for lefty pitchers who deal with more right handed bats. Any grounder that sneaks through puts a guy just a short fly ball away from scoring. And not only is he opting more for the heater, but he has changed the pitch enough to see some real differences, He’s throwing it often, but getting about three more inches of horizontal movement. So while his career whiff rate on the four seamer is 8.6%, this year it’s been at a ridiculous 17.1%.
Now part of this is due to come down based off regression, as this whiff rate looks like more of an elite breaking pitch, but there’s real value to his pitch, especially for reduced contact.
Something else of note when looking at Sale’s crazy start is his release point – graphically plotted below:
He’s throwing each pitch at a career high release point, allowing him some extra velocity that lower angles don’t allow, as well as some extra movement as mentioned above. While Sale’s delivery makes him easily one of the more deceptive pitchers in the game, a higher release point has also added some extra benefits as well.
His outside of the zone contact rate has fell drastically from 65.4% to 53.5% this season, one of the largest drops in the league. He already gets guys to chase at a solid 33.3% rate, and to increase the whiff rate on those pitches just adds even more depth to his well rounded approach.
While inherently this approach is slightly riskier in terms of walks, he has barely seen any increase in the walk rate so far, leaving the advantages much larger than the potential deficits from the walks.
Chris Sale has been an elite pitcher for a long time in this league, and a newer fastball and better approach has allowed him to find an extra gear he wasn’t reaching before. His slight tweak to his mechanics, plus what seems to be a new mindset to fit his new park, has put him at the very forefront of best pitchers this season with an ocean between him and the rest of the competition during this young season.
It’s hard to say if he can sustain the sky high rates he has set up early, but with these changes it look like he will be able to stay close and be a Cy Young favorite throughout the season. Don’t sell high on him, and pay that extra dollar if you are looking to acquire him.
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