Chris Sale has been one of the best pitchers in baseball over the past five seasons, yet last season, despite throwing more innings, his strikeouts and FIP moved back toward league average. He was still fantastic, just not quite as fantastic has he had been. Fluctuations in a player’s performance happen over the course of a career, but that doesn’t mean they don’t mean something. They might. They might mean Sale isn’t quite as good as the dominant starter the White Sox had over the past five seasons. He is 28 now and with over 1,000 innings on his arm. But then again, those fluctuations might mean nothing. Perhaps 2016 represented more of a blip, a remnant of an attempted and failed alteration of approach by the player and the White Sox instead of the beginning of a downward slope. That’s the chance the Red Sox are taking. This is, to me, the central question concerning the Red Sox’s recent trade for Chris Sale. Is Sale the same guy who dominated the AL from 2012 through 2015, or is he a slightly lesser version, and one prone to becoming even a lesser version of that lesser version? That is the central question with Sale.
The place to start to learn the answer to that question is Sale’s player page at Baseball Reference. Sadly the answer wasn’t immediately revealed, but what was revealed was surprising and weird and, in relation to the above paragraph, didn’t matter at all. But it was weird and surprising! So in the interest of learning about our new ace pitcher, I feel it is imperative that I share this. Did you know that Chris Sale has lead baseball last season AND in 2015 in hit batters? It’s true! He did! In 2015 he hit 13 guys! Then, in 2016, he hit 17! I am surprised by this, which you can probably tell by the ridiculous number of exclamation points I’ve used in this paragraph. This is a guy who walked 1.8 hitters per nine innings in both seasons. He does not have a control problem. Dude can hit the strike zone, yet he also hit 30 batters over two seasons. I think that says something. I think I know what it says, too.
Sale can hit the strike zone, yet he also hit 30 batters over two seasons.
Sale got 140 whiffs from his slider in 855 pitches last season according to Baseball Savant. His fastball generated more (198) but in far more pitches (1908). It says Chris Sale’s slider is fantastic. It’s hard to say what is so fantastic about Sale’s slider. On one hand we know from PITCH f/x that his slider drops a certain amount vertically and runs a certain amount horizontally on average. We know Sale’s slider’s numbers are good but not the best in baseball, and yet the pitch is still incredibly effective. What we don’t know is the effect those two movements have combined with his severe arm angle. We also don’t know exactly when those movements take place. Sometimes we hear about a “late-breaking slider,” and perhaps Sale’s is that, or some other variation on the theme that the numbers can’t yet tell us. I suspect that Sale’s slider is fantastic for all of the above reasons, working together. However, there is one more reason it’s fantastic, and one more reason I have yet to mention: Jimmy Nelson.
Nelson is a pitcher for the Milwaukee Brewers. By chance he, like Sale, hit 13 batters in 2015, meaning he and Sale actually tied for the most hit batters in baseball. And by chance he, like Sale, hit 17 batters last season, meaning he and Sale actually tied there too. But Sale still hit more guys, and that is why I didn’t mention Nelson. Sale hit more guys than Nelson, but the numbers on Baseball Reference don’t reflect that. Why? Because the guys Sale hit swung at the pitches that hit them. I repeat: Chris Sale hit some batters with pitches, but they were not recorded as hit-by-pitches because the pitches were so wicked and fooled the batters in question so badly that they swung at (and missed) them. Exclamation point!
It happened this May to Mark Trumbo in Baltimore. With a full count and two runners on, Sale threw Trumbo a sweeping slider. There is video but let me show you with pictures because it better explains why Trumbo swung. Here’s the pitch!
It’s traveling to the plate. Trumbo picks his left leg up in anticipation of a hittable pitch.
The pitch is traveling towards the plate. Just a normal pitch. La-de-dah. Trumbo’s foot is down and he’s starting to pull his hands through the zone.
This one is my favorite. Look where the pitch is. It’s over the plate! This is a strike! Mark Trumbo, AL home run champ-to-be should crush it. He will crush it!
And the moneyshot: can you see the ball? It’s hard to see because it’s the same color as Trumbo’s knee which, by the way, it just ran into.
It’s true Trumbo strikes out a lot, but no hitter, not Vlad Guerrero, would purposely swing at a pitch that was about to hit him unless he was fooled incredibly badly by it. That is what Sale’s slider did to Trumbo. And in fact, to numerous other batters as well. The list of hitters who have swung at Sale sliders that have then hit them includes Derek Jeter and Torii Hunter. In fact, Hunter had it happen to him twice! Elie Waitzer put together a good list with GIFs of some of these that is worth checking out if you want to watch more, and really, why wouldn’t you?
So Chris Sale is very very good. But that we knew. One of the fun parts about following a team is getting to know the players, their personalities, their on-field mannerisms and ticks. We’ve all got to know Dustin Pedroia’s little jump before each pitch, Hanley’s flying batting helmet, and the miracle that is a well-thrown Craig Kimbrel curveball. Now we get to be introduced to Chris Sale. Chris Sale is a pitcher who sometimes fools batters into swinging at pitches that hit them. Isn’t that fun? I think that’s fun. It might not answer the central question about Chris Sale, but then, if we’re being honest, that’s really only part of the story.
Top photo by USA Today Sports Images