If you’ve been following along with the 2017 Red Sox, you’ve probably noticed a lot of articles about the team’s problems at third base and maybe a few about their issues in the back of the rotation. Ultimately though, it’s a bit like a rash on a kid; it’s annoying but really the kid is fine, just a bit redder and itchier. The injuries to Pablo Sandoval and David Price make the Red Sox a bit redder and itchier, but ultimately they’re probably fine. So perhaps it’s time to stop being negative, to stop focusing on the rash and start focusing on the rest of the kid. Perhaps it’s time to start talking about something positive. Perhaps it’s time to start talking about Chris Sale. And since this is an article about Chris Sale, it’s fortuitous that it is time to talk about Chris Sale!
Read the headline above and you won’t be surprised. That Chris Sale is good isn’t a shock. We all knew Sale was good when the Red Sox acquired him this past winter. Thing is though, we knew David Price was good when the Red Sox got him, too. The same could be said for Rick Porcello and numerous other players who experienced difficult transitions upon joining Boston, so these things aren’t as set in stone as we like to think.
Chris Sale has taken that unfortunate trend set by Price, Porcello, and others, and chopped it to bits with sharp scissors. Through seven starts, he has the seventh best ERA among pitchers who have thrown at least 20 innings. That’s very good! But ERA isn’t the best stat to indicate overall pitcher quality. So let’s go there. He’s first in DRA, first in FIP, first in xFIP, first in pWARP, first in WAR, first in… well, isn’t that enough? It is, but let’s keep going anyway because this is fun! Sale’s second in K/9 at 12.72 behind the Indians’ Danny Salazar’s 13.13, but Sale has thrown 15 more innings and is walking less than half as many batters as Salazar. And, in fact, if you use K%, a more exact stat when you think about it for a half second, you’ll see Sale at 37.6 percent is ahead of everyone else in baseball (again, among those who have pitched 20 innings), including National League pitchers who get to pad their strikeout stats against pitchers.
How good has Sale been so far? The answer is he’s basically been Andrew Miller, except Miller throws an inning per outing while Sale is averaging over seven innings per start.
In fact, for even more fun (you’re going to need to sit down after reading this article!), let’s look at two pitchers, one of whom is obviously Sale. I say obviously because I’m going to label one of them Pitcher A and the other Chris Sale.
Pitcher A: 34.4 K%, 6.3 BB%, 36.1 GB%, 0% HR/FB
Chris Sale: 37.6 K%, 5.7 BB%, 39.6 GB%, 4.8% HR/FB
Pretty similar numbers, right? Here’s the thing: Pitcher A is Andrew Miller. How good has Sale been so far? The answer is he’s basically been Andrew Miller, except Miller throws an inning per outing while Sale is averaging over seven innings per start. So when Sale is on the mound it’s like having Andrew Miller but for seven innings. That’s insane.
The thing about Sale that worried me when he came from the White Sox this past offseason was the drop in strikeout rate. Over the past three seasons Sale struck out, in order, 30.4 percent, 32.1 percent, and then last season, 25.7 percent of the hitters he faced. That’s a pretty precipitous drop off there. Sale has said he struck out fewer hitters in 2016 by design. He was, he said, trying to create weak contact in order to keep his pitch count down and throw more innings. This makes sense as the White Sox weren’t exactly known for having a deep bullpen, so the longer Sale could stay in the game, the better Chicago’s chances were to win. However, we know that even weak contact sometimes turns into hits, and sometimes weak contact isn’t even that weak. The pitcher’s best defense against this kind of thing, something that was perfectly illustrated in Sale’s last start in fact, is to not allow the batter to make contact in the first place. Contact, even weak contact, can sometimes go for hits. Strikeouts are always outs.
So the decrease in Sale’s strikeout rate was concerning, even if he said it was on purpose. I was skeptical Sale would be able to reverse the trend, but, surprisingly to me at least, he has! In fact, the numbers noted above represent the best of Sale’s career. His strikeout percentage is up five percent, his home runs are way down, and his walks are around his career average. In fact, you could make an argument Sale has been the recipient of bad luck, which is why his ERA is higher than his FIP. To put this into context, Chris Sale is striking out almost twice as many batters as a league average starter, while walking fewer than league average. The difference between his ERA and the league average ERA is larger than his ERA. This, friends, is what utter domination looks like.
It’s not unusual for a pitcher, any pitcher really, to have a hot month or two. Sale’s last start came against the Twins’ Ervin Santana, and before the game the announcers were referring to the matchup as a battle of aces. Except, Santana wasn’t that. He was 5-0 with an 0.66 ERA at the time, but that was belied by his peripheral stats, which were fine but far from dominating. Sale isn’t Santana. He is legitimately dominating. So it wasn’t surprising when the Red Sox hit Santana around while the Twins could do nothing with Sale.
Sale’s dominance is getting into Pedro Martinez territory. I know that’s on the hyperbolic side, so let’s look at some numbers. We’ll use ERA+ for ease of comparison and because this article is almost over. Pedro’s two best seasons were 1999 and 2000. Pedro’s ERA+ for those seasons (where 100 is league average) were 243 and 291. Absurd. Sale’s ERA+ so far in 2017: 226. Not quite Pedro, but not far off of his 1999 number either! Of course, Pedro did what he did over entire seasons while we’re talking about a month plus of Sale’s starts, so I’m not suggesting Chris Sale is Pedro Martinez. He’s not.
However, I am suggesting that Chris Sale’s 2017 to date hasn’t been far off from what Pedro produced in his prime. I am suggesting that having Chris Sale on the mound in 2017 has been like bringing a fresh Andrew Miller from the bullpen every inning for seven straight innings. I am suggesting that Chris Sale has been the best pitcher in baseball bar none in 2017 and it’s not close. No telling if he will continue to be this good as the season goes along, but in a year where we’ve focused on what is wrong, perhaps it’s time to start paying attention to what is right, and right now it’s hard to be more right than Chris Sale.
Photo by Bruce Kluckhohn – USA TODAY Sports