Caveat emptor. Buyer beware.
Following the rumors of a trade to the Washington Nationals, the White Sox have made it perfectly clear – there is no discount for Chris Sale. Analysts have suggested a potential package of Lucas Giolito, Erick Fedde and Carter Kieboom (per Tom Verducci), all of whom currently rank within the top five in the Nationals farm system. That’s a steep price (even for a pitcher widely considered to be one of the game’s elite) especially when you consider that Fedde could be a #1 prospect for many teams. But, is Sale really worth that price? A deeper look at his 2016 season may prove otherwise.
There is very little debate that Chris Sale is a top pitcher in today’s game. Although the contemporary crop of elite lefties is thin, Sale is right up there with Clayton Kershaw, Madison Bumgarner, David Price and Jon Lester. A wicked fastball, devastating slider and a wing span akin to a bird of prey make Sale highly intimidating. His credentials speak for themselves. Over the past five seasons (2012-2016), he has finished no worse than sixth for the AL Cy Young Award. He is the owner of a 31.1 career WAR (4.44 wins above replacement/season). Having just finished his age twenty-seven season, if Sale were to play another 10 seasons at that rate, barring catastrophic in jury, he would rank as a Top 10 LHP all-time in WAR with a 75.5 rating.
Looking at a few top-level metrics, Chris Sale seemingly continued his mind-boggling career trajectory in 2016. I’ve chosen to limit the sample to just the past five seasons as those are the only seasons Sale has thrown 100+ innings. Within the sample, I’ve reduced it to just those who threw 500 or more innings (121 pitchers).
In 2016, he outperformed several of his career averages. He was on the upward side of innings pitched, strikeouts, WHIP, WAR and tied BB/9. However, he was on the wrong side of ERA, ERA+, FIP and SO/9. Some of this is to be expected (the dip in SO/9 correlates with the increase in IP). It is easy to take a cursory glance and assume Sale had one of the best seasons of his career. But, when you dig a little deeper, the season takes a more troublesome turn. Sale is known in scouting jargon as a “stuff guy.” His arsenal includes a hard-breaking 92-96 MPH fastball, sweeping slider and deceptive change-up. A pitcher with weapons of that caliber is expected to post numbers that demonstrate dominance – high K/9 rates and K%, large K/BB ratio, weak to little contact, consistent velocity, precise location, etc. For the majority of Chris Sale’s career, he has met those expectations. However, the lower ERA+ and FIP, both of which can give a more accurate picture of a pitcher’s ability to control his own outcomes (a trait usually attributed to “stuff”) are concerning.
Sale’s numbers from 2016 tells a different story of dominance. The hallmarks of a flame throwing lefty? Vanishing just like his disappearing slider. When delving into deeper metrics, Sale’s reputation as a power-pitcher takes a bit of a “hit.”
When examining Sale’s metrics, there are some starling numbers. The decrease in SO/9 by nearly 2.5 from ’15 to ’16 and the elevated FIP (nearly a run higher year over year and half run over his career average) are stark. It’s expected for pitchers with Sale’s stuff to be north of 10.0 SO/9 with a sub-3.0 FIP. This is just the tip of the iceberg. His hard-hit percentage was the highest of his career (31.70% – nearly 4% higher than his career average), his two-seam fastball velocity plummeted by 1.5 MPH from ‘15-’16 and his fly ball percentage soared by 2.5%.
Those are fairly alarming for a pitcher who should rely on limiting contact. Indeed, his contact percentage jumped by 6% and increased both inside and outside the strike zone by approximately the same amount. Correspondingly, Sale’s swinging strike percentage declined by nearly 3% and his strikeout percentage dropped drastically by 7%.
Additionally, his first strike percentage also fell by 5%. These are very apparent warning signs and generally indicate that a pitcher is suffering from a lack of control or imprecise “stuff.” However, Sale actually used his so-called best pitches (fastball and slider) MORE in 2016 than his career averages or 2015. He used his fastball 4% more than his career average, his slider 5% more than in 2015 and his changeup an astounding 12% less between 2015 and 2016 and 4% less than his career average. As far a control goes, he actually posted the highest Zone% of his career with a 47.7% mark (an increase of 2% over the previous year). These are extremely eye-catching numbers. Basically, his two most dominant pitches may not have been as “wipeout” as they are perceived to be and he didn’t have full command of them.
For a left-handed pitcher, particularly one with Sale’s delivery and break, it is expected that the pitcher would make their living on the outside right corner of the plate. That’s the optimal spot — in on righties and away from lefties. However, in 2016, Sale was off-mark compared to his career averages and his 2015 season. Looking across five categories (Pitch%, Strike%, Swing%, Contact% and cStrike%) on a 10×10 grid of the zone, you can see a change in Sale’s ability to consistently pitch in that area.
In terms of Pitch%, Sale is pitching more frequently higher in the zone and further away from the lower third. Looking at Strike% in the lower third from 2015 to 2016, his overall Strike% dropped by 9% on average. Compared to his career, it dropped by 2% in 2016. Examining Sale’s Swing%, he induced on average 6% less swings in 2016 than in 2015 and 5% less compared to his career in the lower third. Looking at Contact% as well, his rate in the lower third increased by 2% from 2015-2016, but matched his career rate.
With no apparent injury during 2016, these shifts should set off warning bells. His increased pitching within the Strike Zone (which would somewhat explain the increased contact rate) could be a sign of maturing pitching (or may well be compensation for a lack of stuff). It’s hard to tell. However, by looking at where Sale located his pitches and which outcomes he generated it becomes increasing clear Sale struggled to control his pitches in 2016.
Now, there is no reason to declare Sale a pitcher on a downward slope based on one season. Every pitcher should be allotted a less than stellar season (and by most measures, Sale still excelled). However, that are indicators that suggest a few worrisome “trends.” Keeping all of that info about Sale in consideration, he did pitch are career high in innings pitched and was still Top-20 in %SwStr, Swing%, and O-Swing%. All of which would indicate he is still elite – just not to typical Chris Sale standards.
As always, delving into stats always leads to more questions than answers. How did the defense behind him impact his numbers (an elevated ERA typically suggest a leaky defense)? How did his fastball and slider compare across Swing%, etc.? Additionally, you have to consider that the White Sox had a revolving door at catcher. One of the few times in Sale’s career that he hasn’t had a steady battery mate. Those are questions worth exploring.
As with any trade involving prospects and an established veteran, you’re banking on potential vs. known performance and Sale has proven in his career (albeit brief) that he can dominate and push his ceiling even higher. A rotation of Max Scherzer, Chris Sale, Stephen Strasburg, Tanner Roark as the 1-4 with the 5th spot going to Gio Gonzalez or Joe Ross would give the Nationals a nice set-up and Sale’s contract is arguably the most affordable for a pitcher of his ilk in baseball. Numbers don’t always turn into trends and they can’t always project the future, but such a dramatic dip in certain power-pitching categories should give anyone looking to trade for Sale a little bit more reserved.
— Joel Sherman (@Joelsherman1) November 22, 2016