Breaking Down Chris Sale’s Pitches

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Chris Sale

Chris Sale, perennially among the best pitchers in baseball, was traded to the Boston Red Sox on Dec. 6. At 27 years old, Sale is entering his prime years, and has already been consistently excellent since becoming a starter in 2012. Over that period, his ERA is 3.04 (ERA+ of 133), with a 1.061 WHIP and 10.0 strikeouts per 9 innings, and an average of 201 innings per season. He has been selected as an All-Star each year from 2012 through 2016.

In 2016, Sale had a 3.34 ERA (120 ERA+) and a 1.037 WHIP, both in line with his career numbers, and a 17-10 record. He pitched 226 2/3 innings, leading the league in complete games with six, and placed fifth in the year’s Cy Young voting.

What he throws: Sale has an unusually small repertoire for a starting pitcher, using only three pitches: a two-seam fastball (“FT”), changeup (“CH”), and slider (“SL”):

Pitch usage and trends: Just over half of Sale’s pitches are two-seam fastballs (55.8%), with his slider (25.0%) and changeup (19.2%) roughly splitting the remainder. His fastball has decent, though not extraordinary velocity (shown on the bottom chart of the two below), averaging 93.4 mph and he maintains his velocity well throughout the season. His slider averages just 79 mph, much slower than most sliders but makes up for it with exceptional movement; his slider in 2016 had more vertical movement than any other pitcher’s, as well as dramatic horizontal movement:

Sale mainly throws his changeup to right-handed batters, although lefties will see it occasionally. He tends to throw his slider more when ahead in the count, cutting back on its usage and replacing it with more fastballs and changeups when behind:

Pitch value. Based on total bases per 100 pitches all three of Sale’s pitches are better than league average. He throws more strikes than the average pitcher and he is consistently at the top of strikeouts per nine innings rankings for starting pitchers. In 2016, his slider was somewhat less effective than it had been in previous seasons, but it remained a very valuable pitch. Each of Sale’s pitches are almost equally effective to left- and right-handed batters, but his overall splits are slightly better against lefties than righties (OPS against for LHB: .585; for RHB .663):

Pitch location: Sale throws all his pitches for strikes as shown in the charts below. His two-seam fastball is usually thrown for a strike, often in the middle to upper third of the strike zone, however, the broad smear of locations indicates that he locates the fastball in all parts of the strike zone. His slider targets the bottom of the strike zone (outside to left-handed batters, inside to righties). It frequently drops out of the zone altogether, but batters can’t ignore it because he is able to spot it at the bottom of the zone. His changeup also attacks the bottom of the strike zone, but on the opposite corner to the slider – inside to lefties, outside to righties – and is also likely to be thrown for strikes:


Follow Ian on Twitter @iayork

Featured image courtesy of Caylor Arnold/USA Today Sports.

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Ian is an immunologist and virologist who lives in Atlanta with his wife and two sons. Most of his time is spent driving his kids to baseball and soccer games, during which he indoctrinates his children on the glories of Pedro Martinez, the many virtues of the Montreal Expos, and other important information.

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