Chris Sale was traded to the Red Sox on December 6, 2016. At this point in the season, the trade is looking pretty good for the Sox; the tall lefty has a 17-7 win-loss record, a 2.75 ERA (164 ERA+) with 0.946 WHIP and a league-leading 300 strikeouts, while making 31 starts and averaging 6.75 innings per start. After leading in the ESPN Cy Young predictor for most of the season, Sale has now fallen slightly behind Corey Kluber, but he has clearly been one of the best pitchers in baseball.
What he throws. Sale has such overwhelming stuff that he doesn’t need a large repertoire of pitches. He throws a four-seam fastball (“FF”), a two-seam fastball (“FT”), a slider (“SL”), and a changeup (“CH”). The main difference between 2017 and 2016 is that his two fastballs have become slightly more differentiated, so that there are more clear four- and two-seam clusters this season. The two-seam version is slightly slower than the four-seam, averaging 93 mph vs. 94.5 mph, and has less vertical “rise” than the four-seam (averaging 3.2 vs 7.5 inches).
All of his pitches are outliers when compared to other pitchers’. Because of his unusual delivery, his pitches all have far more horizontal movement than a typical pitcher. Even his four-seam fastball, despite its exceptional velocity, has more horizontal movement than any other left-handed pitchers’.
Similarly, Sale’s changeup combines high velocity (86.5 mph) with extreme horizontal movement; only Donnie Hart of the Baltimore Orioles has more horizontal movement on his changeup, and Hart’s pitch is nearly 7 mph slower than Sale’s.
In contrast, Sale’s slider is significantly slower than average at 79.6 mph, and is extreme both in horizontal and vertical movement. Unlike most sliders, Sale’s has true drop, like a curve, to go with its sweeping horizontal movement.
To give a hint at what batters have to face, here is an animation of a typical Sale four-seam fastball (in red; one thrown to Richie Weeks on April 15 in the 6th inning, for a swinging strike) and slider (blue; thrown to Kevin Kiermaier on Sept. 9, in the 5th inning, for a called strike). The solid line shows the path that the pitch would take under the influence of gravity alone, as if it were in a vacuum; the dots show the actual movement of each pitch. The polygon on the umpire’s view shows the strike zone as if has been called this season. Even though the original path of the pitches would place them nearly three feet apart, on either side of the strike zone, their final location was very similar.
Pitch usage and trends. Even though his results this season are somewhat better than his 2016 season (when his ERA+ was a still-excellent 121), his approach has been very similar. (More accurately, his catcher’s approaches have been similar. Sale notoriously never shakes off his catchers’ signs, so pitch usage is determined by his catcher, usually Sandy Leon.) His slider makes up about a third of his pitches (32.5%), with left-handed batters seeing even more (40.7%) but fewer changeups (6.1%, vs 19.6% to right-handed batters). When behind in the count, Sale uses his changeup even more aggressively (31.8%, vs 7.0% when ahead of the batter). His slider is the opposite; he uses it much more when ahead or even, and much less when behind. Sale has reached 2-0 or 3-0 counts 87 times this season, and has thrown only 5 sliders in those counts.
As the 2017 season has progressed, Sale has gradually reduced the use of his changeup and increased his slider, until his last couple games, when his pitch usage looked more like the beginning of the season’s. His fastball velocity dropped slightly for a half-dozen games in late June and July, although it didn’t seem to change his effectiveness; he went 5-1 with a 2.48 ERA in that period.
Pitch value. All of Sale’s pitches are more effective than average, based on total bases yielded per 100 pitches, and are more likely to be thrown for strikes. His changeup shows a pronounced platoon split, being much worse to left-handed batters — who are also much less likely to see the pitch, as shown above. His two-seam fastball is the reverse, being much more effective against lefties, although even right-handed batters only hit about the league average against it.
Pitch location. Sale throws almost all his pitches for strikes, with the only exception being the two-seam fastball to left-handed batters, which is likely to end up high and inside. His slider and changeup target the bottom third of the strike zone, while his four-seam fastball tends to end up in the top third, although (especially to left-handed batters) he can use the whole strike zone.
Featured image courtesy of Maddie Meyer/Getty Images.