If you knew the name 'Chris Sale' before this year, you either were a huge White Sox fan, or you really knew your left-handed relievers. Sale was far from a big name, but he was a dominant reliever for his first two years in the majors. In limited action, he posted FIPs of 2.74 and 3.12, good for an FIP- of 63 and 75, both of which are very respectable numbers for a reliever. He is only 23 years old, and was the White Sox 1st pick in the 2010 draft (13th overall). Even as early as late 2011, it was announced that Sale would be moved into the starting rotation. We have seen this plot-line before, have we not? Daniel Bard, Neftali Feliz, and Joba Chamberlin (wherever he ends up) are only three examples of pitchers who have tried to make the transition. As we know, the results have been mixed, and for Bard and Feliz, it is too early to know if it is a good or bad idea. What about Sale?
Chris Sale, so far, has gone 7-2 with a 2.30 ERA after 66 innings of work. Of course, this does not tell us a lot, so will digging deeper into advanced metrics unearth anything?
The first striking stat about Sale is his 2.43 BB/9, and his corresponding 6.9 BB%. These are materially lower than the league average of 2.36 and 8.3%. His control is definitely an advantage for him, as it limits base-runners. That is not to say he is only throwing strikes and getting hit hard because of it. In fact, his LD% is right around league average. He has gotten slightly lucky as his FB% is league average but his HR/9 is much lower (0.54 to average of 0.99). I would expect this HR/9 number- and therefore his FIP- to increase, especially since his home field is currently 2nd in the league in runs per game and 4th in HR per game, as per ESPN Park Factors.
But Sale is still dominant. His K/9 is 9.32 which is around his career average of 10.06, and considering the first two years of his career where small sample sizes while a reliever, that is impressive. A large part of his success seems to be due to his odd delivery style. Watch this highlight of his great performance against the Rays. His release point is far from the classical style. What it appears to do is obscure the rotation of the ball just long enough for his dirty slider to start like a fastball and then 'drop off the table'. While I admit I am not strong in pitching physics, I understand pitching mechanics enough to say that it is not a gimmicky delivery; it is deadly effective as it uses his height and lefty arm angle to create a unique view for the hitter. Oh and yes, the last pitch of the clip is him blowing a 96 mph fastball by a hitter. To end the 7th inning. That helps.
Check out highlights from his complete game. Pitches at 0:40, 1:06 and 1:16 are great examples of the drastic drop of his slider. While is tends to be his slowest pitch (around 80 mph), it is still very potent. This chart shows his release point for his main three pitches (fastball, a hard sinker, and his slider) are relatively the same. In other words, the hitters struggle to tell what pitch is coming and then BOOM, the fastball blows by them, the sinker cuts in on their hands, or the slider drops below the bat line.
He certainly does have reason to love his slider. In 2012 he has thrown it for 31% of his pitches but still has a nasty whiff rate of 18.63%. Simply put, his BABIP might regress, his LOB% is certainly unrealistically high (currently 79.5%) but until hitters learn to track his slider better, Sale is going to continue to dominate.
Overall, the transition for Sale has been a rousing success. Expect regression as he gets deeper into the season might tire out, but even if he regresses to his xFIP (3.08), it will be still a terrifically successful season. If you have not joined me on the 'Chris Sale bandwagon', I would do so as soon as you can.