Can Chris Sale Improve in 2016?

Can Chris Sale have the best year of his career in 2016? FanGraphs believes so, as they are projecting a 6.7 WAR for him in the upcoming season. Sale accumulated a 6.2 WAR last year, the highest of his career thus far, along with career-bests of 2.60 xFIP, 1.81 BB/9 and an 11.82 K/9.

Sale — “The Condor” — is a sabermetrician’s dream subject, as advanced statistics tell a completely different story than the usual stats that show up in the box score. Sale actually had the worst ERA of his career (3.41) in 2015 and gave up the most home runs (23). Sale had the most wins (13) since his rookie season in 2012 but that number still falls far short — rightfully or not — to usual Cy Young Award candidates (AL CY winner Dallas Keuchel had 20 while NL winner Jake Arrieta had 22).

The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. Yes, Sale had a better season than the back of his baseball card shows but it may not have been as good of a season as the advanced stats show, either. The best way to describe Sale’s season is inconsistent. His peak between May 23 and June 30 was as good as any pitcher in the league – this was a streak of eight starts each having double-digit strikeouts, 98 in total or over 12 per start. But then he had a stretch of five starts, all of his September outings, where the team lost all five and he allowed at least seven hits each time, including seven of the 23 home runs he allowed in 2015.

In an attempt to dive into what may have caused this inconsistency, I expected the narrative to be the mismanagement of Sale’s innings to pop off the page. Robin Ventura has a tendency to stick with his starting pitcher longer than most and the third-time-through-the-order penalty shows its head from time to time. Sale is the ace of the team and should be looked at as the workhorse. He sometimes is asked to be the stopper and give the bullpen a rest. However, Sale has also carried a constant fear of injury due to some early career issues and an unusual delivery. It’s a fine line between allowing Sale to be an ace and also understanding when is the time to save some innings for later in the season — or his career.

The trend around the league is in each time through the batting order, a starting pitcher’s success fades. Sale is not the average pitcher and bucked the trend somewhat.
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Sale’s BAA goes up slightly during the third time through the order but strangely sees more of a bump the second time through. The fourth time through the order, a very small sample size, is much higher of a bump. The numbers are increased significantly by a head-scratching September 18 appearance where Sale was left in to face the Cleveland Indians’ lineup for the fourth time while losing 6-1. He allowed three hits and a home run during the inning. Sale was allowed to face at least part of the lineup three times in 30 of his 31 starts and he faced entered a fourth time 18 times. Chris Sale’s advanced stats show excellence again as the multiple times through the lineup prove to have little effect on the Chicago White Sox ace.

When looking at how many pitches it takes for Sale to get through the order, the numbers continue to impress. Sale’s first time through the order took an average of 36.19 pitches and the second time took an average of 36.06. On average, he was hitting the third time through at only 72 pitches, more than enough for someone of Sale’s talent to be trusted to handle without facing fatigue. Sale did hit the 100 pitch mark 25 times and the 115 mark eight times. Pitches are more important than the oft-used innings that mark young pitcher’s “limits.” Even though the numbers don’t bear out on a per-game level, the season-long wear may have gotten to Sale.

Sale’s first-half stats were much better than his second (2.72 ERA vs 4.33, .206 BAA vs .266, .293 BABIP vs .361). He had his worst three starts in the second half (7 ER each in back-to-back starts against the Boston Red Sox and Tampa Bay Rays, and 6 ER in a three-inning outing against the Minnesota Twins in September as part of the previously mentioned five start swoon). Fatigue may have been an issue and this brings the discussion back to Sale improving on 2015. The White Sox defense was far below average in 2015. The entire pitching staff would admit under truth serum they pitched many more outs than were converted by the guys behind them. Baseball-Reference had the White Sox as the third-least efficient defense in the majors in 2015. For the upcoming season, the team has made defensive improvements at third base with Todd Frazier and potentially in the middle infield positions with Tyler Saladino slated to be the starting shortstop. Carlos Sanchez may also be a late-inning defensive replacement. The outfield currently remains the same, but any addition to the team will most likely help the defense. A better defense means fewer pitches and fewer pitches will mean less fatigue for Sale.

The other change to Sale’s approach may make his baseball card look less impressive, but it may build up his overall profile. He set the White Sox franchise record for strikeouts in 2015, but it’s not difficult math to figure out that a strikeout — at a minimum — takes three times as many pitches as a groundout could. With the defensive improvement, Sale may also have more confidence to not have to throw the perfect pitch every time. With less of a need to miss bats, Sale may be able to get through innings quicker. This could be the key to Sale becoming an even better pitcher than the amazing career he has already accomplished.

If Sale is able to make his eight-start stretch from late May through June last a whole season, there’s no denying that he is capable of matching FanGraphs’ lofty expectations of him. With an improved offense to back him up as well, Sale may be able to improve on the 13 wins from last season. The other wild card not previously mentioned is that every pitch Chris Sale threw last season was to Tyler Flowers. Flowers is no longer with the White Sox. It’s yet to see if that has an effect on Sale but it is worth mentioning that he will lose his battery mate for the first time in over a year.

It’s hard to believe that Chris Sale can have his best season after placing in the top six each of his four seasons as a full-time starter, but the recipe is out there to believe it’s possible. The only pitcher that FanGraphs projects to have a higher WAR in 2016 is Clayton Kershaw, and Sale is projected a full win above the highest American League pitcher, Corey Kluber. It will be a joy to watch if he matches or even surpasses those towering expectations.

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