Opinion

What’s up with Chris Sale?

For better or worse, Chris Sale has been noticeably different in 2018

Featured image courtesy of Zimbio.com: (April 9, 2018 – Source: Maddie Meyer/Getty Images North America)

Before I even begin to write this, I have to acknowledge that Chris Sale has been stellar this year. In 22 innings of work (4 starts), he has pitched to the tune of 1.23 ERA, 1.51 FIP and a 1.0 fWAR. On top of those beautiful numbers, he has been striking batters out like he always has (12.68 K/9) and only has seen his walk rate increased slightly (2.05 BB/9). In terms of results, the southpaw has virtually been the same. With that said, he has been noticeably different in a couple of ways.

Oh, yes, I know Sale has had to pitch two games in the frozen confines of Fenway Park, but I would be remiss if I did not mention that his velocity is down. Check out his monthly velocity graph, courtesy of Brooks Baseball, showing his hard stuff: his four-seamer and sinker.

Unfortunately, it is not interactive, so you cannot click on the dots and see the exact velocity or the sample size. Regardless, you should be able to follow this line graph pretty easily. On the X-axis we have the month, going back to 2010, and on the Y-axis we have release speed in MPH. The black dots are four-seam and the gray are sinkers. When a line graph disconnects for a pitch, it signals a new year. Considering there have only been two months of data, the two dots (for the respective pitches) towards the rightmost part of the graph represent Sale’s average velocity for the months of March and April this season.

Sale made just one start in March, which came on Opening Day against the Tampa Bay Rays. His velocity seemed fine and there is really nothing more to talk about with that. The real discrepancy can be seen this month, April 2018, where he has made three starts.

In the month of April this season, the lanky left-hander has tossed 130 four-seamers at an average velocity of 92.45 mph. That is the second-lowest average four-seam velocity month in Sale’s entire career. The only month he threw his four-seam fastball slower came in March of 2013 (92.14 mph). It is worth mentioning, however, that in March 2013 he only made one start, throwing just 14 four-seamers. Despite how quickly velocity stabilizes, 14 pitches is a very small sample size.

Some may try to stick to the anecdotal narrative that “it’s April and Sale is still adjusting as such.” Well, I guess there could be substance to that, but scroll back up to the velocity graph. Look at his average monthly velocities to begin each season. He does not appear to gain velocity as the months progress, historically staying fairly stagnant between March/April through September.

Let’s look a little deeper into his game-by-game average velocities in the month of April. I have a table for you, the masses, with all stats courtesy of Brooks Baseball.

4-Seam Avg Sinker Avg
@ Mia (4/3) 92.66 90.73
vs. NYY (4/10) 93.99 92.00
vs. BAL (4/15) 90.82 87.99

Quickly, we begin to see the aberration, or outlier, that is distorting the data. Sale’s most recent start, when the game time temperature was 34 degrees (a decidedly non-baseball playing temperature), is making his average velocity for April look considerably worse.

The Orioles’ Dylan Bundy, who was the opposing starter in the game, saw the average mph of his 4-seam and sinker drop by roughly half an mph from his previous starts in April.

It was not just Sale. However, half a mile per hour is definitely different than the 2-3 mph that the Sox ace dropped in the start.

Moving away from the outlying start, Sale’s start versus Miami, which was warm and attended by Derek Jeter and David Ortiz, also raised a red flag. I mean, again, “red flag” is a relative term, probably implying an unneeded negative connotation. Let’s just call it “different” or “unique” for now. In the game, Sale’s four-seamer averaged 92.66 mph. Throughout the entire 2017 season, the 29-year-old did not pitch a game where his four-seam fastball averaged less than 93 mph. You have to go back to late 2016 to find a game where Sale’s average four-seam fastball was slower.

Is there a chance that pitches are being misclassified, skewing the data to make Sale’s four-seamer appear slower than it actually is? In other words, could some of the slower pitches (sinkers), which are designed to be slower, be accidentally classified as four-seamers, making his pitch seem slower than it actually is?

It is entirely possible. This happens from time to time, but I am not sure this is the case. I can’t be entirely sure but I think this chart, showing Sale’s maximum velocity for a given month is telling.

This chart is the exact same as the previous one, except, instead of average mph, we have the max mph for every month of Sale’s career. Maybe I have a four-seam bias but it is the one I am mainly concerned about. I, for whatever reason, feel like max velocity of a sinker is less important because of potential misclassifications issues. No one can claim a 98-mph pitch is a sinker…not yet at least. Anyway, for the entire year, the fastest pitch Sale has thrown has been at 97.95 mph. In every month of 2017, Sale threw a pitch more than 1 mph quicker than his ’18 average.

Relative to 2016, Sale’s max 97.95 mph pitch is not very anomalous but compared to last year it certainly is. If we were dealing with misclassification issues distorting Sale’s 2018 average four-seam velocity, I would anticipate the max velocity to remain unaffected. But here we are.

Before we wrap this post up, there is one other chart I would like to show. It, too, is provided to us by the ever-so-helpful BrooksBaseball.net.

 

Basically, this graph shows the average yearly (I’m changing the game) horizontal movement for every Chris Sale pitch. And, yes, I’m aware that using a yearly, instead of a monthly, graph runs the risk of people surmising that perhaps a small sample size, which is what 2018 is, debases the value of the exercise. Let me assure you, though. The monthly results of Sale’s horizontal movements reveal the same thing as the yearly one. It’s just more cluttered and without the ability (or drive) to label the points on the graph, using a yearly graph makes more sense. I hyperlinked the monthly graph above if you want to see if I’m legit.

Getting back on track, please look at the big black dot, which is the clear outlier and to the left of the other dots of the same color. The average horizontal movement in inches is 7.6 and it is Sale’s 2018 season with four-seamers. Early in ’18, Sale’s average horizontal movement has decreased fairly drastically. What does this mean? Truthfully, I am not entirely sure. I’m not well-versed in the impact of horizontal and vertical movement, especially for certain pitches and the interrelation that exists between multiple offerings. The sinker horizontal movement seems pretty stable this year.

Anyway, I am just showing you that this is a thing. Sale’s four-seam horizontal movement is not what it once was, and I am not sure if that is a for better or worse.

Another interesting takeaway from this chart is his slider is trending in the other direction (or the same depending on how you look at the world). The little red dot, which is far from and to the left of the other red dots, is Sale’s 2018 average slider horizontal movement in inches. At -9.36 inches of horizontal movement, the Condor’s (which is Sale’s unappreciated and underutilized nickname) slider is moving more than ever before.

Also of note: apparently Chris Sale has a curveball now, for the first time in his entire career.

According to Brooks Baseball, he has thrown 25 curveballs besting his career-high of 0 by a decent margin. This could, again, be a classification thing, which could explain Sale’s weird slider horizontal movement, or it could literally be the development of a shinny, new breaking ball. Only time will tell.

There’s nothing out of the ordinary with his vertical movement on his four-seamer (7.05 inches this year and 7.12 in ’17). He’s just throwing his four-seamer differently side-to-side.

One last thing before I depart from these pages for maybe 24 hours: Sale’s four-seam and sinker usage are up. Here is another visually stimulating experience, in the form of a table.

He is hurling four-seamers and sinkers much more frequently than did he last year, while the changeup and sinker have decreased in usage. Meanwhile, we can’t forget about that pesky curveball, which may, indeed, be a slider with more horizontal and vertical movement. I don’t know these things.

That’s just an interesting nugget to leave with. Digest it as you will.

To sum this article up, Chris Sale is a freaking beast and he, more than likely, will continue to be a freaking beast for a long time. There is nothing to be overly concerned about. Sale has just been different this year. Different is not always bad because, you know, baseball is a constant battle of adjustments. I’m curious to watch the four-seam velocity as the year persists, but I think the more interesting thing is the horizontal movement on the pitch.

Regardless, I would love to see smarter people than myself interpret Sale’s early-season pitch data. This is a call to action for the people out there with the best and brightest of thinking caps.

The Condor has changed things in 2018, but, so far, he has not lost a beat.

 

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