Arguing for Chris Sale as the best pitcher in baseball
Featured image courtesy of Zimbio.com: (Sept. 25, 2017 – Source: Maddie Meyer/Getty Images North America
Who here loves completely subjective enterprises? Well, if your hand is raised to the sky, then, boy, do I have a treat for you. Basically, I have been binging MLB Network’s Top Ten Players Right Now series, where they rank the top ten players at each position. It is a fun show and almost always involves me screaming at the T.V. multiple times. Perhaps by design, it gives us a feel for how talented each position is relative to others. Some of the positions are star-studded (third base), others top-heavy (right field) and others seemingly devoid of talent (second base). It varies on an annual basis, with some positions maintaining their strength and others weakening. Starting pitching seemed to fall victim to the latter category.
In 2017, starting pitchers, as a whole, compiled their worse season by ERA (4.49) since 2008. So, yes, starting pitchers performed markedly worse than in years past. In fact, their collective ERA raised .15 points from the season before last. This may have had something to do with the mysterious “livelier ball” last year, boosting power numbers to historical marks. Regardless, starting pitchers, for whatever reason, did not have their best year.
Host of the show, Brian Kenny, mentioned the seemingly weaker group of starters a couple times during the show. Starters towards the bottom of the list did not appear to be prototypical “top ten” guys, while others who “just missed” the list did not seem to pose much controversy in way of contention. I made my own list, gradually becoming more displeased by my options. For the 10th spot, I was seriously considering pitchers like James Paxton, Chris Archer, Jimmy Nelson and Aaron Nola. Not to say these aren’t talented pitchers, but this should provide a frame of reference for what I am talking about.
Putting it bluntly, the bottom-half of the list was uninspiring. With that said, the top-half of the list was very much the opposite.
There seems to be a rare, elite tier of starting pitchers forming, comprised of four excellent pitchers. All the pundits who made their lists on the segment had some variation of these four at the top of their rankings. Further, I believe — don’t quote me on this — every single one placed at the top of someone’s list. If you think somewhat hardly about this, you could probably presume the identities of the “fantastic four.” All of them have multiple Cy Young awards, with the exception of one. Ironically enough, the “exception” may be the best of the group.
The exception’s name is Chris Sale and his comrades are Max Scherzer, Corey Kluber and Clayton Kershaw. You probably want some stats now. That would be appropriate. Here are some basic stats for each arm’s 2017 campaign:
Clayton Kershaw: 175 IP, 10.39 K/9, 1.54 BB/9, 2.31 ERA, 3.07 FIP and 4.6 fWAR
Chris Sale: 214.1 IP, 12.93 K/9, 1.81 BB/9, 2.90 ERA, 2.45 FIP and 7.7 fWAR
Max Scherzer: 200.2 IP, 12.02 K/9, 2.47 BB/9, 2.51 ERA, 2.90 FIP and 6.0 fWAR
Corey Kluber: 203.2 IP, 11.71 K/9, 1.59 BB/9, 2.25 ERA, 2.50 FIP and 7.3 fWAR
Obviously, one year of statistics is not the end-all, be-all. It doesn’t tell the whole story, especially when we are trying to answer the question of: “who is the best pitcher in baseball right.” The data sample is simply not large enough. We are trying to predict success in the immediate future, which can be guided by past performance. So, the next round of stats are how these “aces” fared over the past three seasons. It still isn’t all-encompassing, though. Despite the recent results being the most important, consistency over many years is critical too. Here’s how they did from 2015-2017:
Clayton Kershaw: 556.2 IP, 10.91 K/9, 1.34 BB/9, 2.07 ERA, 2.28 FIP and 19.7 fWAR
Chris Sale: 649.2 IP, 11.29 K/9, 1.80 BB/9, 3.21 ERA, 2.89 FIP and 18.9 fWAR
Max Scherzer: 657.2 IP, 11.33 K/9, 1.98 BB/9, 2.76 ERA, 2.97 FIP and 18.0 fWAR
Corey Kluber: 640.2 IP, 10.35 K/9, 1.94 BB/9, 2.96 ERA, 2.92 FIP and 17.9 fWAR
You can interpret the sets of stats as you wish. This is completely subjective, anyway. We are just trying to use the objective to mask the fact. Objectively-speaking, though, we can see some things clearer than others. For example, Kershaw had the best three-year stretch of the group, while Kluber, Sale and Scherzer logged more work in the same span. These are facts.
I’m about to use some facts to help us arrive at the conclusion that Chris Sale is the best pitcher in baseball right now. I don’t even have to necessarily believe the conclusion. I am merely making a case. To do this, I am going to expand on three key points, which more or less separate Sale from the rest of the group. Without further ado, let’s get to the grind.
Key Point 1: Sale is an innings machine
No, Chris Sale did not log the most innings out of the group between 2015 and 2017. Scherzer narrowly edged him in that category, accumulating only about eight more innings — in other words, the equivalent of a good Chris Sale or Max Scherzer start. Despite this, I would argue Sale is still more of an inning machine than the Nationals’ All-Star. Not only did he lead the entire majors last year in innings, but he beats Scherzer by a decent margin if we shrink the window to the last two seasons. He pitched 441 innings compared to Scherzer’s 429.
Innings matter, people, especially those of the quality variety. They keep other pitchers, who are more than likely inferior to the lanky southpaw, out of the game, making them fresher for future appearances. It has a season-long impact on the rest of the team and Sale is as good as anyone at doing so.
Still, Scherzer is very close to Sale in this regard. While this probably doesn’t necessarily bolster Sale’s case, I think it’s interesting to note he pitched longer into games on a per-start basis than Scherzer over those aforementioned three years. Sale averaged 6.83 innings per start, with Scherzer coming in at 6.71. Basically, they both pitched between 6 2/3 and 7 innings a start from 2015-2017. That’s damn impressive.
Key Point 2: He strikes ’em out and sits ’em down
Not only did he lead the “elite tier” in K/9 last year, he led all of baseball with a 12.93 K/9 among qualifying starters. Relative to the league last year, yeah, that’s certainly good, but let’s add some historical context to it. Sale’s 12.93 K/9 was the third-best in baseball history, trailing behind only Randy Johnson‘s 2001 season (13.41 K/9) and Pedro Martinez‘s 1999 season (13.20 K/9). Granted, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention we are in an era when strikeouts are easier to attain than in previous years. Still, wowza.
It was his personal best season, in terms of strikeouts, and was actually a huge improvement over 2016’s 9.25 K/9, which was a weird aberration for him. He may not replicate last season’s glorious strikeouts but Steamer projects him to have the highest K/9 among every starting pitcher at 11.29. Scherzer is his closest rival, forecasted for 11.15 K/9.
If 12.93 K/9 isn’t sexy enough for you, let’s rephrase this: Sale struck out 36.2% of the batters he faced in ’17. That’s more than 1/3 of the 851 batters he faced. He didn’t leave the game up to his defenders and there’s value in that, as well.
Key Point 3: Expect the unexpected
This point is more abstract — and thus probably more of a reach — than the others but hopefully you can find value in it. Sale had the second-most valuable fastball among starting pitchers, according to Fangraphs’ pitch values in 2017. Ranking only behind Justin Verlander, his fastball, thrown 49.2% of the time, had a value of 28.0. It marked the best season of his career with the pitch, despite throwing it for the lowest percentage of his career. To make up for this, he increased both his slider percentage (32.9%) and changeup (17.9%) usage from 2016.
Keep in mind, these pitch tracking methods are imperfect and should be taken with caution. Classifying pitches can be a difficult, weird and subjective endeavor. For the most part, though, they’re accurate and can show us Sale’s proclivity for change. He likes to keep his adversaries guessing. Here’s a three year look at Sale’s pitch percentages.
Chris Sale’s Pitch Usage Per Fangraphs’ Pitch Type:
2015: FB%: 52.5 SL%: 19.8 CH%: 27.7
2016: FB%: 59.2 SL%: 24.9 CH%: 15.7
2017: FB%: 49.2 SL%: 32.9 CH%: 17.9
Every year, his pitch usage changes somewhat drastically. In ’15, he relied on his changeup as his number two pitch but the past two years he switched to the slider. His slider usage has increased in each of the past three seasons, while his changeup rate and fastball rate have jumped all around.
He always manages to keep it interesting, changing his tendencies to throw off opposing hitters. It’s a big reason why Sale is as remarkable as he is. Now, I don’t know how his mixing of pitches compares to other elite pitchers or how much value can be assigned to doing so. If your stuff is good and hitters can’t hit it under any circumstance, then by all means use it. Mariano Rivera made a Hall of Fame career off that.
This last point doesn’t really objectively put Sale above the pack, rather, it allows us to interpret he is willing to adapt in an ever-evolving game. When his stuff starts declining, this malleable approach could elongate his success at the big league level. There’s probably value to this.
Look, Sale is a beast. You knew this before reading. He also finds himself in special company among the game’s premier starting pitchers. You probably knew that too. Again, these key points serve the purpose of merely attempting to distinguish Sale from the pack. Did they accomplish that? Perhaps. That’s all up to the reader.
The left-hander may or may not be the best starting pitcher in the game. This post failed to answer that. It simply is too close to call. The prevailing theme, however, is the fact Sale is a special type of pitcher. Ditto Scherzer, Kershaw and Kluber. They are all unique in their techniques, giving them an identity on the mound and paving their path to greatness. We must not lose sight of the intricacies of their excellence, which is worthy of praise in itself.
Lastly, we can’t take for granted how lucky we are, as baseball fans, to watch these guys 30+ times a year excel at a craft which bewilders and delights. Further, we are fortunate to have spirited debates, such as “who is the best pitcher in baseball,” as a byproduct of these men’s talent. It adds another element to the game we devote so much time and passion to.