Chris Sale’s dominance on the mound throughout his career can not be reasonably questioned. The lanky lefty has solidified himself as one of baseball’s best pitchers over the past few years, owning opposing hitters during his first nine MLB seasons. Sale began his career in the bullpen, but the White Sox gave him a chance at starting in 2012, and he never looked back. From 2012 through 2018, Sale was named an All-Star each year and mowed down 1,678 batters, the second most in baseball behind Max Scherzer in that time frame. Also, Sale’s 1,789 K’s through his first nine years are 15th all-time, one spot in front of strikeout king Nolan Ryan, even though Sale began his career in the bullpen.
So, yeah, Chris Sale is pretty good. He’s been dominant, specifically these past two years as a Red Sox. He struck out 308 men in 2017, the most in a single season since Randy Johnson’s 334 in 2002 – although Sale did it in 45.2 fewer innings. He followed that up with an injury-riddled 2018 that still saw him throw to a 2.11 ERA and strike out 237 men in 158 innings, en route to a World Series win for Boston. The Red Sox rewarded that performance by signing Sale to a five-year, $145 million extension.
Okay, I’ve talked way too much about how good Chris Sale is for an article about how bad Chris Sale is. The $145 million man has been atrocious through his four starts in 2019. He’s 0-4 with an 8.50 ERA, matching his 2018 loss total. So what the heck is wrong with Chris Sale? I have no clue, but I’ve got some ideas.
Baseball Savant is an excellent resource for looking up these kinds of stats, so a huge shout out to them. Now, all stats I’m going to give have to have a #SSS (Small Sample Size) Warning attached. Sale has only made four starts and pitched 18 innings. Small sample sizes and advanced stats don’t love each other, but I’m going to go for it anyway.
To start, here are Chris Sale’s 2019 StatCast rankings:
Getting Hit Hard
Not only has Sale always been able to generate swings and misses, but he’s also had a knack for avoiding hard contact. That ability has changed drastically in his first few games this season. In 2018, his opponent hard hit percentage was in the top three of the league at 26.8%. This year, that number has jumped up to 38.1%, which would be the worst in his career by far if maintained for the full 2019 campaign. Also, opponents have barreled up his pitches at an 11.1% rate (seven barrels out of 63 batted balls). While seven seems like a small number, it’s more than a quarter of the amount of barrels Sale allowed to batters in 2018 (25), and the Sox are only 19 games into the year.
Isn’t Missing Bats
Re-read this article. Every crazy stat I gave about Sale is related to strikeouts. Suddenly, Sale has lost his greatest superpower. Sale’s strikeout percentage has dropped over 20 points from 38.4% in 2018 to 16.7%, while his walk percentage has risen to 6% from 5.5%. Not exactly a recipe for success.
So why has his K-rate gone down so drastically? Like it says in bold right up there, he isn’t missing bats. His swing-and-miss rate of 35% in 2018 – which is ridiculous – has dropped to 24.2% in 2019. While that is still higher than the league average of 24.1%, the drop off is alarming. Looking at his swing-and-miss percentage by pitch is even more telling. Batters swung through his fastball 29.8% of the time last year. This year, that’s down to just 4.4%, and it’s showing, with hitters batting an astonishing .524 off of his fastball, up from .179 last year. While his slider is still missing bats at a 30.6% rate, that’s still a drastic decrease from his 2018 form when it was 44.4%.
I’m going to be completely honest; spin rate confuses me. However, when I see a pitch like this curve, I believe in its significance:
So, back to the man of the hour. Sale’s average spin rate last season was 2,496 RPM (rotations per minute) on his slider, and 2,357 on his fastball. While those spin rates aren’t near the top of the league, seeing his fastball average at 95.2 mph was a terrifying sight. This year, everything’s changed. His spin rates are down 3% – yes, a significant difference – to 2,403 on the slider and 2,271 on the fastball. In addition, his fastball velocity has plummeted almost three mph to 92.4. That’s huge. While both spin rates are around league average, the decrease in speed has made it easier for batters to read the pitches out of Sale’s hand, and Sale’s performance against both lefties and righties has taken a hit, leading to the 8.50 ERA.
Everyone knows how good Chris Sale is. His stuff is some of the best in baseball history, and day in and day out he has the potential to twirl a masterpiece. However, this year, we have not seen that Chris Sale. With the entire rotation struggling, Sale needs to find the Sale of old before the season gets out of hand for the 6-13 Red Sox.