AnalysisNL East

Chris Sale is back to pitching like a frontline starter

For the first time since 2018, Chris Sale is an All-Star. It’s the eighth time in his career that the lanky left-hander has been named to an All-Star team. And it’s well deserved.

Sale is back to pitching like the frontline starter he once was during his time in Chicago with the White Sox and in 2017 and 2018 as a member of the Boston Red Sox. Entering his July 9 start in Arizona against the Diamondbacks, the now 35-year-old had an 11-3 record in 16 starts with a 2.71 ERA across 99 2/3 innings.

His 11 wins were tied with Seth Lugo of the Kansas City Royals and Grayson Rodriguez of the Baltimore Orioles for the most in Major League Baseball. Sale’s 2.71 ERA ranked eighth among qualified pitchers.

The left-hander’s start against the D-backs — a two-run, 5 1/3-inning outing where he struck out nine batters — raised his ERA slightly to 2.74 and earned him his MLB-leading 12th win of the year.

When the Atlanta Braves acquired Sale in a trade with the Red Sox this past offseason, it felt okay to question the move. After all, Sale had fallen off since 2018 because of injuries.

Sale pitched to the tune of a 4.40 ERA in 25 starts in 2019 until a left elbow injury ended his season in mid-August. He eventually underwent Tommy John surgery and missed the 2020 season and most of 2021. A rib fracture delayed his start to the 2022 season until July. He then suffered a wrist fracture during a bike accident, costing him the rest of 2022. Last year, Sale dealt with left shoulder inflammation that limited him to 20 starts.

All in all, between 2019 and 2023, the left-hander made 56 starts and pitched 298 1/3 innings. He was pretty good in those starts — he had a 4.16 ERA and 3.56 FIP — but he wasn’t the Sale everyone was used to.

The Braves felt they could help Sale remain healthy. It’s why they felt comfortable trading for him, and eventually extending/restructuring his contract, as he entered his mid-30s. Did they think they’d be getting this version of Sale? Who knows. Either way, he looks like the guy who dominated opposing lineups for a large chunk of the 2010s.

Now Compared to Then

In his first 16 starts this year, Sale dominated opposing lineups. His 11.47 strikeouts per nine innings ranked third among qualified pitchers. His 1.72 walks per nine ranked ninth and 2.45 FIP was the lowest. By allowing 0.63 home runs per nine innings, he was sixth-best at keeping opposing batters from leaving the yard. Altogether, his 3.3 fWAR ranked third in the majors despite his lesser workload of 99 2/3 innings ranking 37th.

It’s not hard to find out why Sale has been so good. According to Statcast, opponents had a 30.4% hard-hit rate against him entering July 9. That rate fell into the 94th percentile in the big leagues. On top of that impressive mark was his 80th percentile 49.4% ground-ball rate, 96th percentile 35.2% chase rate, and 88th percentile 31.1% whiff rate.

All of those numbers are just as good, if not better, than what Sale posted between 2012 and 2018 — a span in which he was selected to seven straight American League All-Star teams, finished top-six in AL Cy Young Award voting each year, and posted the third-best fWAR (39.2) among pitchers, trailing only Clayton Kershaw (43.8) and Max Scherzer (42.1).

In 208 starts over that seven-season stretch that spanned 2012 to 2018, Sale finished 1,388 innings with a 2.91 ERA and 2.84 FIP. He averaged 10.88 strikeouts per nine innings, 1.95 walks per nine, and allowed 0.91 home runs per nine in that same workload. All of those marks ranked among the best over those seven years.

Between 2015 (when Statcast data became available) and 2018, Sale held batters to a 29.1% hard-hit rate and got them to chase 32.3% of his pitches outside of the strike zone. Those marks ranked fourth and fifth during that time frame.

One thing that is a bit different for Sale is his pitch usage. For the first time in his career, he’s featuring his slider (39.8%) more than his fastball (37.8%). He still mixes in a changeup and sinker.

Batters were hitting .164 with a .233 slugging percentage against Sale’s slider entering July 9.

Opponents have been able to get to his four-seamer more easily, though, as they hit .261 off it with a .459 slugging percentage. But he can still rear back and get guys out with it.

Moving Forward

One way the Braves have helped keep Sale healthy is how they’ve structured his rest. Of his first 16 starts, one came after a normal four days of rest. Of the other 15, nine were after five days of rest and six came after six-plus days of rest.

With the trade deadline now less than three weeks away, it’ll be interesting to see how Atlanta navigates the deadline. They need help in the outfield. But adding a starting pitcher wouldn’t be such a bad idea.

When Sale’s acquisition became official, it was clear what the Braves were planning. They added Sale not just to fill out their 2024 rotation. Sale was brought in as a third starter that could help win come playoff time.

The Phillies have won back-to-back National League Division Series over the Braves in back-to-back seasons. Both times, the Phillies showed off a strong rotation model that utilized three really good starting pitchers. Atlanta was hoping Sale could help them create their own three-headed monster for the playoffs alongside Spencer Strider and Max Fried. Strider is out for the year after undergoing elbow surgery back in April. Fried is healthy and remains one of baseball’s better starters.

Since Sale is even more important with Strider on the shelf, the Braves will surely want to continue to monitor his rest. Adding a veteran starter via trade to help fill out the club’s rotation for the final two months of the regular season would go a long way in making sure Sale stays as healthy as possible and ready to go come October. Again, he’s even more important without Strider and would likely be Atlanta’s No. 2 starter in a postseason series.

Can Sale Continue to Step Up?

Altogether, it’s great to see Sale thriving again. After logging 1,300-plus innings between ages 23 and 29, dealing with injuries throughout his early 30s, and now returning to form in his mid-30s is quite impressive. And not only that but it’s been important for the Braves.

When Strider went down, there was concern. How would the Braves operate without one of baseball’s best pitchers? Could Sale step up? Is he going to stay healthy?

So far, Sale has stepped up and remains healthy. He’s answered those questions. The only question left to answer is this: Can Sale help the Braves get beyond the NLDS and become World Series champions once again?

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Bailey Digh

I've been writing for Diamond Digest since July 2022. I'm also currently a contributor for Phillies Nation. You can find me on X @bailey_digh.

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