Chris Sale and Death by Diversity

We tend to take the greatest players for granted, so it ought to tell you something when even one of the established elites is raising eyebrows. Chris Sale’s one of the very best starting pitchers in the world, of that there’s no question, and still he’s recently been generating all kinds of positive attention. Just Monday, he struck out 14 against the Astros in eight innings. It was his fourth consecutive start with double-digit strikeouts, and his fourth consecutive start with at least 20 missed bats. I won’t go through the specifics, but in terms of unhittability, Sale just tied one record with Sandy Koufax. He set a couple new all-time White Sox records, and he became the first pitcher to do a particular something since Randy Johnson. This is Chris Sale at the top of his game, and no one’s allowed a lower contact rate over the season’s last month.

Sale has established a few new personal bests, which, again, is a difficult thing to do, when you’ve been as excellent as he has. It seems like forever ago that he owned a near-6 ERA and people were wondering whether something was wrong. He’s yielded eight runs in six starts, he’s on a career-low FIP, and he’s on a career-low xFIP. When you look at the overall picture, at this point Sale looks more or less like himself. But underneath, you can see him evolving, and now Sale’s turned into one of the rarest sorts of pitchers.

You know about Sale’s slider. Sale’s always had a wicked slider, and while he started to move away from it some a year ago, it’s come back lately, and it’s never not been a dangerous weapon. Sale knows full well what his breaking ball can do.

You know about Sale’s changeup. It’s the changeup Sale leaned on more often as he decreased the usage of his slider. On a per-pitch basis, Sale’s changeup has his highest value, and while those numbers can occasionally deceive, they get the general message across. Sale’s got an awesome breaking ball, and he’s got an awesome offspeed pitch.

And the fastball? Mike Petriello wrote about Sale’s fastball in January. But it only continues to improve. This season, when Sale has thrown a four-seamer, a sixth of them have been cut on and missed. A third of all swing attempts have whiffed or, at least, tipped the ball into the glove. Consider this diversity of repertoire. What Sale can do is extremely uncommon.

On a hunch, I turned to the Baseball Prospectus PITCHf/x leaderboards. I looked at data for 2015, and I isolated pitch types that pitchers have thrown at least 100 times. I hunted for pitches with a swinging-strike rate of at least 15%. Not surprisingly, there’s no pitcher in baseball right now who’s thrown four of those pitches. These are the guys who have thrown three qualifying pitches:

Sale qualifies because of his four-seamer, slider, and changeup. Kluber qualifies because of his four-seamer, slider, and cutter. Harvey qualifies because of his slider, changeup, and curveball. And that’s it. Those are the three names. And one could make the argument that Sale is the most impressive, here, because he so rarely has the platoon advantage, and because he’s thrown the slider 15% of the time. Kluber’s thrown 11% four-seamers; Harvey’s thrown 11% changeups. And Harvey, of course, is in the National League.

In a sense, Sale has peers, and in another sense, Sale stands alone. Whether he’s really alone doesn’t change the point — he’s absolutely terrific, and he’s joined the exclusive three-weapon club because of the improvement of his heater. From Brooks Baseball, we can observe Sale’s evolving whiff rates:

sale-whiffs

All the pitches have higher rates in 2015, but you can see the four-seamer cross the 15% threshold. Relatedly, Sale has been throwing his four-seamer higher in the zone — or beyond it — making it all the more difficult to catch up to:

sale-pitch-height

Sale has increasingly embraced the putaway elevated fastball, and so against righties — who he faces by far most often — they have to look for fastballs up, sliders down and in, or changeups down and away. Sale’s command is good enough that he can put those pitches in the zone when he needs to, and he can expand when he’s ahead in the count. So there’s no predicting what you’re going to get. But one clear trend: more and more of Sale’s strikeouts are coming on heaters.

sale-fastball-strikeouts

At one point, early in his career, Sale got an eighth of his strikeouts on four-seamers. That’s up now to a half. Against the Astros on Monday, Sale recorded eight fastball strikeouts, establishing a new high. There’s nothing really different about the fastball — Sale just uses it better, which makes all his pitches better. Which is something Sale didn’t need, but I guess he feels greedy.

Now for some satisfying clips, for your perusal. Sale using a fastball for a strikeout on Monday:

sale-fastball

Sale using a slider for a strikeout on Monday:

sale-slider

Sale using a changeup for a strikeout on Monday:

sale-changeup

Sale’s throwing a career-high rate of first-pitch strikes. So he’s also throwing a career-high rate of pitches in pitcher-friendly counts. Regardless of the count, Sale isn’t afraid to throw any of his weapons, but when he’s ahead, he gets to make the zone a little bit bigger, which makes the task of hitting him unspeakably unfair. More than ever, he’s able to locate his pitches appropriately for the circumstances, and it’s just impossible to defend against everything. Sale can pick from the four quadrants, and from top to bottom velocity he spans nearly 20 miles per hour. There’s no such thing as being ready to hit him. There’s only being ready for a mistake. He’s making fewer of those.

We hoped you liked reading Chris Sale and Death by Diversity by Jeff Sullivan!

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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TWTW
Member

“Death by diversity”?

This sounds like an Ann Coulter article.

Paul
Guest
Paul

More like Clint Coulter, amirite?