Aaron Judge’s monster first half made him an obvious MVP candidate, even as he’s slowed down in the second half of the year. Jose Altuve leads qualified hitters in wRC+, as a second baseman who also happens to steal a bunch of bases, so he’s an obvious MVP candidate. Mike Trout is within +1 WAR of both of them despite spending two months on the disabled list, and on a per-game impact, is again obviously making the biggest impact of anyone on the planet, so he’s a less-obvious MVP candidate, but he should be in the mix by season’s end.
But if the voting were held today, there would be a pretty clear choice for the American League’s Most Valuable Player, and it would be Chris Sale.
Sale pitched again last night, facing the Yankees on Sunday Night Baseball. It was a typical Chris Sale in 2017 start, as he threw seven innings, allowed one run, and struck out 12. It was his seventh start this year with 12 or more strikeouts; he has nine more with 10 or 11 strikeouts, giving him 16 double-digit strikeout games this year. He’s made 24 starts.
Sale’s 37% strikeout rate is the third-best any starter has ever posted in a season with at least 160 innings pitched, behind only 1999 Pedro Martinez and 2001 Randy Johnson. That ’99 Pedro season is maybe the single best season any pitcher has ever had. Johnson’s 2001 season was maybe the best year of the best left-handed pitcher in baseball history.
Sale already has racked up 241 strikeouts, and he has seven or eight starts left in the regular season, so getting to 300 is simply a matter of staying healthy at this point. There have only been 34 seasons in history where a starter struck out 300 or more batters, and most of those came in the days when starters threw 300+ innings.
So, yeah, Sale is having himself some kind of strikeout season. Of course, you don’t win an MVP just for having a high strikeout rate. But Sale’s overall numbers make it clear that he’s been the best player in the American League this year.
By FIP-based WAR, Sale’s +7.4 WAR is the best in baseball, and it’s not close. By runs allowed, he’s at +6.7 WAR, so he’s less far ahead of Altuve, Judge, and Trout, but still has some distance between them. And despite the persisting belief that ERA or runs allowed measure “what the pitcher actually did”, as usual, crediting the pitcher for everything that happens while he’s on the mound obscures the truth.
Yes, Sale’s 2.51 ERA is a lot higher than his 1.92 FIP, and yes, sometimes FIP overestiamtes the value of pitchers who dominate the strike zone but give up hard contact on balls in play. By ignoring all batted ball results besides home runs, FIP can give a misleading picture of a pitcher who throws meatballs in the zone that just don’t happen to be hit for home runs.
But that’s not Chris Sale. His BABIP is just .286, better than league average mark. And that’s not just good defensive support masking a contact problem; his average exit velocity allowed of 86.2 mph is also well below the league average. He’s allowed a .235 wOBA this year; by MLB’s xwOBA calculation using Statcast data, his expected wOBA is .233.
FIP isn’t missing Sale giving up line drives all over the place here. When you add batted ball data into the mix, Sale doesn’t get any worse. So why is his ERA over half a run higher than his FIP?
|2017||Men on Base||5%||42%||0.93||0.315||1.79||1.80|
|2017||Men In Scoring||5%||47%||0.68||0.400||0.92||0.95|
With runners in scoring position, Sale’s allowed a .400 BABIP this year, so he’s stranding a lower percentage of his runners than you’d expect for a guy who has been this dominant. But there’s nothing in the data to suggest that the .400 BABIP he’s allowed in those situations is the result of bad pitching. His average exit velocity with RISP is actually lower (85.0 mph) than his overall average EV allowed. His xwOBA with RISP is .219, second-best among MLB starters, quite a bit lower than the .246 wOBA he’s allowed in those situations. And, of course, the sub-1.00 FIP and xFIP in RISP situations shows that he’s not really crumbling in high-pressure situations. When men are in scoring position, he’s been his most dominant self.
Defensive support isn’t static, and sometimes, your defenders fail to convert outs more often when you need them most. That appears to be what has happened with Sale this year, as balls have fallen in at the least opportune time, despite no evidence to support the notion that he’s pitched worse in those situations. And that’s not something you want to hold against Sale, as the performance of his teammates is beyond his control.
Of course, that all goes to explain why Sale is the easy choice for AL MVP right now. Even if we judged by runs allowed, ignoring everything in the paragraphs above, he’d still be the best player in the American League. But we shouldn’t judge Sale by runs allowed, and by the measures he’s able to control, his lead is even larger at this point.
There’s six weeks for things to change. The way Mike Trout is playing, we might end up having a really interesting debate about how many games a position player needs to participate in to be considered for the award. Maybe Sale gets bombed in his next few starts and comes back to the pack a bit. The race isn’t over yet.
But right now, Chris Sale is winning, and winning rather handily. Forget the notion that pitchers have their own award. Sale is a player, and the award is for the Most Valuable Player. To this point, in the American League, that’s been Chris Sale.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.