Chris Sale for MVP

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?

Chris Sale, 2017 Baserunner States
Season Situational BB% K% HR/9 BABIP FIP xFIP
2017 Bases Empty 5% 34% 0.57 0.273 1.99 3.05
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.

We hoped you liked reading Chris Sale for MVP by Dave Cameron!

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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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TKDC
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TKDC

It would be odd to say Mike Trout didn’t play enough games so instead let’s give the award to a starting pitcher.

sabrtooth
Member
Member
sabrtooth

Except that playing time matters. That’s why WAR is a counting stat and not a rate stat. Sale provided more value than Trout has thus far because he’s been producing excellence while Trout was recovering.

Trout’s not on the leaderboards because they have a filter, but Cameron’s argument isn’t that he missed an arbitrary cutoff, so therefore he shouldn’t be considered. That Trout is going to be right near the top despite the injury is an achievement in and of itself.

It’s quite disappointing that Trout got hurt this year. Given his insane slash line before *and* after the injury, he could have had a season for the ages.

TKDC
Member
Member
TKDC

You missed my point. I’m not saying Trout deserves some extra credit because he missed time and has been so good otherwise. I’m saying that just arbitrarily saying “he didn’t play enough games,” if you believe he has been the most valuable player, and instead giving the award to a guy who plays every fifth day, would be an extremely weird way of going about the process.

If Sale and Trout are very similarly valuable at the end of the day, by whatever normal metrics you want to use, how many games Trout missed shouldn’t matter, just as the fact that Sale is a starting pitcher shouldn’t matter.

(ETA: The rest of this is not addressed to you, but to the comments below)

As far as how many “plays” you are a part of, that seems just as silly as counting games. We have metrics that show the value of the outcomes of your plays. Why don’t we use those?

Paul22
Member
Paul22

Games missed do matter since he is providing zero value on the bench and WAR is a counting stat. MVP is not best player its most valuable (in terms of helping your team win actual and not theoretical games)

sportsfreak2744
Member
sportsfreak2744

The leader in PA last year was Springer at 744. The leader in Total Batters faced by a pitcher last year was Price at 951. The top individual pitchers impact the outcome of more plate appearances than the top hitters do. Maybe it’s time to rethink your logic.

madmanx
Member
madmanx

Fielding matters.

sportsfreak2744
Member
sportsfreak2744

This year, Sale has faced 654 batters. The leader in plate appearances is Inciarte at 530.

Yirmiyahu
Member
Yirmiyahu

Sale: 654 batters faced, 23 fielding plays, 3 PA’s (as a batter)

Trout: 329 PA’s, 169 fielding plays

bpfoster87
Member
bpfoster87

Consider that Sale has ended 241 at bats via strikeout. Those may not be ‘fielding plays,’ but they’re the outs he’s personally responsible for.

Stop trying to sell the same old notion that pitchers aren’t as valuable as fielders just because they pitch once every five days. In the context of ‘most valuable,’ consider the fact that the Red Sox would very likely be challenging for last place without him. Could the same be said for Altuve and the Astros this season? The Astro’s recent skid suggests he can’t carry a team when he plays like a pitcher can once every five days.

Yirmiyahu
Member
Yirmiyahu

I’m not trying to sell anything. I just cited some relevant stats.

I think the stats support the fact that starting pitchers are just as valuable as position players.

bpfoster87
Member
bpfoster87

Sorry, I read that as support for fielder > pitcher. That was obviously me projecting that argument on to you.

jdbolick
Member

Maybe it’s time to rethink your logic.

It appears like you did not understand TKDC’s point. He’s pointing out, correctly, that it doesn’t make any sense to disqualify Trout for missing games and then give the award to a pitcher, who by definition will miss far more games. He’s not saying that Sale can’t be deserving, he’s saying that the games or lack thereof shouldn’t disqualify Trout or Sale. At the end of the season, give the award to the guy who was the most valuable period.