Chris Sale Is Pitching to Contact Now

I was talking with my father about Miguel Cabrera recently, and about how he’s undeniably one of the best hitters either of us have ever seen. One of the things we found so fascinating is that Miggy has seemingly never had to adjust. He’s got this approach, and that approach has been damn near unbeatable going on 14 years now. He’s been waiting, and waiting, and waiting some more for pitchers to exploit him, but there is no exploiting Miguel Cabrera, so he just keeps doing what he’s always been doing. Over the last decade, Cabrera’s swing rate’s always been between 46% and 51%. The contact rate’s always between 79% and 83%. The pull rate, always between 35% and 41%. Ground-ball rate, never wavering from the 39% to 42% range. There’s sure to have been little tweaks here and there, but for the most part, Miguel Cabrera’s been adjustment-free more than a decade, and he’s one of the greatest hitters of all time.

Of course, Miguel Cabrera is the exception. Seriously, the exception. Mike Trout‘s had to adjust. Bryce Harper’s had to adjust. Hell, even Clayton Kershaw spends some of his off time looking for another piece. Everyone in baseball is adjusting, constantly, which benefits their own employment status as well as mine.

You know Chris Sale as one of baseball’s very best pitchers. Over the last two-plus years, he’s got baseball’s second-best strikeout-walk differential, third-best FIP, fourth-best ERA, and fifth-best xFIP. He’s no Kershaw, but it’s very simple to make the argument that he’s the next-best guy. But Sale’s not content with the next-best guy. Just like Trout and Harper weren’t content with where they were, Sale wants Kershaw status. I’d guess that Sale, personally, has no doubts he can get there.

And so Sale’s made an adjustment. It’s always tough to tell, especially this early in the season, whether the changes we’re seeing in a player’s process are intentional or moreso a product of their environment. It becomes a lot easier to cipher out when the player comes out and lets us know it’s the former. Chris Sale, the American League’s greatest strikeout artist, made a conscious decision to become a more contact-oriented pitcher, and he’s doing it.

Per CBS Chicago’s Bruce Levine, in March:

In order to micromanage his pitch selection and pitch count, Sale’s working in a new direction with pitching coach Don Cooper. In late January, he met with Cooper to define his pitching methods going forward this year. The two had a meeting of the minds on using more pitches that would create early contact and easier innings to get through.

“Chris has already been pitching to contact,” [starting pitcher John] Danks said. “The reality is his stuff is just to tough to hit. His issue isn’t throwing strikes, he already is trying to make them hit it. He is just that good, you can’t hit him. So that said, the only (thing to) tell him to pitch to contact is to throw it a little easier.”

Throw it a little easier. Sale’s average fastball velocity is down nearly 2 mph from last year, at its lowest point since 2012. Typically a cause for concern, maybe this is just part of the plan. Or maybe it really is a cause for concern.

Pitch to more contact. Sale’s contact rate is up eight percentage points from last year, the single largest increase by any qualified starter from last year to the next. Again: would typically be a cause for concern, but appears to be part of a plan.

Manage the pitch count, so as to work deeper into games. Only Kershaw’s thrown more innings than Sale this year. Prior to 2016, Sale’d managed 6.8 innings per start, this year, that’s up to 7.2. That’s way too small of a sample for there to be much in the way of significance, and that includes a complete-game shutout against the hyper-aggressive Rays, but there’s also eight innings against a patient and threatening Blue Jays lineup. At the very least, we can’t say Sale hasn’t accomplished his goal of working deeper, so far as we’ve seen. He’s certainly done that, and he’s certainly working with a new approach.

The new approach shows up in the way of Sale simply pitching more aggressive, both in the zone, and with his fastball. Sale’s in-zone rate is up five percentage points from last year, the third-largest increase of any qualified pitcher. He’s going with the fastball two-thirds of the time, whereas last year, he went with the fastball just half the time. Then there’s the difference in first-pitch selection, which is remarkable. Last year, half his plate appearances started out with something hard. This year, north of 70% have started with heat. It’s worth noting that his first-pitch strike percentage is down from last year, and unchanged from his career level, but he’s certainly become more aggressive in fresh counts. The fastball usage is up in two-strike counts, as well, and Sale’s less worried about elevating it, and more focused on making sure he doesn’t waste any pitches:

15_2Strike_FB copy

This reminds me of something I wrote a couple years back, because it’s the same approach David Price uses. The thing that caught my eye about the way Price pitched was how many three-pitch strikeouts he racked up, and when I dove in a bit further, I found that the majority of Price’s three-pitch strikeouts went fastball, fastball, fastball. When most pitchers get ahead 0-2, they toy around with some breaking stuff around the zone, and they’re fine if they end up wasting a couple pitches. When Price gets ahead 0-2, he does the same thing that got him to 0-2 in the first place, which is spot a fastball and see if the batter can hit it.

And that comes back to Danks’ quote, about how Sale’s stuff is essentially good enough to miss bats without trying, and it reminds me of the way another guy pitches: Max Scherzer. Scherzer routinely posts one of the highest in-zone fastball rates in the league, because Scherzer doesn’t need to mess around with his fastball. A Scherzer fastball right down the middle is just as effective as plenty of other pitcher’s fastballs spotted on the edges. Even with this new fastball approach, Sale’s got one of the best whiff rates on the pitch of any pitcher in baseball, because it’s the kind of pitch that can be blown past Mike Trout in a 2-0 count, thrown right down the middle:

The elephant in the room here is Sale’s batting average on balls in play, which rests at .207, nearly 100 points below his career norm. His batted-ball distribution hasn’t much changed, a cursory glance of his pitch location doesn’t reveal much, and while his average exit velocity allowed is better than average, it isn’t remarkable, so it’s difficult to see where this sudden hit suppression is coming from. Maybe the new, aggressive approach has hitters uncomfortable. He’s getting more hitters to pull the ball, so maybe that means more grounders into the shift. Or, perhaps most believably, Sale’s benefited from some favorable batted-ball locations.

It’s tough to know how to feel about that, on account of how conditioned we all are to praise the strikeout. Almost always, you’d take the 30% strikeout version of a pitcher over the 20% strikeout version of a pitcher. And then you catch a whiff of the BABIP, and you shriek, “Give me back my old Chris Sale!” At the same time, Sale is very clearly doing an excellent job of executing the approach he and Don Cooper laid out before the season, and it’s difficult to argue against what Don Cooper and Chris Sale think is best for Chris Sale. They’re getting what they asked for.





August used to cover the Indians for MLB and ohio.com, but now he's here and thinks writing these in the third person is weird. So you can reach me on Twitter @AugustFG_ or e-mail at august.fagerstrom@fangraphs.com.

newest oldest most voted
James
Member
James

The beauty of this is, if those batted balls start finding soft spots on the field, Sale can always revert back to his approach from previous years – or at least some incarnation of that – with great success.

Concerned Reader John
Member
Member
Concerned Reader John

Very true, he still has the whole 11 ks per 9 innings thing in his back pocket. The other night I watched him hit an unfortunate Mark Trumbo in the kneecap with a slider. Even more unfortunate for Mr. Trumbo was the fact that he had swung and missed at that slider.

NickyHatton
Member
NickyHatton

Yeah that Trumbo K-pitch was ridiculous. The pitch came in basically on the outer left side of the plate, then broke late so far inside that it actually hit him on his right knee. And Trumbo swung through it for strike 3

MikeS
Member
Member
MikeS

I think that is the plan: Nobody on base, get early, weak contact. Guys on base, get nasty. We’ll see if it works when some guys get on base.