The historic start of the club residing on Chicago’s north side has obscured some pretty amazing things going on at US Cellular Field, as the White Sox have raced out to the best record in the American League. Hopes weren’t all that high entering the season, with the club’s only spring-training noise emanating from the aftershocks of Drake LaRoche-Gate.
A month-plus in, however, the poor-fielding and weak-hitting Chisox of 2015 are a distant memory. A fine starting staff, led by perennial Cy Young candidate Chris Sale and his wingmen Jose Quintana, Carlos Rodon and Mat Latos, are thrilled to find that most of the batted balls they allow are finding leather this time around.
About those batted balls: much is being made of the fact that Chris Sale is posting the best, small-sample traditional numbers of his career while pitching to much more contact than in the recent past. Today, let’s dig inside the numbers a little bit to see whether Sale is, in fact, new and improved.
“Pitching to contact”: it’s a loaded term. There is a very subtle difference between pitching to contact, and not pitching away from contact. The former is an old-school baseball cliché, with plenty of danger inherent to it. A pitcher with bat-missing stuff only hurts himself if he goes out of his way to pitch to contact. The pitches you save by eschewing the strikeout are more than offset by the additional number of pitches from the stretch caused by the additional base-runners allowed. Early-career Dwight Gooden consciously pitched to contact after his early breakthrough seasons, and was never Dwight Gooden again. (There were other factors, obviously, but I digress.)
That said, pitchers shouldn’t specifically pitch away from contact, either. A pitcher with bat-missing stuff shouldn’t pitch away from the bat; attack the strike zone, and expand it when ahead in the count, and accept the weak contact that comes from such an approach. Pitchers who can miss bats and also have go-to po- up or grounder tendencies have hitters by the tail. If the hitter is fortunate enough to make contact, it quite often will still be of the free, or near free, out variety.
Let’s get back to Chris Sale. He paced the AL in strikeouts per nine innings in both 2014 and 2015, at 10.8 and 11.8, respectively. His traditional ERA marks were very different (2.17 and 3.41) in those two seasons, while his FIPs were very close, at 2.57 and 2.73. Despite the plunge in his K rate thus far in 2016, his FIP remains right in that same range, at 2.75. So, is Sale inducing weaker contact, offsetting the decline in his K rate, and making him a net better pitcher? Let’s go to the granular data, and examine Sale’s plate-appearance frequency and production by BIP type data. First, the frequency info:
One might say, hey, Sale still ranks in the 81st percentile of AL ERA qualifiers in K rate, what’s the big deal? Well, when you have never ranked below the 95th percentile in your first four seasons, it represents a substantial drop. What it does is lessen the margin for error possessed by Sale with regard to contact management.
The very high pop-up rate, in the 90th percentile, is a good sign. While Sale’s pop-up rate has been above average in three of his four previous seasons, his 2016 mark narrowly represents a career high, just above the 86 mark posted in 2015, his best overall season.
The other notable aspect of his frequency profile is his very low liner rate, down in the 16th percentile. Pop-up, fly-ball and grounder rates, not to mention K and BB rates, all correlate quite well from year to year for most pitchers. Not so with liner rates, which are quite random for all but a few elite contact managers. Sale’s liner rate allowed has actually been higher than league average in three of his four completed qualifying seasons, peaking at a percentile rank of 72 last year. Of course, in the other season, 2014, it was way down in the second percentile. Bottom line, we should expect Sale’s liner rate to regress upward as the season unfolds.
All in all, pretty impressive stuff. K rate is high, but not elite, BB rate remains strong, plus a go-to pop-up tendency. To get a better feel for his overall contact-management performance, we need to examine the production by BIP type data, which measures the authority of contact allowed:
|Metric||AVG||OBP||SLG||REL PRD||ADJ PRD||ACT ERA||CALC ERA||FIP||TRU ERA|
The actual production allowed on each BIP type is indicated in the batting average (AVG) and slugging (SLG) columns, and is converted to run values and compared to MLB average in the REL PRD (or Unadjusted Contact Score) column. That figure is then adjusted for context, such as home park, team defense, luck, etc., in the ADJ PRD (or Adjusted Contact Score) column. For the purposes of this exercise, sacrifice hits (SH) and flies (SF) are included as outs and hit by pitchers (HBP) are excluded from the on-base percentage (OBP) calculation.
The most noticeable aspect of this table is the absolutely puny actual production yielded by Sale to date. Unadjusted Contact Scores of 52, 39 and 64 for fly balls, liners and grounders, respectively? An overall Unadjusted Contact Score of 45? Those are insane numbers. The lack of production on liners hit off of Sale is particularly staggering; MLB hitters have produced a .661 AVG and .874 SLG on liners thus far this season, but are have recorded only a .429 AVG and .524 SLG on liners hit off of Sale.
It’s clear that Sale has managed contact quite well this season, but he has benefited from fairly extreme levels of good fortune, as well. Even after adjustment for context, Sale has squeezed fly-ball authority quite well, with an Adjusted Contact Score of 69 on fly balls. Over half of the fly balls he has allowed fall into the “donut hole” between 75-95 mph, where hitters bat around .100.
He hasn’t been nearly as exceptional in managing line-drive and ground-ball contact, however. His Adjusted Contact Score on liners is a solid 90, but that’s nowhere near the outlandish 39 mark that is based on actual performance. Hitters bat over .650 on liners between 75-95 mph, but are batting all of .333 on such liners against Sale.
Similarly, batters are hitting .189 AVG-.189 SLG on grounders against Sale, but adjusted for exit speed/angle, they “should” be hitting .231 AVG-.253 SLG, for a 103 Adjusted Contact Score. Combining all BIP types, Sale’s Adjusted Contact Score leaps from an almost invisible 45 to a still quite excellent 71, which can compete for league honors if maintained over a full season. Bear in mind, however, that this would require Sale maintaining his low liner for the duration, a very unlikely proposition.
Add back the Ks and BBs, and his “tru” ERA is 2.41, well above his ERA but quite a bit below his FIP, which doesn’t give him enough credit for his pop-up tendency and his ability to contain fly-ball authority.
Sale has a track record as an above average, though not elite, contact manager. From 2013 to -15, he posted Adjusted Contact Scores of 98, 76 and 97, respectively. In 2013 and 2015, he was a slightly better than average contact manager despite higher-than-average line-drive rates allowed; in the former season, his pop-up tendency was missing in action, as well. 2014 represented a best-case contact management scenario for Sale, with a minuscule liner rate and a previous career-best pop-up rate driving his success.
In 2015, he was able to overcome the high liner rate by squelching authority of all BIP types. His average overall authority allowed of 85.9 mph was second best in the AL, fractionally behind Dallas Keuchel. He allowed the weakest ground balls (81.4 mph) and second-weakest line drives (90.4 mph) among qualifying AL starters, only to be done-in by the AL-worst team defense. His 2015 “tru” ERA, adjusted for exit speed/angle of all BIP was 2.46, virtually the same as this year’s mark. His 2014 “tru” ERA, with the extremely low liner rate, was 2.17, a career best.
This time around, batters are hitting the ball substantially harder against Sale than they did in 2015. Overall average authority is up to 87.6 mph, with the average grounder authority (86.6 mph), in particular, up sharply.
So is this version of Chris Sale an improved one? I would say no. With a very low liner rate, he’s basically the same guy he was last year. As that liner rate regresses upward, his “tru” ERA will likely rise into the upper twos, unless he can push his K rate upward, back into familiar territory.
Sale is an elite pitcher, my preseason 2016 Cy Young selection, someone to whom I would have given a first-place vote, believe it or not, if I had a 2015 Cy Young ballot. The difference between his Unadjusted (119) and Adjusted (97) Contact Scores obscured how great he was. I don’t believe that he is quite that same guy at present.
He’s still a No. 1, still a bell cow who makes his team the favorite in any game he pitches. He and possibly Jake Arrieta are the only two non-Kershaws capable of performing Kershawian feats. Until that K rate surges, driven by rebounds in his average fastball velocity (down by over a full mph to 92.9 this season), and his swinging-strike rate (down by almost half to a career low 9.8%), we are not seeing peak Chris Sale.