Chris Sale’s One That Got Away

A pitcher, standing on the mound, peers in toward his catcher for a signal. It’s the first pitch of an at-bat. The catcher puts down a couple fingers, and the pitcher shakes him off once. He shakes him off twice. The pair agree on a pitch. The pitcher starts his windup, rears back, and fires. Miss. Ball one. A league-average batter now has a 37% chance of reaching base in this at-bat, just on the pitcher misfiring on his first offering alone. In an alternate universe, where the pitcher throws a strike, the batter’s chances of reaching are reduced to just 26%. Over the course of a full-length season, two identical batters with equal true-talent levels could bat 600 times each, and batter A, who starts out every at-bat with a ball, would reach 66 more times than batter B, who starts out every at-bat with a strike, the seperation being due entirely to the difference in count leverage.

We know count leverage is important, but its omnipresence makes it easy to undersell its magnitude. Someone’s always got the edge. The battle is winning it back. In the same vein, the other side of the battle is not losing it once you have it.

There’s no worse spot for a hitter to be than an 0-2 count. After falling behind 0-2, the league hit just .171 last year, with a .200 on-base percentage. It’s not any easier against Chris Sale. From a batter’s point of view, the words “easy” “against” and “Chris Sale” don’t mix well. Against Sale last year, batters were held to a .155/.169/.243 line after falling behind 0-2. Sale found himself with the advantage of an 0-2 count plenty of times — 231, to be exact. More than a quarter of Sale’s at-bats went directly to an 0-2 count. And from there, things only got worse for the hitter. Of those 231 counts that went straight to 0-2, Sale recorded a strikeout in 132 of them, with exactly one walk.

0-2 Counts Lost to Walks
Player 0-2 Counts Walks BB%
Chris Sale 231 1 0.4%
Julio Teheran 158 1 0.6%
David Price 238 2 0.8%
Cole Hamels 193 2 1.0%
Bartolo Colon 182 2 1.1%
Jason Hammel 161 2 1.2%
John Danks 158 2 1.3%
Danny Salazar 156 2 1.3%
Jimmy Nelson 156 2 1.3%
John Lackey 214 3 1.4%

Only one time last season did Chris Sale lose an 0-2 count to a walk. Julio Teheran lost just one as well, but in 73 fewer at-bats. And, sure, what David Price did is probably every bit as impressive as Sale, except singularity is fascinating. And fascinations are worth exploring.

So there was one that got away. Who was it against, what happened, when did it happen and why?

It’s not too difficult to find the game. Navigate your way to Chris Sale’s player page, head on over to his game log, and sort the walks column. It’s from the game on top there, the one with a “5” in the walks column. You’ll notice that no other game has a “5” in the walks column, or even a “4.” Only a few have a “3.” Chris Sale rarely walks batters, under any circumstance. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Sale was unusually wild during the game in which he let his only 0-2 count get away.

The date was May 6, and, up until that point in the season, Sale actually hadn’t been particularly effective. Sure, he’d only made four starts, but he’d done so with a 5.32 ERA, and in the start immediately preceding the May 6 outing, Sale allowed nine runs in just three innings. In Sale’s next 12 starts, after the May 6 outing, he ran a 1.76 ERA over 92 innings, striking out 131 batters with just 13 walks. If assigning sweeping narratives to isolated events is the kind of thing that tickles your fancy, you might posit that Chris Sale losing an 0-2 count to J.D. Martinez on May 6 was the tipping point; the fuel to the fire for Sale’s historic strikeout streak.

I’ve just answered the next question, the question of who? The batter that drew a walk against Chris Sale after falling behind 0-2 was J.D. Martinez, which maybe shouldn’t come as a surprise, because J.D. Martinez led his league in walks after an 0-2 count this year, with 10. Only Kris Bryant (12) drew more.

Martinez was leading off the sixth inning, with his Tigers leading Sale’s White Sox by a score of 4-3. Martinez had faced Sale twice already that evening, striking out on three pitches in the second inning and working a five-pitch walk in the fourth. Sale’s first pitch to Martinez in the sixth inning was his 93rd of the night.

Sale starts Martinez off with a fastball, as he does about two-thirds of the time when facing a right-handed batter. It’s spotted well, down and away, and Martinez can only foul it off.

Sale comes back with another fastball, and this one misses a bit out over the plate. Martinez takes a massive cut, but again can only foul it back. You’ll notice that each of Sale’s first two fastballs clocked in at just 90 mph, which is an obvious indicator that Sale is off his game; the fastball usually sits between 94-95.

Catcher Tyler Flowers sets up for an elevated fastball, trying to get Martinez to chase, but Sale lets it slip and throws a non-competitive pitch. I wrote last year about David Price’s approach in 0-2 counts, and how he seemingly has no use for the “0-2 waste pitch” you so often hear about. Price finds himself in plenty of 0-2 counts, and rather than trying to get batters to chase waste pitches, he remains in attack mode, racking up more three-pitch strikeouts than anyone. This being Sale’s only 0-2 count-turned-walk suggests Sale subscribes to a similar theory, but in this instance, the wasted pitch on 0-2 was the first stone that slips and causes rockslide.

Sale comes back with a gorgeous slider that Martinez is remarkably able to lay off, evening up the count and putting his matchup against Sale back into a neutral court.

The last two pitches are representative of Sale’s typical two-strike approach, which is far from a revolutionary one, but one that he regularly executes with precision: the fastballs get more elevated, the sliders get more buried:

Sale2StrikeApproach

Sale put the slider right where he wanted, and more often than not, batters will chase and flail at it, ending the at-bat with a strikeout. Martinez rightfully earned himself another pitch.

It’s a circle-changeup, and it didn’t miss by much, but it also never looked like it had much of a chance of generating a swing. Probably, Sale wanted it an inch or two closer to the plate, and he looks a bit miffed when he sees where it winds up.

Martinez has now seen everything that Sale’s got, and he’s worked the count full. With Martinez barely missing against the first two fastballs, and Sale himself missing wildly with the third, he was probably hesitant to risk giving Martinez a fastball he could hit with two strikes. Now, with the count full, he’s not left with much of a choice.

Sale misses with the fastball, just low, and hangs his head in disgust while Martinez proudly takes his base. It’s another fantastic take. A tough take, when it’s likely the fastball he was looking for, and when it passes through a hittable location.

It takes a perfect confluence of events for Chris Sale to lose an 0-2 count to a walk. It takes a particular day when Sale doesn’t have his stuff — whether velocity or command or preferably both — in the midst of an elongated stretch when Sale doesn’t have his stuff. It takes a dangerous hitter at the plate, one with power and a good eye, a combination that leads to plenty more 0-2 counts-turned-walks than the average batter. It takes a rare wild miss by Sale, and a couple of impressive takes by the hitter.

It takes a lot to turn an 0-2 count against Chris Sale into a walk, which is why only one batter achieved the feat in 231 opportunities last year. The key, for a hitter, is to not let Chris Sale get you where he wants you. Odds are, you’re not gonna like the result.

We hoped you liked reading Chris Sale’s One That Got Away by August Fagerstrom!

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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.

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