The Three Pitches That Matter for Chris Sale

Chris Sale, one of just two legitimate candidates for the American League’s Cy Young Award, will start for the Red Sox this afternoon against the Astros in Houston. Sale has produced a season nearly unprecedented in certain important ways. The Astros’ offense has produced a season nearly unprecedented in certain important ways. The former isn’t an unstoppable force, nor the latter an immovable object, mostly because humans are irretrievably fallible. Relative to other mortals, however, both parties acquit themselves very well.

Unsurprisingly, Houston manager A.J. Hinch has deployed a righty-heavy lineup against Sale. Only Brian McCann and Josh Reddick will lack the platoon advantage against Boston’s starter. Over the course of his career, Sale has conceded a wOBA nearly 50 points greater to right-handed batters than left-handed ones. But that’s mostly because he’s rendered left-handers existentially moot. Righties have still hit poorly against him, producing a collective batting line roughly equivalent to Yolmer Sanchez’s own career mark.

So it’s clear that Sale has had success against right-handers. How, though? What specifically does he throw? The answer is likely relevant to his start against the Astros.

First, let’s look at some numbers care of Brooks Baseball:

Chris Sale Pitch Mix vs. RHB, 2017
Pitch Type # % Whiff# Whiff%
Four-Seam 1088 37.1% 183 16.8%
Slider 928 31.6% 160 17.2%
Change 539 18.4% 114 21.2%
Sinker 381 13.0% 28 7.4%
Total 2936 100.0% 485 16.5%
SOURCE: Brooks Baseball

The data here represents every pitch thrown by Chris Sale to a right-handed batter this season, and already some notable features emerge. Like: Sale’s fastball accounts for a plurality (but not a majority) of his offerings to righties this year. And also like: Sale relies on his slider pretty heavily even in those situations when he concedes the platoon advantage.

Of course, Sale isn’t just throwing these pitches haphazardly around the zone. A pitcher with his track record necessarily complements his physical advantages with excellent command. What I’d like to do here is illustrate how Sale has been so effective by examining more closely the three pitches with which he’s succeeded against righties: the high four-seamer, the low slider, and the low and outside changeup. More probably than not, Sale’s ability to execute these pitches will determine his success against the Astros.

The High Four-Seamer

Sale’s four-seamer has accounted for more swings and misses against right-handers this year than any of his other three pitches. That’s due, in part, to volume: Sale has also thrown the pitch more often to right-handers than his other three pitches. But his roughly 17% swinging-strike rate on the four-seamer is also remarkable. Consider, for example, that the swinging-strike rate among all starters this season was almost half that — a figure that includes all manner of breaking pitches, too.

Where does Sale get his swings and misses with the four-seamer? The data suggest it’s not random:

That’s a chart, from the catcher’s perspective, featuring all of Sale’s four-seamer whiffs against right-handers. What’s immediately clear is the importance for Sale of that area just at the top of the zone, from the middle to the outside. That’s been the most productive location for him this season.

Here’s an example of that pitch from Sale’s last start of the season, in this case against Justin Smoak:

The Low Slider

Because of it’s horizontal movement, the slider is typically a pitch that features a considerable platoon split. This hasn’t been the case for Sale, however: while the pitch has been effective against left-handers (14.2% whiff rate), Sale has actually recorded a higher swinging-strike figure against right-handed batters (17.2%). Nor is this a result of Sale having used the pitch sparingly against opposite-handed batters: as noted above, the slider accounts for roughly a third of all Sale’s pitches to righties.

Where the fastball has been most effective at the top of the zone and outside, the slider is the opposite, inducing swings low and (generally) inside:

This example featuring a demoralized Teoscar Hernandez illustrates the most effective version of the pitch:

The Low and Outside Changeup

None of the pitches documented here are particularly innovative. Fastballs across the league are more likely to induce swings and misses when thrown up in the zone. Same thing with low sliders. Nor does Sale’s use of the changeup represent an exception.


The natural depth and fade of a changeup carry that pitch away from an opposite-handed batters. Unsurprisingly, it’s most effective when located low and away. (Eno Sarris noted yesterday Zack Greinke’s brief experiment with changeups to same-handed batters and the dangers therein.)

Here it is traveling low and away from Kevin Pillar:

What’s exceptional, perhaps — more than the pitch types documented here — is simply Sale’s command of the them. “Command” isn’t an absolute quality that one can possess. It’s a question of degree. The average major-league pitcher hits his intended spot X% of the time. Sale hits it Y%, where Y equals a figure greater than X.

In Woody Allen’s 1975 film Love and Death, a sergeant characterizes the challenge for Russia following Napoleon’s invasion of that country. He says, “If they kill more Russians, they win. If we kill more Frenchmen, we win.” This is essentially what will decide Sale’s effectiveness today against Houston. If he’s able to locate the three pitches examined here, the Red Sox are more likely to win; if not, then the Astros are probably favorites.

Carson Cistulli has published a book of aphorisms called Spirited Ejaculations of a New Enthusiast.

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6 years ago

Nice piece. Looking forward to keeping an eye out for it in an hour!