Where Chris Sale’s Numbers Fell Off a Cliff

There’s no such thing as a bad reason to talk about the best players in baseball. Chris Sale is one of them, and it would make sense to write something about him just because. I mean, who doesn’t like to think about Chris Sale! Bring him up the next time you’re having a conversation with a baseball fan friend. It doesn’t even have to be a conversation about baseball itself. Just bring him up out of nowhere. Provided the other person knows who Chris Sale is, you’ll be able to observe the conversation get happier.

But, wouldn’t you know it, but Sale now is a popular topic. See, the White Sox might finally be ready to sell, and if they are, Sale could go in a blockbuster. As such, there’s additional reason to write about him. You know how good he is. You know his general profile. Weird delivery, workhorse, bit of an edge, favorable contract. Sale has as much value as almost anybody, and his numbers are pretty to look at. I’ve got a fun fact for you, related to those numbers. In one regard, Sale’s last two years have been something of a roller coaster.

This isn’t about his strikeout rate, which dropped from 32% to 26%. At least, not directly. At the start of the year, it was said that Sale was trying to pitch to more contact. That approach seemingly didn’t last very long, but it was there. Anyway, I’m not here to talk about strikeouts. My earlier post today got me thinking about pitch-framing again. Recently, pitch-framing has taken Chris Sale on a ride.

This past season, the White Sox were the worst framing team in baseball. It wasn’t even particularly close, and I wrote about this toward the end of June. It never got a whole lot better from there. When I calculated my strike-zone stat to find expected strikes, I found that Chris Sale got almost 40 fewer strikes this year than expected. On average, that would’ve cost him roughly six runs.

It’s bad enough that a pitcher would’ve been so hurt, but back in 2015, the White Sox were one of the best framing teams in baseball. When the team non-tendered Tyler Flowers, Sale was sufficiently upset that he called his own general manager for an explanation. Sale had loved pitching to Flowers, and he didn’t know why he was going away. Like anyone, Sale knows it’s all business, but he at least had a sense then that, come 2016, he wouldn’t be in such good hands.

And, boy, Sale was on to something. For this part, I’m borrowing numbers from Baseball Prospectus. As part of their DRA statistic, BP adjusts pitcher stats by the quality of their receivers. If you click around, you can find the pitchers who gained the most, and who were hurt the most, by their strike zones. Here are the 10 pitchers who lost the most framing support between the last two seasons:

Biggest Drops in Pitch-Framing Support
Pitcher 2015 Framing 2016 Framing Change (Runs)
Chris Sale 10.7 -6.3 -17.0
Zack Greinke 10.8 -3.5 -14.3
Jose Quintana 6.7 -5.3 -12.0
Carlos Rodon 3.6 -4.3 -7.9
Brandon Finnegan -0.2 -7.8 -7.6
Gerrit Cole 8.0 0.7 -7.3
Hector Santiago 5.8 -1.4 -7.2
Hisashi Iwakuma 1.6 -5.1 -6.7
Ian Kennedy 3.6 -2.7 -6.3
John Danks 5.2 -1.1 -6.3
SOURCE: Baseball Prospectus

We find Sale at -17 runs. It’s the biggest drop for anybody, the equivalent of almost two wins. If you eyeball the table, you notice a definite White Sox theme, and, yeah. Things were bad. Sale felt it the most. In 2015, out of everyone, only Greinke got greater framing support. In 2016, out of everyone, only Finnegan got lesser framing support. Sale went from second-highest to second-lowest, and though overall that might just feel fair, it’s a hell of an abrupt way for circumstances to even out. Sale was helped, and then he was hurt. That’s balance, but it still means that 2016 would’ve been aggravating.

How was Sale’s zone actually different? Here are all his called pitches from 2015:


And here are all his called pitches from 2016:


This should make it easy to compare:

You can see a hint of improvement up top. This past season, Sale actually got a slightly friendlier zone around the belt. In that area, Sale went from a 46% called-strike rate to a 53% called-strike rate. But, there’s the lower part. Sale just got killed around the knees. Two years ago, around the bottom, Sale had a 66% called-strike rate. And, this past season? Just 45%. That’s a massive drop, which would’ve forced Sale to elevate. Some catchers are better at handling high pitches than low ones. Dioner Navarro and Alex Avila made Sale get more into the zone. That, in turn, gave hitters a better chance. At the best of times, Sale is still going to be a nightmare to face, but in his most recent year, he had a lot less flexibility to work with. Flowers and Sale were on the same page, and then all that help disappeared.

Again, that’s kind of just numbers evening out. Sale can’t complain about his 2016 support without acknowledging the help he got before. And this doesn’t even do much to change the mental impression of who Chris Sale is. He’s an ace, and when he’s going, he’s practically unhittable. But as you look at Sale’s statistics, maybe you shouldn’t worry too much about, say, the worse 2016 FIP. Maybe you shouldn’t worry about the drop in strikeouts. Chris Sale himself hasn’t changed very much. The guys receiving him have. Based on the numbers, he’s felt that more than anybody. And if the Braves do, in fact, go on to put a trade together, Sale would probably be happy for the reunion. Pitchers always know who’s good at handling pitchers.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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7 years ago

Certainly not a major revelation, but this article reminds me that FIP is not so independent of fielding after all.