Thursday, August 23, 2012

Young, Talented, and Left-handed

Last night Chris Sale put on an impressive performance.  Facing the American League’s third best team in terms of on-base percentage, Sale allowed only 4 base runners, good for a 0.52 WHIP.  The Yankees not only have the 3rd best OBP in the AL, but they have also scored the 2nd most runs in the American League this season.  Sale allowed one run. 

It’s safe to say that Chris Sale, left-handed starting pitcher for the Chicago White Sox, stopped the freight train that is the Yankees offense for 7 and 2/3 innings.  So, how did he do it? compiles PitchFX data for every pitch thrown.  According to data they have compiled, when facing left-handed hitters, Sale predominantly uses his four-seam fastball.  In all counts, Sale uses his four-seam fastball 52% of the time.  This factoid proves fascinating because most left-handed pitchers, when facing left-handed hitters, utilize breaking pitches like curveballs and sliders far more often than straight fastballs.  They do so because the curvature of breaking pitches can deceive the hitter, when hitting in this case from the left side of the plate, to thinking the pitch might hit them.  So, it’s fascinating that a lefty with such a nasty slider would throw his fastball so often, in all counts, to left-handed hitters. 
The answer show’s its face when we look at different situations.  When Sale is ahead in the count, he uses his slider more than 50% of the time to lefties, but when he is behind in the count, he uses his two-seam and four-seam fastballs.  This demonstrates a common trend amongst talented young pitchers.  Young talents like Sale trust no pitch more than their four-seam fastball and thus utilize it in the most compromising situations, even when facing left-handed hitters who have issues hitting against breaking balls from left-handed pitchers.  Lastly, when facing right-handed batters, Sale uses his changeup, which breaks towards the outside part of the plate making it difficult to hit. 

The Yankees had 4 lefties and 5 righties in their lineup last night.  No matter which side of the batters boxe Yankee hitters positioned themselves; Sale was up to the task, a feat uncommon amongst young pitchers.

 (vs. LHH)

 (vs. RHH)
Another aspect of Sale’s pitching that makes him so dominant is his deception.  Sale derives this deception from his windup. Click HERE to see Sale's dynamic delivery.
As you can see in the above images, Sale’s pitches all come from the far side of the 1st base rubber.  His tall, lean frame becomes compact during his delivery and then explodes towards home plate when he uncoils his legs, all while keeping the ball well hidden from the batter's view.  All of this makes it just a bit more difficult for every hitter, left-handed or right-handed, to win the battle against Sale.  As you can also see from the above pictures, most of Sales pitches to left-handed batters cross the plate either at the middle of the plate or the outside corner.  Righties get a healthy dose of pitches on the outside corner as well, with some sliders crossing on the inner half of the plate. 

Before the 2012 season Sale pitched out of the bullpen.  He did so well, but since joining the rotation, his performance has been steller.  He has posted a 5.4 rWAR, 4.2 fWAR, and a 3.1 WARP so far this season, which is good for top 10 in the AL amongst pitchers.*  He has an 8.8 K/9 rate and a 1.03 WHIP, 2 solid indications that he keeps runners off base.  The White Sox have won 16 of his 23 starts and have only lost 4 starts in which Sale has walked fewer than 3 batters.  10 of his 23 starts have come against opponents with current playoff hopes, and of those 10 starts the White Sox have won 6 games.  The lone knock on Sale has been his inability to guide the White Sox to victories over division rival Detroit, but with only two starts against them this season, we do not have a large enough sample size to make predictions for future performance agains the Tigers. 

While Kenny Williams, the White Sox General Manager, applauds all of Sale’s accomplishments, the most gratifying part to the Chris Sale story is that the southpaw doesn’t become a free agent until the 2017 season.  In 2012 Sale is set to make $500,000, a minute amount of money for his performance.  In fact, according to Fangraphs, Sale has been worth about $18.8 million this season.  At 23 years old, Chris Sale looks to be one of the bright young lefties in baseball, and will most likely compete for the American League Cy Young award in only his first season as a Major League starting pitcher. 

*fWAR comes from; rWAR from; WARP from

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