I’ve already touched on how well both Chicago teams have started off the 2016 season once. The biggest difference what that this was only expected for one of them. The White Sox are massively beating out their performance projections, much to the joy of south siders. While their offensive prowess might be less than stellar, their starting pitching has been fantastic so far this year. Of all their unexpected success through the first 40+ games, nobody is surprised that Chris Sale has been incredible. The first-quarter pick for AL Cy Young (and it’s not close) has pitched his way to a 9-0 start on a 1.58 ERA, .717 WHIP, and 2.73 FIP. Thing is, a lot of the metrics that usually point to pitcher dominance like K/9 are actually lower than they were last year. So, what’s the key this season?
Last year, Sale put in a campaign that earned him 4th place in AL Cy Young voting. He finished 2015 with a 3.41 ERA, 2.73 FIP, and struck out just over 11 batters per nine innings. This year, those are all lower. For the first three, that’s a good thing. The puzzling part is that his K/9 is down to 8.2 in 2016. The real factor seems to be contact; batters might be getting the bat on the ball, but they’re not getting quality touches this year. For one, Sale’s HR/9 rate is at a career-low, 0.7, as is his H/9 at 5.1. He’s also pitching smart, walking batters at the lowest rate he ever has at 1.3 BB/9.
In 2016, batters are averaging a dismal .163 against Sale, along with a .206 OBP and .250 SLG, all career-bests (this has been written already). He’s throwing strikes at a career-average rate, and batters are swinging at less of his throws than ever before. It’s not that he’s getting more looking strikes either, which is probably what you thought next. He’s getting strikes looking at the third-lowest rate of his career, 29.3%. It’s all about contact. Sale is pitching to contact outs more this year, allowing him to lower his pitch counts and push farther into games. It’s not just the contact outs, either. It’s about contact strikes. He’s generating foul balls at the second highest rate of his career, 27.7% (28.0% in 2014) . It’s most likely that this is the biggest factor in his consistency staying ahead in counts this year, despite career-average or worse strike rates. Sale is seeing 3-0 counts at a miniscule rate of 1.2%, a career-low. When he gets ahead in the count is when he gets batters looking. Opposing batters are watching their third strike against Sale at a career-high rate of 37.1%. A huge part of that is reserving his lethal slider for punchouts. Of 312 2-strike pitches he has thrown this season, 115 have been sliders. With a grand total of 228 sliders thrown this season, that means that a hair over 50% of them have been used on a strikeout count (another 66 have been used on 1 strike counts). Sale has attempted exactly zero fastballs [correction: Pitchfx’s category for “fastball” does not account for sinkers/low two-seamers. Sale does use those in about equal measure on 2-strike counts with the slider. It’s more accurate to say he does not strike batters out with standard/straight fastballs] with 2 strikes on the batter this year.
That ability to generate fouls, fielding outs, and save his biting pitches to close out batters, can all be traced back to contact quality. Hitters are putting more balls than ever into play against the lefty at a career-high rate of 27.9%, and it’s the same with contact at 78.5%. They just can’t get a good handle on those balls. Batters are generating the lowest HR/FB rate against Sale ever at 6.0%. Of the fly balls produced, a career-best of them are infield flies (18.0%) for reference, Sale’s pitching created 18 infield flies in 2015. He has 11 so far this season. The White Sox defense isn’t really any better (statistically) than it was last year, but Sale’s making their jobs easier than it has ever been, and it’s leading to wins.
Sale’s lowering of his strikeout rates is allowing him to throw longer, throw smarter, and win more. Contact pitching isn’t as flashy as strikeout dominance, but it can be far more efficient if done well, and Sale has done it dominantly so far. Basically, batters have never been more likely to hit one of his pitches. They’ve also never been less likely to actually reach base.
(Pitching IDs per FanGraphs, other stats per Baseball Reference)