The Year of the Pitcher Part III is in full effect, despite the surprising home run totals this season. Chris Sale is among the young leaders of the movement, posting a 2.59 ERA (3.00 FIP) since his major-league debut in 2010.
While he dominated in a bullpen role his first two seasons, his first full year as a starter has been downright ridiculous. In 138.2 innings, Sale leads all pitchers not named Justin Verlander or Felix Hernandez in WAR with a mark of +4.1. His 2.60 ERA and 2.98 FIP each rank seventh among qualified starters. Sale’s strikeout rate (8.57), walk rate (2.01) and WHIP (1.02) are ace-like, and he’s allowed two runs or less in 14 or his 20 starts.
At the age of 23, Sale has been better than Felix Hernandez, Jim Abbott, John Smoltz or Pedro Martinez were at the same age. In fact, since 1990, only four pitchers (Clayton Kershaw in ’11, Mark Prior in ’03, Madison Bumgarner in ’11 and Stephen Strasburg this season) have posted a better FIP than Sale’s current mark of 2.98 at age 23 or younger.
Yahoo!’s Brandon Funston ranked Sale in the top 60 on his big board last month, and for good reason. It’s easy to get wrapped up in a young pitcher’s potential, but we shouldn’t ignore the red flags. And, yes, Sale has shown a few.
Sale has induced grounders at a rate of 44.7 percent this season. That’s good, but not great. His line drive rate is 22.3 percent, an above-average mark, and one that doesn’t fit with his .271 BABIP.
The left-hander has nasty stuff, there’s no denying that. And while his 2.01 walk rate has helped Sale minimize mistakes, his 58.4 percent first-strike rate suggests that won’t hold up.
And then there’s his pitch selection. Sale averaged 96.3 and 95.3 mph on his fastball as a relief pitcher in 2010 and 2011. His average velocity, as you’d expect, has dropped to 92.2 mph in a starter’s role this season. There’s nothing wrong with that. His slider usage, however, is troubling.
If you haven’t watched Sale pitch yet, check out the highlights from yesterday’s start. I’m no pitching coach, but that delivery is…yuck.
Put all these warnings aside and there’s still this: A regression is coming. Since 2010, only four pitchers with at least 500 innings (Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Clayton Kershaw and Justin Verlander) have a FIP under 3.00. And just because a pitcher’s FIP agrees with his ERA doesn’t necessarily mean he’s legit. For example:
- Dontrelle Willis in 2005: 2.63 ERA, 2.99 FIP. Career: 4.17 ERA, 4.22 FIP
- Charles Nagy in 1992: 2.96 ERA, 2.71 FIP. Career: 4.51 ERA, 4.19 FIP
- Ramon Martinez in 1990: 2.92 ERA, 3.03 FIP. Career: 3.67 ERA, 4.01 FIP
- Jose Rijo in 1988: 2.39 ERA, 2.58 FIP. Career: 3.24 ERA, 3.28 FIP
Now, don’t get it twisted, Chris Sale is very good. But he’s not this good. If you own him in a keeper or dynasty, now would be a great time to maximize Sale’s value. He’s a 23-year-old left-hander with a 2.59 ERA in 233 career big-league innings. There’s a lot to like, so he’ll surely draw a hefty return.
But can his numbers get any better? Maybe he’ll get better as a pitcher, but does anyone honestly expect a sub-2.50 ERA next season? How about a walk rate under two? Me neither.
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