Chris Sale Changes It Up

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Chris Sale made a victorious return from the disabled list on Thursday evening and in the process he tore thorough a decent Yankee lineup as though it was tissue paper. Sale retired 18 of the 19 hitters he faced, while striking out 10 in just 6 innings of work. The lanky lefty tore through the first 17 hitters he faced before allowing a hit, which actually came as a relief to skipper Robin Ventura, because the manager was prepared to make the unpopular, but intelligent, decision to remove his ace during a perfect game. In short, Sale looked like he hadn’t skipped a beat. This was the dominance White Sox fans have come to recognize in their ace over the past couple of seasons, but the reality is this isn’t the same Chris Sale. This 2014 version has turned into something more.

When Chris Sale made his Major League debut as a reliever back in 2010, he was primarily known as a two-pitch pitcher who relied heavily on an excellent fastball-slider combo. During his first season as a reliever Sale went to his bread and butter pitches nearly 93% of the time, while opting for his sinker once in a blue moon and his change maybe twice. By year two he was mixing and matching that sinker and change-up a little more, but he was still primarily thought of as a guy who did a majority of work with his two most effective pitches. With a fastball that hums around 96 mph and a slider that is as filthy as anything Randy Johnson ever threw, it’s not surprising that Sale was able to have success with just two pitches out of the bullpen. But with a move to the rotation imminent, something would have to change in order for success to continue.

And while the two-pitch trend would stay strong in 2012 as Sale moved up to the top of Chicago’s starting rotation, the winds of change were blowing. He began to use his fastball-slider combo 63% of the time while upping his sinker and change-up usage to 22% and 15% respectively. And while the sinker ultimately proved to be Sale’s most hittable pitch (opponent’s hit .355 against it in 2012), the change-up was a revelation. In 124 at bats against the change, Sale managed to strike out 25 hitters while allowing just 6 extra-base hits, and the pitch’s overall effectiveness made it good for a .186 batting average against. With the addition of a third devastating pitch, Sale was able to throw 192 mostly excellent innings while earning an All-Star appearance and a 6th place finish in the Cy Young vote.

With the proof now in the pudding, Sale was able to become more emboldened in his change-up use during the 2013 season. He tweaked his pitch breakdown a bit, adding more change-ups to the detriment of the sinker while upping his slider usage a couple of ticks as well. The left-hander was met with another All-Star birth and Cy Young consideration once again.

Sale appears to have taken those adjustments to a new extreme this year. The change-up has now become a featured pitch and Sale is throwing his equalizer on nearly a third of his pitches while heavily downplaying the slider. After throwing the slider about 30% of the time for the majority of his career, that number’s now down to 19% and dropping. Sale’s basically replaced 10 sliders a game with change-ups and he’s actually gotten better for it, which sounds bizarre because his slider annually ranks as one of baseball’s very best.

And while he’s using the change-up more overall, the real significant increase in the pitch’s use has come against right-handed hitters in particular. He’s throwing the change as often as his vaunted 95 mph heater and those righties haven’t been able to do a damn thing against it. Against the Yankees, Sale turned to the change-up 23 times total and 22 of those offerings were to right-handers. He generated 7 whiffs off of those pitches and was able to generate 3 strikeout swings off of the change as well. The Yankees’ inability to do anything whatsoever against the change-up mirrors the how the rest of baseball has done as well. Thus far, opponent’s are hitting just .150 in 40 at bats with 10 strikeouts against it and Fangraphs has it ranked as the 13th most valuable change-up in all of baseball despite the fact that Sale is 4 or 5 starts behind the rest of his peers.

What Sale has really been able to do is develop yet another effective strikeout pitch, which just seems unfair to hitters. They already had enough to worry about thanks to a blazing fastball and a sweeping slider that might generate a swing and hit a right-hander’s back toe all at the same time. With a Bugs Bunny-type change now fully incorporated into Sale’s repertoire, look for more potential no-nos and perfectos to be on the way.

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