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Chris Sale has once again dominated

Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been a while since we’ve seen Chris Sale sound like an ace – or at least it was, until recently. For the first time in more than half a decade, the 35-year-old lefty is dominating the regular season hitters. On Monday night in Atlanta, Sale made his third straight start, shutting out the Padres for seven innings while striking out nine, and helping the Braves snap a four-game losing streak.

Sale allowed just five hits, didn’t walk a single hit, and hit three balls just twice (he retired both batters). Only in the fourth, when Donovan Solano and Ha-Seong Kim hit back-to-back singles, did the Padres put two men on base against Sale. Solano took third from Kim, and Kim stole second, but Sale escaped the jam by getting José Azocar to fly out. San Diego mustered just five fastballs, combined into two singles — a 95.9-mph single in the first inning by Jurickson Profar, and a 108.2-mph scorcher in the second inning by Manny Machado — and groundouts. two and a fly. outside. The last of those, a spectacular 104.9-mph drive to left center by Kyle Higashioka, would be a home run in 28 of 30 major league parks according to Statcast, but at Truist Park it was a standard warning track that would fly out to left. football player Adam Duvall.

In that span, Sale produced 18 whiffs, seven each with his four seamers and his slider, and four with his changeup. He averaged a 35% strikeout and walk rate, and had the Padres chase 37% of his pitches out of the zone, matching his season high, which is also his Statcast season high. All but one of his hits came from social media, most of them on the outer fringes; six of them were swings (three sliders, two fastballs, one changeup) and two were foul shots, and one was a swinging strike on the upper boundary:

Sale defeated Fernando Tatis Jr. three times, and Cronenworth and Solano twice each. He worked hard.

He now has 20 consecutive scoreless innings, which I’d say — Baseball Reference’s Stathead isn’t designed to count inning-by-inning — is the fourth-longest streak of his career. His longest hitting streak was 35 innings from July 6 to September 21, 2018, a timeline that was punctuated by the All-Star break and two trips to the injured list due to shoulder inflammation. He also had a streak of 28 innings (May 6-June 2, 2013) while with the White Sox, and one of 21.2 innings (July 6-26, 2017) in his first season with the Red Sox.

The scoreless streak is part of a long hitting streak that began with a seven-inning, two-hit, one-hit start against the Guardians on April 26. In that start, Sale put up numbers that matched last season, when he made 20 starts for the first time since in 2019, his final season before Tommy John surgery.

Run of Dominance by Chris Sale

Separate GS IP H BB% K% HR/9 The ERA FIP
March 31-April 19 4 24.2 20 6.1% 27.6% 1.09 4.38 3.40
April 26–May 20 5 32.0 21 1.6% 35.0% 0.28 0.56 1.06

After crushing the Guardians, Sale held the Mariners to one run in five innings while striking out nine at Seattle on May 1; then he returned to Atlanta, shut out the Red Sox for six innings while striking out 10 on May 8, and shut out the Cubs for seven innings with two hits and nine strikeouts on May 14. The strike appeared to be a tribute to injured teammate Spencer Strider.

Indeed, Sale has now struck out nine or more batters in four straight starts, his longest streak from May 31–June 15, 2019. He now leads the NL in strikeout differential (28.1%) and WAR (1.9 , tied with Shota Imanaga and Zack Wheeler) while ranking second in FIP (2.23), xERA (2.52) and both strikeout and walk rate (31.7% and 3.6%, respectively), and fifth in ERA (2.22). If the NL Cy Young voting were today, he’d be in the picture, though Imanaga’s 0.84 ERA might carry the day.

When the Braves traded on December 30, they could only dream of getting a version of the pitcher who received Cy Young votes and made All-Star teams every year from 2012-18. Instead, their hope was that he would at least be more reliable than the one who spent more time than not on the shelf from ’20-23 when he was just 31 because of Tommy John surgery, a stress fracture of both ribs and a fracture. scapula, and a fracture to his left and right wrist to boot. Their investment wasn’t a huge gamble, but it was a gamble nonetheless. Despite taking $17 million from the Red Sox, they sent outfielder Vaughn Grissom – still in six years of club control – to Boston, and reworked Sale’s remaining $27.5 million guarantee in ’24 to a two-year, $38 million extension. containing an $18 million club option in ’26.

With Strider out for the season due to internal ligament surgery to repair his damaged UCL, Max Fried taking a while to return to his front-rotation form, and the fifth star becoming a revolving door of ineffective play, Sale’s resurgence has been. a godsend for the Braves. That said, it might not be the most unexpected reign in the team’s rotation given Reynaldo López’s 1.54 ERA in 46.2 innings, though he has a 4.02 FIP.

Better health apparently contributed to Sale’s comeback, in part because it regained some of its lost momentum. From 2019-23, his four-seam fastball averaged 93.7 mph, down from a career-high 95.2 in ’18; this year, he’s up to 94.7 mph. Hitters have produced better results in contact with the pitch than in ’19 or ’23 (to say nothing of ’18), but he’s throwing it less than his slider for the first time since ’19 (38.1% vs. 40.7% , last career high) :

The slider and auction change were more effective, compensating for the aforementioned improved results compared to four seamers. I’ve crunched the usage stats for his sub-sample of 2021 (nine starts, 42.2 innings) and ’22 (two starts, 5.2 innings). For the results, I focus on comparing ’18 (dominant) and ’23 (active) and ’24 (also outstanding):

Chris Sale Results by Pitch

The season Voice % Velo PA AVG xBA SLG xSLG WOB xOBA EV Whiff%
2018 The Four-Seam 39.0 95.2 262 .179 .184 .321 .359 .243 .263 86.8 29.6
2023 The Four-Seam 43.2 93.9 168 .252 .235 .437 .434 .330 .322 90.5 23.4
2024 The Four-Seam 38.1 94.6 65 .283 .267 .450 .438 .349 .332 91.9 26.5
2018 The Sinker 9.5 93.2 46 .429 .308 .690 .546 .495 .394 84.7 22.4
2023 The Sinker 6.2 93.3 36 .267 .203 .500 .360 .367 .320 87.5 16.7
2024 The Sinker 8.0 93.7 22 .286 .334 .476 .489 .347 .370 89.3 9.7
2018 Slide 34.5 79.7 223 .113 .102 .152 .154 .161 .159 83.7 44.4
2023 Slide 37.5 77.8 163 .162 .159 .358 .310 .256 .249 85.8 38.9
2024 Slide 40.7 78.2 104 .141 .143 .162 .201 .157 .170 78.5 40.8
2018 Change 17.0 87.0 86 .228 .204 .329 .261 .275 .245 82.9 38.5
2023 Change 13.1 86.1 57 .309 .287 .473 .435 .332 .316 82.2 32.2
2024 Change 13.2 86.8 30 .143 .231 .179 .402 .178 .296 83.7 28.1

SOURCE: Baseball Savant

Sale’s slider — he has never, in 14 seasons, allowed a batting average higher than .197 or a wOBA higher than .267 in a full season — has been as effective as it has been in 2018. His change never happened. this is valid from that season, although this year’s sample size is not as large. (He threw it a lot while with the White Sox.) He throws his slider 48.2% of the time against lefties (0.3 points off last year’s career high), compared to 36.6% against a four-seamer, and it helps. held hitters to a .223 wOBA (.149/.200/.298), down from .331 (.245/.309/.469) last year. Meanwhile, while throwing four-seamers and a slider 38.5% of the time to righties, he held them to a .239 wOBA (.211 / .253 / .273), down from .302 (.224 / .290 /.409) last year, and, in fact, his lowest mark since his 2010 rookie season.

As for what’s fueling this recent run, it has to do with the increased use of his changeup (and sinker) relative to earlier this season:

That said, I don’t think that’s a complete explanation if we use his April 26 start as a turning point, as his usage rates have fluctuated by a few points (42.4% to 39.1% on the slider, 39.2) % to 37.2% on the fastball, 11.1% to 14.8% for change, 7% to 8.7% for sink). Even if I cut that heavy four-seam start, his percentage is only a few points off. I think it mostly comes down to better command of his slider. And using April 26 as a dividing line, compare the Sales percentage of slides and results over the heart of the plate compared to the shadows and chase areas:

Chris Sale Slider Results by Attack Zone

Separate Location % PA AVG xBA SLG xSLG WOB xOBA Whiff%
Until April 25 The heart 15.4 14 .143 .255 .214 .477 .155 .307 31.4
As of April 26 The heart 10.3 16 .125 .187 .125 .287 .112 .204 21.4
Until April 25 Shadow + Chase 22.2 27 .231 .183 .231 .202 .225 .190 36.2
As of April 26 Shadow + Chase 24.9 40 .103 .073 .128 .087 .116 .085 53.0

SOURCE: Baseball Savant

Sale threw a few more hitable sliders, and most of them on the edges, and hitters couldn’t handle them at all.

That may not be all that’s driving Sale’s return to ace form, but his slider has been his signature pitch throughout his career, and is currently tied for second (via Tanner Houck’s contribution) in Statcast run value (runs of 10) after that only Managa (13 runs). This season still has a long way to go, and Sale’s struggles to stay healthy are still huge, but right now, he is back in top form, and that is very impressive.

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