Fantasy Baseball: Can Chris Sale Be Even Better in Boston?
One of the best pitchers in the game, Sale is expected to anchor Boston’s rotation alongside fellow ace David Price and reigning Cy Young winner Rick Porcello. By adding yet another top notch starter, the Red Sox cemented themselves one of the favorites to win the American League.
In terms of fantasy, what can we expect from Sale in 2017, and how does the move to Boston impact his value?
The Season That Was
Looking purely at Sale’s 2016 numbers, some statistics got worse -- ERA, FIP and strikeout-to-walk ratio are a few that stick out -- but he also threw the most innings of his career (226 2/3). The increased volume could partially explain these differences, but by diving deeper, there are two other things which stood out: pitch velocities and hard-hit rate.
Last year there were rumblings about Sale’s fastball velocity declining, but in a May 2016 article on MLB.com, Sale admitted that this was deliberate. "That's probably the biggest part of my change, is not throwing every single pitch as hard as I can every inning, every out. I waste a lot of pitches doing that. ... You can throw 96, but if it's up, they are going to hit it. I'm starting to realize it's more location than it is speed and velocity.”
Sale points out that not throwing 100% every pitch might make him a more effective pitcher. Doing so probably helped him reach that career high in innings pitched, and his slider velocity remained pretty stable. So if this velocity drop was an intentional adjustment and only impacted his fastball, what’s the problem? As the Joker would say, let’s not blow things out of proportion.
But here’s the rub: fastball velocity doesn’t just impact the fastball because the heather often sets up the changeup. If we look at Sale’s changeup velocity over the past five years, it’s actually increased since 2013, even peaking last year at 86.2 miles per hour (MPH). And when compared to his fastball velocity, the difference between the two pitches is very apparent.
|Year||Avg. Fastball Velocity in MPH||Avg. Changeup Velocity in MPH||Difference in MPH|
Now, we would be remiss to ignore Sale’s slider. It’s a devastating pitch he can use to get out of a jam or set up his other pitches. But, as with any pitcher, it’s probably best that he uses it when he wants to as opposed to when he’s forced to. Last season, Sale’s overall slider usage went up to 25% (from 18.5% in 2014 and 19.8% in 2015) as his changeup usage decreased to 19.2% (it was 28% in 2014 and 26% in 2015).
This could be part of his deliberate attempt to minimize throwing hard pitches as noted previously, but mid-80’s changeups aren’t exactly a huge drain on arm strength. It's possible that the changeup was less effective due to that diminished velocity difference in his change and heater, and thus Sale opted to use the slider more. Either way, it’s certainly not a bad pitch to fall back on.
That year-over-year difference is significant, particularly if this plays into why hitters are faring better against Sale's offerings. In fact, this velocity difference for Sale could be reflected in some other numbers, as well.
His hard-hit rate was a career high, shooting up to 31.7% in 2016 after he averaged a 26.4% hard-hit rate from 2013 to 2015. He also had a significant drop in soft-hit rate as it fell to 17% in 2016 after he averaged a 19.8% soft-hit rate from 2013 to 2015. That suggests he was not as deceptive as he was before since batters were making good contact against him, or maybe that's a byproduct of Sale's aforementioned strategy change of not throwing all-out on each pitch.
Outside of Sale himself, his overall fantasy value is aided by the league-leading offense he inherits. Last year, the Red Sox were first in the majors in batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage, which helps explain their league-leading 5.42 runs scored per game.
The White Sox were roughly league average in those same categories and ended up 20th with 4.23 runs per game. In Sale’s starts, the White Sox scored 4.56 runs per game -- a mark that’s above their team average and just slightly above league average (4.48). Of course, the Red Sox won’t have David Ortiz back, but the offense should still be prolific and will likely provide Sale with more run support than he got in Chicago.
|Team||Runs per game||Average||On-base Percentage||Slugging Percentage|
|Boston Red Sox||5.42||.282||.348||.461|
|Chicago White Sox||4.23||.257||.317||.410|
One other factor to consider is Sale’s new home ballpark. Overall, Fenway Park and Guaranteed Rate Field (which is guaranteed to replace Globe Life Park in Arlington as the most corporate, out-of-place ballpark name) are both relatively hitter-friendly.
Basic ballpark factors, per Fangraphs, list Fenway second and Guaranteed Rate Field 12th in terms of hitter friendliness in 2015. If we split these statistics by batted-ball outcome (again, via Fangraphs), Fenway drops to 22nd in homers (probably due to a right field that’s roughly the size of Rhode Island). Conversely, Guaranteed Rate Field came in sixth.
This matters for a few reasons. Sale gave up career-high marks last season in both homers (27) and home runs allowed per nine innings (1.07). In fact, over his career, Sale has given up 74 of his home runs -- or 65% -- at home and only 39 on the road, but his games started have been almost evenly split -- 117 starts at home to 111 on the road. Having his home games in a more pitcher-friendly park as far as home runs are concerned could be just what Sale needs to bring last year's numbers back down.
In terms of the leather behind him, Boston’s team defense, per Baseball-Reference, ranked seventh in defensive efficiency at .695 whereas the White Sox ranked 16th at .687. Maybe that’s not a huge discrepancy, but Sale should benefit from defenders like Dustin Pedroia, Jackie Bradley and Mookie Betts behind him.
Lastly, the White Sox committed 95 errors in 2015, compared to only 75 errors committed by the Red Sox. That should certainly help any pitcher keep his pitch count down and allow for more clean innings.
All things considered, the move east should only steady, if not improve, Chris Sale’s fantasy value.
He’ll likely get better run support than he’s had previously, will pitch in front of a more reliable defense, and the move away from the homer-friendly south side of Chicago helps, as well. It'll be worth watching those pitch velocities early in the season to see if Sale's strategy has changed, because if he goes back to the old Sale -- the one with strikeout rates over 30% in both 2014 and 2015 -- the Red Sox could be looking at back-to-back Cy Young winners.