Chris Sale Has Made Himself Worse But Is Still a Worthy MLB All-Star Game Starter
There aren't many MLB pitchers who can straight blow dudes away at will. Even fewer of those pitchers are starters.
This means that when a pitcher falls from those ranks -- be it because of age, injury, loss of confidence or anything else -- it's a sad event. Losing one more exciting arm over which we can gawk every fifth day just kinda sucks.
But when the person intentionally removes themselves from the ranks of the elite? That's downright depressing. And that's what we've seen from Chris Sale this year.
Sale said over the offseason that he wanted to change his approach to get fewer strikeouts in order to pitch deeper into games. In theory, his thought process makes sense as getting a strikeout requires at least three pitches while a ground out doesn't. In practice, though, it's hard to duplicate the value of a strikeout, making it seem as if Sale is making himself worse.
Yet, despite all of this, the Chicago White Sox's ace will still start Tuesday's All-Star game for the American League.
MLB All-Star Game starters:
· AL: Chris Sale
· NL: Johnny Cueto pic.twitter.com/KmG7sdZFgV
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) July 11, 2016
The most incredible part of that statement is that it's not as if Sale doesn't deserve the honor. He has still been effective overall, and he's still one of the top pitchers in the entire league. He's so good that he can intentionally make himself worse and remain in the top tier of starters.
Let's try to better understand what has been a confusing season for Sale by looking deeper into his peripheral numbers this year. Then, we'll put him up against the other eligible starters to show why -- even with his step back -- Sale is a worthy selection to lead the A.L. All-Stars.
Declines Across the Board
The anecdotal value of the strikeout is immense. When you strike a batter out, you aren't subject to the randomness associated with a ball in play. Even a weak ground ball can bleed through for a base hit, but that's not going to happen when you notch that third strike.
A look at Sale's peripherals can illustrate this. The table below compares what he did last year with his marks from his first 18 starts this year. Skill-interactive ERA (SIERA) is an ERA predictor that factors in strikeouts, walks and batted-ball stats to give a park-, defense- and luck-neutral mark to illustrate a pitcher's true talent level.
As you can see, Sale's SIERA is a full run higher than it was last year. Yet, his ERA is down a tiny bit. Why would that be? The two most obvious answers are factors that are outside of his control: defense and luck.
The White Sox's defense had a bit of a hitch in its giddyup last year, ranking 26th in Ultimate Zone Rating per 150 innings (UZR/150). This year, things have been a whole lot tastier as they sit 12th in UZR/150 at the All-Star break. That's going to help a whole lot in the ERA department as it should allow the pitchers hold a lower batting average on balls in play (BABIP). That has been true for Sale, but even the better defense can't account for the drastic shifts he has seen there.
Last year, batters had a .323 BABIP against Sale. This year, it has shot all the way down to .267. Outside of the defense, the next possible explanation for such a dip in BABIP would be a change in batted-ball stats. If the pitcher were suddenly inducing more weak contact, it would make sense that BABIP would be more friendly to him.
|Season||Soft-Hit Rate||Medium-Hit Rate||Hard-Hit Rate|
Not only is Sale getting fewer strikeouts, but he's also allowing more hard contact, and his walk rate has increased to 5.2% from 4.9%. He's worse in every relevant category, meaning there is no way on Earth his ERA should be better than it was in 2015. Luck and defense combined to make Sale struggle last year, and they've swung in the opposite direction in 2016, making it seem as if his new approach is successful. It's not, and it'll eventually catch up to him.
As mentioned at the top, though, this isn't intended to say that Sale is suddenly an awful pitcher. Rather, it's an appreciation of a guy who -- even after making himself worse -- is still one of the game's best, and that guy is deserving of starting the All-Star game.
Why Sale is Worthy
There are six total pitchers on the American League roster who are eligible to start tonight's All-Star game once we take out Marco Estrada and Danny Salazar with injuries. And given the competition, picking Sale as the starter is fully justifiable.
The table below compares the six eligible starters head to head. "fWAR" is Wins Above Replacement based on FanGraphs' formula as an attempt to quantify a pitcher's overall value.
Sale is second in SIERA, second in strikeout rate and third in fWAR. You could make an easy argument that Corey Kluber is more deserving of the start, but he was an injury addition to the roster, and his gap over Sale in those categories isn't too large. The only area in which Sale lags is -- ironically -- ERA, the same thing that partially caused him to change his approach in the first place.
Just take a second to grasp what all of this says about how good of a starter Sale is. Even though he has intentionally made himself into a lesser pitcher, you could still make an argument that he's the best starter in the American League. Can you imagine what he'd be doing with this year's improved defense and luck had he kept up his high-strikeout ways?
The thought process Sale used in deciding to rack up fewer strikeouts is a little frustrating because it removes a bit of the luster from one of the league's best starters. However, that frustration subsides when you see just how good he still is, and based on what he has done this year, it seems as if he is still deserving of another crack at lighting the torch on the mid-summer classic.