Chicago White Sox starter Chris Sale shares the major league lead in wins with 14, but he’s gotten there with a revamped game plan compared with past seasons. He’s gone from a strikeout pitcher to a contact one, which allows him to go deeper into games.
Case in point: Monday night, when he threw eight highly efficient, scoreless, one-hit innings in a no-decision against the Mariners. He had an apparently sure win snatched away when the Mariners rallied for four runs in the ninth against David Robertson.
It was the second time in Sale’s career that he allowed one or no hits in eight innings or more. He threw a one-hit shutout against the Angels in 2013.
On Saturday, he faces a Tigers team that hits ground balls on 43 percent of balls in play, the second-lowest total in the American League, which should challenge Sale's new road map.
Early-career strikeout king
Sale’s 900 strikeouts from 2012 to 2015 were the most in the AL. In that span, his 28 percent strikeout rate trailed only that of Max Scherzer and Clayton Kershaw (29 percent each), among those who made at least 100 starts in the majors in that time.
This season, Sale’s strikeout rate is 24.5 percent, which ranks 22nd among 97 qualified starters.
Sale hasn’t reached double figures in strikeouts in any of his 19 starts this season. Last year, he had 10 double-digit strikeout games in his first 19 starts, including each of six starts in June.
He has averaged seven innings per start this season (6.7 last season) on practically the same pitches per start (106 in 2016 to 107 last season).
The White Sox have won 14 of Sale’s starts so far this season. They won 16 of his starts in 2015.
It’s not as if he’s lost the ability to get outs
Sale’s contact rate is 76 percent this season, compared to 72 percent over his first four years as a starter.
But the increased contact is translating into outs. The 74 percent out rate on balls in play is by far his highest since he became a starter in 2012.
The pitch-to-contact strategy works only if a pitcher can rely on the defense behind him. The White Sox don’t lead the league in any defensive categories, but they’ve been good for Sale. On Monday, Melky Cabrera aided Sale’s cause with a couple of nifty catches in left field.
The White Sox have five defensive runs saved in games pitched by Sale this season, the second-highest total in support of any pitcher on the team. The Sox have a 74 percent out rate on ground balls and bunts. For the White Sox's other starters, they have a 70 percent out rate on grounders and bunts.
A different arsenal
Sale has taken a different approach to how he pitches. He’s thrown 60 percent fastballs this season, compared with 53 percent from 2012 to 2015. Those pitches have been slower, as he says, to avoid fatigue. His average fastball velocity is 92.9 mph, his slowest since his first full season as a starter in 2012 (91.7 mph).
Sale is also attacking early in the count, throwing fastballs at a 68 percent rate (58 percent from 2012 to 2015). He’s trying to induce contact with two strikes, instead of going for the strikeout; he’s throwing the fastball 52 percent of the time in those counts, compared with 45 percent over the previous four seasons.