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Chris Sale looks better than expected, in 2017 and beyond

Chris Sale’s return to high-strikeout form is a good sign, both for his performance this year and for his performance in the later years of his contract with the Red Sox.

Tampa Bay Rays v Boston Red Sox

A fun thing to do at this point in the year is to pull up the projections of player performance from before the season started, and compare them to the updated projections that take into account these first few weeks of performance. When trying to determine whose early performance has been meaningful and who has simply been the subject of good or bad luck, one method is to see which of those performances have changed a player’s future projections and which ones have left it unmoved. Projections aren’t everything, but in the aggregate, they’re pretty good at this kind of thing.

If we do that today, and compare the projected FIP of each pitcher from just before the season started to the projected FIP after 15ish games of baseball, a few familiar names crop up. The biggest movers tend to be players who weren’t projected to be very good at all, since it’s much easier to improve a projection from horrendous to bad than to improve a projection from bad to good, or good to excellent. That’s why Reds minor league reliever Ariel Hernandez leads the list of improvers; while his 2017 has been fine, I guess (7 innings pitched with 12 strikeouts and four walks at Double-A), his shift has been so large mostly because he started the year with a godawful FIP projection of 5.96.

Most of the big movers follow Hernandez’s lead, and weren’t projected to provide any real value to their teams this season. The biggest change from a player projected for 1.0 WAR or more — that is, the biggest change from a regular major-leaguer and not a fringe player occupying the 24th or 25th spot on a roster — comes from Jason Vargas, who’s gone from a mediocre-but-useful 4.37 FIP to a solid 3.89 FIP.

But still, while that’s impressive, Vargas was never a key piece of the Royals roster. Improvements from bullpen guys or back-end starters are nice, but the most impactful leaps come from players who make the jump from very good to great. If we limit the list to players worth 3.0 WAR or more, almost all of the big improvers fall away, as its very difficult for a player who is already that good to elevate their game. One player has, however. The biggest improvement from a key pitcher has come from the starter whose picture is at the top of this article: Chris Sale.

Before the season started, Sale was projected for a 3.17 FIP, an excellent mark that placed him sixth among starters projected for at least 120 innings. After his first four starts — four starts in which he has absolutely dominated, throwing 29 23 innings with 42 strikeouts, 6 walks, 1 home run, and 3 runs — his projected FIP has fallen to a 2.95, moving him up to fourth on that list of pitchers. (He now trails only Clayton Kershaw, Noah Syndergaard, and Stephen Strasburg. Good company!) That gain, of 0.22 points of FIP, might not seem like a big difference. But Sale has gone from being projected for 5.5 WAR over the course of the entire season to 7.0 WAR, an enormous shift.

The reasons for the jump are actually somewhat obvious, insofar as anything about pitching can be obvious. As my colleague Steven Martano covered last week, and as Ben Lindbergh wrote about at the Ringer on Monday, Chris Sale made the curious decision last season to intentionally take some velocity off his fastball, hoping to save his arm and go deeper into games. It worked in one sense, in that Sale was healthy all season long and hit a career-high in innings pitched, but his 3.46 FIP was the worst mark of his career by a sizable margin.

The projections, of course, didn’t know that Sale’s velocity was not disappearing, and was just being saved for use at a later date. Indeed, those of us on the outside of Sale’s mind didn’t know that either, or not for sure; it seemed possible or even probable that Sale was actually trying to cover up for normal, age-related loss of velocity and decline with his talk of “strategy.”

Obviously, it’s good news for the Red Sox that Sale’s 2017 is looking likely to be better than expected. But Sale is signed for two more seasons after this one as well, and by performing surprisingly well in his age-28 season, he’s shifted the curve of expected outcomes upward for each of the next three seasons.

Pitchers lose velocity pretty much continuously over the course of their career, but the decline begins to accelerate around age-28. A standard aging curve therefore pegs pitchers for a drop of 0.5 WAR per season once they cross age 28. (Of course, most players don’t follow that curve perfectly, and many depart from it entirely, but its accurate in the aggregate, and serves our purposes well for a back-of-the-envelope calculation like this one.)

If Sale’s age-28 season ended up at 5.5 WAR, as projected before the season began, then he’d be projected for a few very good years with the Red Sox, departing after his age-30 season with a total of 15 WAR accumulated in Boston. But if Sale’s age-28 season ends up at 7.0 WAR instead, and he goes through aging on the same scale, he’ll depart with a total of 19.5 WAR from those three seasons, an enormous difference.

Chicago White Sox Photo Day Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

One way to evaluate a player and their contract is through the lens of dollars-per-WAR, which asks (duh) how much money a team is paying for a given level of performance. That can then be compared to how much the team would have had to pay for that kind of performance on the free agent market, yielding a measure of surplus value for a certain player and contract. It’s not the end-all, be-all, and there are a lot of problems with using this method in certain contexts, but when evaluating a trade, it’s a useful way of conveying roughly how much player value went from one team to another, and evaluating whether the trade was “fair” or not.

If Sale racked up 15 WAR in his three years in Boston, that would translate to $2.5 million per win. If wins cost about $8 million on the free agent market, Sale gives the Red Sox something like $82.5 million in surplus value in that scenario. Of course, Boston sent Yoan Moncada and Michael Kopech (plus a couple of other pieces) to Chicago in exchange for Sale, and by FanGraphs’ ranking of those players and valuation of prospects, that package is worth something like $130 million. Now, neither Kopech nor Moncada was likely to contribute meaningfully to the Red Sox in 2017, so in this scenario the trade might still make sense for Boston, but it looks a bit lopsided.

On the other hand, if we push Sale’s expected WAR for the next three years upward — or, more accurately, if Sale pushes his own expectations upward, by crushing in his first four starts of 2017 — and he finishes 2019 with 19.5 WAR from his time in Boston, his performance and contract would instead translate to $1.9 million per win, and a surplus value of $121 million. Suddenly, the trade looks eminently reasonable; the Red Sox gave up a ton of value, in the form of two hot-shot prospects, but got nearly the same value back, and in the form of an ace starting pitcher who can contribute to their championship hopes starting right away.

None of that is to cast aspersions on the White Sox, who got an incredible package back for Sale. But by bringing back his velocity and strikeouts, Chris Sale has done what very few excellent pitchers can do: he’s improved his future outlook, in both the short- and medium-term, and in the process, improved the outlook for the Red Sox as well. Dave Dombrowski has to be feeling pretty good.