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How Chris Sale has gotten better

Chris Sale has been one of the most consistently good starters in baseball in the last five years, but this year is his best of them all.

MLB: Boston Red Sox at Baltimore Orioles Patrick McDermott-USA TODAY Sports

The most consistent starting pitcher of the last five years is Chris Sale. Although he hasn’t had the peak of Keuchel, Scherzer, or Kluber in that time or won a Cy Young Award, he’s performed at the same great level year after year. He’s also done so with remarkable health and durability. He’s failed to reach 200 innings just twice since becoming a starter. One of those seasons was his first year in the rotation where he was just 8 innings shy of the 200 mark. The other was an impressive 2014 campaign that was hampered by his only serious injury scare, and he still managed to reach 174 innings pitched that year as well. The consistency and durability alone makes him a valuable pitcher, especially to the Red Sox staff that has so mightily struggled with health.

A bonus for Boston is that Sale has ditched his low-velocity approach from a year ago for a more dominant, strikeout-driven approach. The pros and cons of pitching to contact versus blowing guys away could be debated for hours and hours, but the fact remains that Sale is at his best when he uses his best stuff, and that’s what he has done this season.

Not only has Sale increased his velocity from 2016 to 2017, but he has a completely different way to attack hitters. Part of this is likely because of the change in scenery, most importantly behind the plate. Chris Sale never shakes off his catcher. Naturally, a change in catcher can have drastic changes on his approach.

The changes in Sale’s game have been obvious this season. He’s raised the velocity on his fastball while keeping the other pitches the same as they’ve always been, providing more separation and more whiffs.

Chris Sale Velocity Change

2016 2017
2016 2017
4-Seam FB 93.6 95.5
Sinker 91.7 93.3
Changeup 86.0 86.7
Slider 78.9 79.3

Chris Sale Whiff% by Pitch

2016 2017
2016 2017
4-Seam FB 10.8% 17.3%
Changeup 14.9% 24.4%
Slider 16.3% 15.8%

It’s clear from the numbers that Sale has returned to firing away at hitters with his fastball. The experiment from last year is long over, providing him with a better ability to miss bats. He has coupled the improvement in his fastball velocity with actually using it less often than ever before.

In 2016, Sale used his fastball at a career high rate. It was hit hard for another career-high (as a starter) in isolated power against of .207, which was a result of both leaning on the pitch and reducing its velocity. The lanky lefty has righted that ship in 2017, increasing the velocity and relying less heavily on the hard stuff to get hitters out.

Chris Sale Pitch Usage

2016 2017
2016 2017
4-Seam FB 45.3% 33.0%
Sinker 15.6% 15.4%
Changeup 14.1% 23.1%
Slider 25.0% 28.4%

Consistent with some general trends seen around the league, Sale is using his fastball less than he ever has before. He’s using his sinker around the same amount of the time. Where he has found success is in increasing the amount of changeups and sliders he uses. The changeup has especially grown during his time in Boston.

While it’s not a hard and fast rule, changeups are typically used as a tool for left-handed pitchers to get right-handed batters out. That isn’t something that Sale particularly struggled at, but it was perhaps a small point of weakness in an incredibly good pitcher.

Utilization of a very good changeup and the backdoor slider have helped him shut down righties like he never has before. His strikeout rate against right-handed hitters has risen from just 24.7 percent in 2016 to 37.4 percent this year while batting average against has dropped to a career-low .197. Surely this is correlated to Sale using his changeup heavily for the first time in his career. Not only has the changeup helped Sale dominate right-handed hitters, but he’s using the pitch against lefties for the first time in his career. In 2016 he threw changeups just 2.2 percent of the time to left-handed hitters. In 2017 it’s all the way up to 16.9 percent.

Let’s break it down even more based on the two sides of the plate. Against righties, Sale uses his fastball when he needs to. More importantly, though, he uses the changeup low and away to induce weak contact or whiffs. He’s also utilized the back door breaking ball to pair with his back foot slider. His zone charts show this well. On the left is changeups against righties. On the left is sliders against righties. His ability to locate to nearly un-hittable spots around the zone has allowed him to dominate hitters like never before.

While the locations themselves do look good visually, it can be hard to contextualize a simple chart of pitches. For some context, that same group of hitters who face Sale’s precisely located changeup have a .393 SLG and .116 ISO against the pitch. The slider has performed even better, resulting in a .262 SLG and .092 ISO. The usage, movement, and location of Sale’s off-speed pitches against righties has been crucial to his success this season. He hasn’t lost a step against lefties either, though.

As mentioned before, he’s using his changeup at a much higher rate than a season ago. That, along with a slider that is devastating to lefties, has helped him shut down players on that side of the plate. Left-handed hitters are batting just .205/.250/.368 against him this season. The sample of hitters Sale has faced from the left side is, however, incredibly tiny. A lot of this is simply respect for what Sale has done throughout his career. Strong left-handed hitters notably get a day off when Sale is on the bump. That said, there’s a reason that happens, and Sale has been proving that once again.

Chris Sale was already an incredibly successful pitcher before this season. If excellent years from Felix Hernandez and Dallas Keuchel hadn’t gotten in the way, he may have won a Cy Young already. He’s just 28 years old. Being that good at that age makes it hard to find areas of improvement. But the best in the game find ways to perfect the minute details to raise their game to another level. Sale has done that in 2017.

Thanks to multiple factors, including increased velocity and smarter pitch usage, he’s having the best season of his career. He’s posting career bests in FIP (1.83), DRA (1.48), strikeout rate (36.4%), WHIP (0.93), and HR/9 (0.64). Every pitching statistic that one could think of approves of Sale’s changes this season. Nothing points towards future failures. If he can keep it up over the course of an entire season, pitching his 200+ innings per usual, he’ll be well on his way to the first Cy Young of his career. Even more importantly, he might finally find himself on the mound during a playoff game.

All stats current as of June 7th.

Ryan Schultz is a writer at Beyond the Box Score, BP Wrigleyville, and BP Southside. Follow him on twitter @rschultzy20