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Chris Sale has a new love affair with his changeup

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The lefthander is using his changeup to elevate himself to the next level.

Cleveland Indians v Boston Red Sox Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

If the season ended today, many would be hard pressed to pick against Chris Sale for American League MVP. The lefthanded starter, who was acquired from the White Sox this winter, has been everything Boston could have hoped for, and more.

Since becoming a full time starter for the White Sox in 2012, Sale has been one of the league’s top tier aces. Over that span, Sale has consistently been an above 5 pWARP pitcher and has eclipsed six each of the past three years, including 2017. The only time his DRA popped above 3 was in 2016 and that was by 4 points.

In that season, Sale was purposefully pitching to contact, which caused a massive drop in his K rate. But, he still maintained a 6 pWARP over that season and was one of the best arms in the league. He found a way to be almost equally effective as an overall pitcher despite drastically cutting the amount of strikeouts he generated.

This season, Sale has carried that soft contact result forward and paired it with the strikeout heavy style he came forward with before. That’s resulted in career bests in just about every category. His 1.91 DRA is by far the lowest of his career thus far and his strikeout rate is well above the previous career high of 34.8 percent. At the end of the season, he’s projected to finish as an 8 pWARP player, which would be almost 2 wins more than his career high.

Sale - Performance Difference

Year IP K% BB% DRA FIP ERA pWARP
Year IP K% BB% DRA FIP ERA pWARP
2016 226.7 25.7% 5.0% 3.04 3.41 3.34 6.0
2017 168.3 36.9% 4.7% 1.99 1.91 2.51 6.7

Looking at his repertoire compared to last year, there’s some notable differences in how his pitches have played.

Chris Sale - 2016

Pitch Type Usage Whiffs BIP GB HR Avg. Velocity Max Velocity
Pitch Type Usage Whiffs BIP GB HR Avg. Velocity Max Velocity
Fourseam 45.33% 10.82% 16.16% 5.80% 1.29% 93.6 99.26
Sinker 15.56% 6.94% 20.26% 11.26% 0.19% 91.7 97.52
Change 14.10% 14.91% 25.88% 11.18% 0.62% 86.0 91.78
Slider 25.01% 16.34% 13.89% 5.37% 0.47% 79.0 84.24

Chris Sale - 2017

Pitch Type Usage Whiffs BIP GB HR Avg. Velocity Max Velocity
Pitch Type Usage Whiffs BIP GB HR Avg. Velocity Max Velocity
Fourseam 37.40% 16.15% 14.35% 3.72% 0.53% 95.00 100.24
Sinker 12.79% 6.65% 19.34% 9.67% 0.00% 93.10 98.85
Change 17.32% 21.73% 15.96% 6.87% 0.67% 86.70 90.92
Slider 32.49% 17.08% 11.43% 4.30% 0.61% 79.80 86.62

The most glaring shift has to be with his changeup. The 45.7 percent spike in whiffs and the 40.9 percent fall in groundball rate shows a massive change in how Sale now uses it within his repertoire. Overall, it has surpassed his wipe out slider as his most effective swing and miss pitch, which is surprising to say the least. On top of that, his velocity has spiked, which makes sense for someone who had emphasized that pitch to contact mentality. Moreover, pitchers that throw harder generate more whiffs. This is entirely evident in the shift in whiffs with his fastball. Despite his usage dropping, the pitch has been much more effective at missing bats.

Using the new outcome paired pitch tunnel data from Baseball Prospectus, we can drill down just how his pitch sequencing has changed over the past year to result in the whiff rate spikes.

The chart below sorts the x-axis by whiff rate differential, so the biggest leap from 2016 to 2017 is on the left and the biggest drop is on the right. The size of the circles indicates the usage of that pitch pair during each season.

Chris Sale’s whiff rate using pitch tunnels and usage
Baseball Prospectus

The most significant leap is in the whiff rate for his CH|CH pair, which translates to two consecutive changeups. Going from a whiff rate of almost eight percent to north of 31 percent while also throwing it almost 60 percent more. Overall, six of the twelve pitch pairs that Sale saw an increase in whiff rate for involved his changeup. The large spike in fastball whiff rate also made it a significant riser involved in six pitch pairs as well. But, no fastball involved pitch pair was as impactful as the CH|CH pair and even the largest spike among fastball pairs involved a changeup as the second pitch.

Chris Sale was great before this season. He was arguably a top three pitcher in all of baseball and possibly the best pitcher in the American League. The oddity of his last season seems to have contributed to his evolution as a pitcher. Now, he sits atop many MVP ballots and is helping push the Red Sox towards an AL East Division Title.

Anthony Rescan is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score and a Stats Intern at Baseball Prospectus. You can follow him on Twitter at @AnthonyRescan.