Today is Chris Sale Day, which is the best day of the week every week. For as frustrating as the Red Sox have been for a large chunk of this early season, we always have Sale Day to fall back on. It’s like Pretzel Day, except instead of once a year it’s roughly once a week.
To say that Sale has been amazing through his first four starts in a Red Sox uniform would be an understatement. He’s currently pitched to a 0.91 ERA, a 1.07 FIP and a 0.88 DRA. Simply put, he’s been the best pitcher in baseball and about as dominant as a pitcher can be. He’s striking out over 12 batters per nine innings thanks to a swinging strike rate of almost 35 percent, the sixth-highest rate among the 135 pitchers who have tossed at least 250 pitches this year.
There’s a lot of reasons that he’s been so incredible. He throws about a billion* different fastballs, ranging from the high-90’s to the low-80’s. He also throws a slider that was seemingly handed down to him from the heavens, which is kind of unfair if we’re being honest.
*Number may not be totally accurate.
Today, though, I want to quickly focus on what may be the most impressive thing about Sale: His unpredictability. It’s only natural for even the best pitchers to fall into some patterns. Perhaps they like to start batters off with a fastball, giving them the best chance to kick things off with a strike. Maybe they only use their changeup against opposite-handed hitters. They know what works best for them, and they have enough confidence in their stuff to overcome some level of predictability.
Last season, Sale kind of fell into this trap. Against both righties and lefties, the star southpaw started things off with the fastball roughly half the time. Furthermore, he used that pitch when he fell behind in counts, and utilized his changeup almost exclusively against right-handed batters.
Things have changed this year, and he’s clearly become even harder to hit. Against lefties, he’s throwing his four-seam fastball only eight percent of the time on the first pitch, down almost 40 percentage points from last year. The drop off isn’t quite as dramatic against righties, but it’s still down to 24 percent. Instead, he is relying on his changeup much more against both hitters. It’s worth noting that his changeup in some cases may actually be his slow fastball, but the strategy behind it is the same. Hitters expecting velocity to start the at bat aren’t ready for a pitch in the mid-80’s.
His overall usage of the changeup (or slow fastball) is also changing. Last season, there wasn’t a situation in which he threw the pitch more than four percent of the time against left-handed pitching. So far this year, he is throwing it 25 percent of the time overall against lefties and almost 40 percent of the time on first pitches. He isn’t afraid of using this pitch against anyone, which just goes to show the tremendous amount of confidence he has in himself right now.
Sale is also moving away from his fastball as an out pitch against left-handed opponents. In 2016, he threw the four-seamer about 40 percent of the time when he was ahead or there were two strikes on his opponent. This season, he’s only throwing it about a quarter of the time, instead hitting them with the slider that is causing so much angst around the league.
Sale is an amazing pitcher who can get by on his stuff alone. This season, he’s taking things to the next level by not falling into any routines. Hitters go the plate not knowing what to expect on any given pitch. That is a strategy that is useful for pitchers with fringe stuff who rely more on command. For someone like Sale, who has one of the scariest arsenals in the league, it is downright unfair. Happy Sale Day, everyone.
All pitch usage numbers are from brooksbaseball.net