Chris Sale’s 2019 season was quite the conundrum. He was downright awful in many starts and had an ERA up over 4 for the first time in his career. His third year as a member of the Red Sox seems like quite a disappointment, and has left fans frustrated as his health has faltered at the end of the year once again. What went wrong?
Well, the answer isn’t totally clear. Let’s compare Sale’s stats with a popular Cy Young candidate.
Chris Sale: 13.32 K/9, 2.26 BB/9, 3.40 FIP
Player B: 12.09 K/9, 1.80 BB/9, 3.60 FIP
Oddly enough, Player B is none other than the Houston Astros’ Justin Verlander. At face value, it seems like they’ve had extremely similar seasons. However, Verlander’s ERA sits at 2.81, and Sale’s at 4.40. In these situations, I immediately assume either Sale is giving up much more hard contact than Verlander, or that the discrepancies in their ERA can be attributed to bad luck. Let’s dig deeper into the type of contact they’re allowing.
Hitters against Chris Sale: 36.3 Hard Hit %, 8.1 Barrel %, 88.1 Exit Velocity
Hitters against Justin Verlander: 34.5 Hard Hit %, 8.3 Barrel %, 87.9 Exit Velocity
Verlander has not outshined Sale at all in these metrics, and in fact, these metrics actually show how similar of seasons the two aces have had. This leads me to believe that Sale has just been extremely unlucky, and Verlander has had much more luck on his side. Chris Sale currently has a BABIP of .309, and a left-on-base rate (LOB%) of 66.7%. His BABIP is around league average, but his LOB% is far below his career average and the league average, meaning many more runners on base have scored for no reason other than poor luck. Justin Verlander’s BABIP is all the way down at .216, almost 100 points less than Sale, and his LOB% is up at 88.8%, over 20 percentage points higher than Sale! Sale has simply had more runners on base come in to score, and more balls fall in play for no fault of his own.
A big factor in Verlander’s luck, however, has been the stellar Astros defense. The ‘Stros rank 1st in the Majors in Defensive Efficiency (percentage of balls in play converted into outs), while the Sox rank in the bottom 5. In addition, Houston is 6th in runs saved above average, while Boston sits in the bottom half of the league. The Red Sox’ poor D has cost Sale, while the Astros’ excellent D has clearly benefitted Verlander.
Everyone should understand that Chris Sale has had a down year in many ways due to things out of his control. Better luck and defensive play could easily have Sale in the Cy Young race with Justin. The main reason for frustration should be the state of his health. This is his third year with the Red Sox, and it’s also the third year he’s broken down at the end of the season. It’s been reported recently that the Sox are going with a new plan on how they will deal with Sale and the rest of the staff in the coming seasons. Hopefully, this combined with a few more lucky bounces will have Chris back in Cy Young form for 2020.