The future has changed!

Between the seeming impossibility of Mark Buehrle's return and the now lingering specter of John Danks' departure at the end of the season (or otherwise), the Sox' pitching staff is going to take on a whole new look over the course of the next few years.  As depressing as the impending loss of Buehrle and Danks is (and it really really is), we do at least have Chris Sale to look forward to.*

Probably anyway.  The worried, ever-anxious part of me wonders whether Kenny might have left Torii Hunter and a bag of chips over at Arte Moreno's and Moreno's balking at only getting Beckham in return.

But sure, let's assume all is well and that Chris Sale will be spending his time as a starting pitcher for the Chicago White Sox for some time to come and not, hypothetically, down in Arizona looking like a future Cy Young winner.  If you'll recall, I peered into the crystal ball to see how it might turn out should Sale have started last season.  To recap the post, Sale was very well regarded coming out of the draft.  Here's Andy Seiler:

His fastball is a plus pitch that generally sits 91-94, touching 96, and he commands it with plus precision. He gets a lot of life on it due to his three-quarters release point, and it’s one of the best left-handed fastballs in this class. His best secondary pitch is a plus changeup with excellent depth and fade, and it’s a Major League-ready pitch. His third pitch is an average slider that isn’t commanded nearly as well, and there are concerns about his inability to spin a breaking ball.

Sale quickly showed that to be out of date, sporting a much improved slider.  Nonetheless, my assessment of his chances wasn't exactly glowing:

Sale would likely be 92-93 mph with the fastball, presumably with a good changeup and a mediocre slider with likely struggles against batters from both sides of the plate.  Against RHB, his arm slot and fastball movement would be exposed at lower velocities that would only be compensated for with good command of both the fastball and the change.  LHB would of course be an easier proposition thanks to a groundball machine for a heater, but even there it's easy to imagine the somewhat slower fastball inducing fewer whiffs on the slider, especially if it too slows a tick.

After a full year in the pen, I think we can raise our expectations somewhat.  For one, I probably hedged my bets to excess regarding Sale's fastball velocity.  Sale's averaged a hair over 95 mph for his short MLB career and losing 2-3 mph is possible, but 0-2 is more likely.  See Jeremy Greenhouse's article and this Book Blog comment thread for details, but in sum I don't think Sale is going to be an outlier.  So rather than 92-93, I'm thinking 93-95 mph on his fastball as a starter.

In which case, even his arm slot shouldn't be able to knock him down to average against RHB.  On top of that, I think we can officially apologize to Ms. Jackson because his slider's for real.  Thanks to this post over at A's Nation and in particular this amazing table, I now have a very concrete standard to measure a pitcher's stuff against.  And no matter how you dice it, Sale's slider has been nasty.

Lefty pitchers normally get whiffs on 27% of swings from right handed batters.  Sale got nearly 43%.  That's on a pitch without a platoon advantage after the book would have definitely been out on him after his dominant 2010.   With the platoon advantage, it was almost 49% compared to the 35% league average.  Obviously, it was a plus pitch.

Meanwhile, the change is still very much there.  For his career, he's whiffed 37% of righties compared to the 27% league average.  

It's not to say he won't come back to the ground somewhat, he will. Studies have consistently shown about a 17% boost in K's for pitchers who move from starting to relief, among other helpful stat line nudges.  Starting is more difficult and taxing than relief.  But even after a straight statistical adjustment, the suggestion is that Sale should be average to somewhat better as a starter.  And knowing what we do about his stuff and the coaching staff, it's likely to be a matter of time before he starts to cut his walk rate and really put it all together.  I'll again stick with my preferred cautious optimism and say he'll need more reps before he can start putting a dent in his BBs.

Beyond that, there are various caveats to throw out.  He's skinny, his slider velo is a little lower than I'd like, his arm slot, etc.  Most of them are obvious if you've seen him pitch.  He's a mold-breaker, which is likely what caused his falling to us in the draft in the first place.  But if ever there was an organization built to nurture this exact pitcher, it's the White Sox. 

Overall, the outlook is very bright, brighter than I suspected a year ago.  I'll have to ask Coop my forgiveness and a light penance.  I'm hoping he'll decide sticking through the rest of the 2012 season will be more than enough.


*And nothing else.

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