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Telling (Not Asking) Chris Sale's Future

Under more usual circumstances, it wouldn't even be a question.  Chris Sale would shove off from what's sure to be a scintillating spring audition to Birmingham or Charlotte for a season-long tuning and tinkering in sportive dry dock so as to be a seaworthy starter by 2012.*  But as the PR department has forcefully informed us, this year is different: the Sox are ALL IN in 2011, to the tune of $120+M.  All hands on deck** and whatnot.

I'm not sure that having made this commitment to 2011 actually matters.  JR and Co. have topped that figure before just once, in 2008, and even that precipitated a substantial sell off to the lower salary levels in '09 and '10.  It's possible something similar is coming up in 2012, as Mark Buehrle, Edwin Jackson and Matt Thornton will see their contracts expire and replacing or re-signing them figures to be an expensive proposition.  8-10 wins on the open market could go in the $40-50M range, which makes the Sox very likely to get creative rather than take that big hit.  IOW, Sale either needs to be ready for 2012 or he'll be the next Dan Hudson/Aaron Poreda/Fautino De Los Santos/Gio Gonzalez.  If he can't be, that's probably an argument for putting him in the pen.  Why wait for no pay off?  On the other hand, if he's likely to pan out as a starter capable of replacing any of the starters' current production, letting him hone his craft makes more sense.  

So let's start with the scouting reports.  First up, Andy Seiler:

With a second dominating year in the rotation, he’s cemented himself as one of the top pitchers available, and he has upside as a number two starter. 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.

Kevin Goldstein:

Sale is the rare pitcher who combines size (6-foot-6), velocity (up to 96 mph), and plus command from the left side. His changeup was among the best in the draft, and he consistently dominated week after week, including in his few starts against top-notch competition. [His] low three-quarters arm slot gives some scouts concern. It prevents him from being able to get around on his slider, and gives right-handed hitters a very long look at the ball.

The reports are mostly in agreement that Sale-as-college-starter got by with his fastball-change combo, both plus pitches, while his slider and curve were more show-me types, of which the slider was more advanced.  This more or less what we saw once the Praying Mantis (you heard it here first! probably!) got called up:

The obvious point of interest being that Sale went from a fastball/change to a fastball/slider.  Notably he threw the slider against RHB with the same frequency he threw them against LHB, with just 13 changeups thrown in total.  It looks like the slider was an obvious point of development for White Sox scouts as well; there's really no reason at all to throw that many sliders against RHB with a change in the arsenal.  Until we ask him, we won't know for sure, but that's the easy guess.

As for the quality of the stuff, the fastball came as advertised, or at least as you'd guess given the reports.  It averaged 96 mph and a lot more run than rise, which is less than optimal.  Compare Sale's fastball with Matt Thornton's, for instance.  Sale:




Sale's fastball gets about half the rising movement and like three or four times the running action.  This has two major implications.  First, it means more groundballs, especially against LHB.  Sale isn't exactly Justin Masterson or Derek Lowe, but it's definitely on the sinker side of things.  Second, it means a bigger platoon split.  His fastball, even at lesser velocities, will continue to mow down lefties.  Righties will find much more in their favor and they'll likely be able to get some air under it.  In fact, Sale had a huge GB% split in 2010, with LHB putting almost 70% of their batted balls on the ground while against RHB he managed around 40%. 

Unsurprisingly, Sale's two HR allowed both came from right-handed bats, but the names, Drew Sutton and Scott Sizemore, suggest that RHB don't need incredible bat speed to get around on him.  Matt Thornton doesn't suffer to nearly the same degree and as a result, he throws his fastball some 80% of the time while getting whiffs at twice the major league mean, compared to Sale's more typical 65% and basically average whiff rate. To put it graphically:



As for the slider, the results were excellent considering expectations.  RHB whiffed on it almost twice as much as LHB, who swung-and-missed at about league average.  That's very surprising given the scouting reports and I'm inclined to give those reports more weight given the sample.  100 pitches just isn't that many.  From the TV replays, I was impressed with his execution of the slider, especially against RHP.  His location was fairly consistent and when he missed, he missed away or down.  Nonetheless, I'd describe the pitch as slurvy; I'm guessing that 13 mph difference on the bender is a lot to handle when you're expecting a very good fastball/change combination from the scouting report.  Still, it bodes well and speaks to Sale's makeup that he was able to mix it up and move it around without losing feel.  He showed similar moxie with the fastball.

Going through Sale's repertoire with a fine comb made it clear that he's not going to be a great starter in 2011.  Think John Danks' in 2007.  Larry and U-God might think even that to be overshooting.  I think it holds.  Danks showed he was heady and possessed good stuff, but regularly caught too much or too little of the plate and hadn't fully developed his arsenal.  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.

Getting to work full-time on those issues is likely to pay dividends I'd guess.  Watching Sale closely, you see his feel for his mechanics (weird though they are).  You can see why his command was well regarded by scouts.  He's got a clear idea of how to pitch, even to big leaguers, and repetitions are key to closing off his few holes.  Taking him out of the pen is probably a 1 win or so hit that could be made up depending on how he does in Peavy's possible absence.  Gus put the over/under on Jake's games started at 16 and I thought that sounded about right.  That means we need another 15 or so starts from somebody.  If the alternative is Tony Pena with Sale in the pen, it might as well be Sale starting***. Danks in 2007 needed 26 starts to get to a win's worth of production.  If Sale gets Peavy's leftovers, the difference between what he'd do in the pen and his production as a starter is almost nothing, even for a team that's ALL IN.




*Quota for forced nautical homophonic metonymies issuing from "Sale" reached.

**Well, just the one more, apparently.

***There's a decent case to be made that suppressing Sale's service time is more valuable than Tony Pena starting and Gregory Infante taking Sale's work in the pen.