On May 6 after Chris Sale got a bit roughed up by the Tigers, the White Sox ace had an ugly 5.93 ERA, 1.61 WHIP, and 26 K/10 BB in 27.1 IP over his first five starts of the season. So after that start, I did a little digging to see if there was any reasonable explanation for the rough beginning to the season, and my findings are detailed here in my post titled “Chris’ Slider Sale-ing Away.” Go ahead and check out what I found, but in a brief summation, my research showed that Sale had been using his slider a lot less and basically replaced it with extra usage of his fastball, while his changeup usage remained similar to last year.
This led me to believe that if Sale reverted back to a higher use of his slider while not going to his fastball so often, then he would begin to have more success and generate a greater rate of strikeouts much closer to the career high rate of 10.76 K/9 that he had in the 2014 season. He didn’t need to go back to using his slider close to 30% of the time like he did in his first four Major League seasons because of the development of an excellent changeup, but I felt if he upped the usage of the slider to around 20% rather than near 10% then that would yield better results.
Sale’s start on May 12 against the Brewers was very nice and the strikeouts were there for him as he whiffed 11 batters in 8 innings of work, but I had suggested before that start that it was a very good spot for him to try and rebound because the Brewers had been an offense that was really struggling against lefties up to that point. So he went on to have a great start despite still utilizing the same rates of pitch distribution that he had been in his previous starts.
Sale’s next turn came on May 18 versus the Indians and it was another 8 inning effort as he allowed just 1 run on 6 base runners while striking out 7. Another nice start, but still the same type of pitch distribution and it was also a less than one strikeout per inning effort.
However, for his next start on May 23 against the Twins, he ramped up his slider usage to upwards of 16% while his fastball usage was much closer to 50% (he entered the day with his slider usage near 10% and fastball usage near 60%). While he wasn’t able to keep the Twins off the scoreboard as he allowed 4 runs (3 earned) to score, he did strikeout 10 batters which was impressive against a team that had been crushing left-handed pitching and ranked in the top half of the league in lowest strikeout rate against lefties.
Now we get to Sale’s most recent start from May 28 at Baltimore against the Orioles, and it was his most dominant effort of the season as he went 7.2 shutout innings allowing only 4 hits and 0 walks while striking out 12. In this game, Sale went to his slider even more than the previous start against the Twins. Here’s what Sale’s fastball, slider, and changeup pitch distribution looked like before this start and what he did in this start:
Before May 28: Fastball 60.2%, slider 11.5%, changeup 28.3%
On May 28: Fastball 45.8%, slider 23.3%, changeup 30.8%
And what makes his performance in this start even more impressive is that the Orioles came in to the day with the 4th lowest strikeout rate in the Majors versus lefties at 17.2%. So not only did he get a lot of strikeouts, but he did it against an offense that he may not have been expected to. Is it a coincidence that Sale is showing better performances against a couple of teams that handle left-handed pitchers well over these last two starts? I don’t think so. I have to go with the belief that it is the increased use of the slider that has guided him.
Sale is now 4-2 with a 3.66 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, and 66 K/14 BB in 59 IP as he has gotten both his strikeout and walk rates much closer to where he was at last year. His ERA and WHIP should continue to drop as well, and I believe it can be greatly attributed to Chris buying into the “Re-Sale” value of his slider.