Pitchers have dominated in 2014. The average ERA for a major league starting pitcher is just 3.86, and strikeout rates are just a shade under 20 percent. A host of pitchers are having excellent seasons, including Felix Hernandez, Corey Kluber and Jon Lester. One pitcher that might be getting overlooked in the American League Cy Young conversation is Chicago White Sox ace Chris Sale.
Sale was dominant in his first four starts of the season, allowing only seven runs in 27.1 innings, with 29 strikeouts. However, he suffered an elbow injury, and missed more than five weeks of the season. He came back with a vengeance, racking up 10 strikeouts while allowing just one hit in six shutout innings in his first start since getting off the disabled list.
Since then Sale hasn’t missed a beat. While he’s notched about 50 fewer innings than Hernandez and Kluber, he’s accumulated 5.4 fWAR, which is only a few tenths behind those two hurlers. His 30.3 percent strikeout rate leads the American League, as does his 24.9 percent K-BB rate.
Opposing hitters are managing a woeful .197 batting average against Sale. The White Sox left-hander has a 1.99 ERA which is the lowest in the AL. After factoring his hitter-friendly home park, US Cellular Field into the equation, his ERA is on par with that posted by Clayton Kershaw.
Sale has always possessed a good fastball, and this year his average velocity is up to 94 miles per hour. From his low arm slot, his sweeping slider is nearly unhittable for left-handed batters. Righties struggle with the pitch as well. Overall the slider has a 14 percent swinging strike rate, and when hitters offer at sliders outside the zone they’re coming up empty on 55 percent of their swings.
However, the changeup has perhaps become Sale’s favorite secondary pitch. He’s effectively traded sliders for changeups. Last year he threw his slider 29 percent of the time, and his changeup 19 percent of the time. This year those rates have been reversed. The changeup has a swinging strike rate of 20.5 percent, a solid increase from the previous year. Hitters are offering at 45 percent of the changeups Sale throws outside of the strike zone, and they’re whiffing on half of those swings.
All those extra whiffs means that Sale’s swinging strike rate is up to 13 percent, from 10.8 percent in 2013. By throwing more changeups, he’s giving his arm a better chance at staying healthy, and he’s been more effective to boot. While Sale hasn’t received the same acclaim that Kershaw has, his season has been nearly as impressive. King Felix has been a tough act to follow, and Kluber and Lester are also deserving of the Cy Young award. But, Sale has put together a resume that is at least as impressive.