Chris Sale And The Starting Pitcher Experiment

CHICAGO, IL: Chris Sale #49 of the Chicago White Sox pitches against the Minnesota Twins in the first inning at U.S. Cellular Field in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by David Banks/Getty Images)

Chris Sale has succeeded in his conversion from relief to starting, but there are still questions about how his year will ultimately turn out.

A trio of relievers moved from the bullpen to the rotation in 2012. Neftali Feliz of the Rangers, Daniel Bard of the Red Sox, and Chris Sale of the White Sox were all dominating relievers with repertoires that suggested starting was a real possibility for them, and in something of a coincidence, all three were set to make the switch at the same time.

Daniel Bard has struggled with his command, but there have been signs throughout the year that there's an effective starting pitcher hiding somewhere in there once the pieces are put together. Neftali Feliz had similarly shown flashes, but elbow inflammation has cut that experiment, and his season, short for now. As for Sale? He's fresh off of a 7inning masterpiece in which he struck out 15 batters.

The White Sox bounced Sale back and forth between the rotation and bullpen this year when they were worried about his elbow and the state of their bullpen, but he's looked nothing but healthy in 2012. He leads the American League in ERA and ERA+ at 2.34 and 182, is averaging 6 innings and 102 pitches per start, has struck out 9.5 per nine, and is featuring the best K/BB and walk rate of his career.

The main difference between Sale, Feliz, and Bard heading into 2012 was that Sale had four pitches that he used often, whereas the other two had just the three. Bard has attempted to widen his pitch selection and methods for getting outs by utilizing a sinking fastball in addition to the wicked four-seamer he's used over the years, but he was a reliever going from two established pitches to attempting to have four (his change-up, while existing during his other time in the majors, didn't get nearly as much play as his fastball and slider). Sale already had four, and he has put them to use.

As expected, his velocity has dipped, with his four-seam fastball dropping from 95-plus miles per hour from 2010-2011 to 93 mph. His sinking two-seamer has similarly dropped from 96-plus to the 91-92 range, and even his slider and change-up have gone down by a couple of miles per hour.

As far as effectiveness goes, though, things look the same -- velocity is important, but timing and pitch sequencing are the real keys. His fastballs have been fouled off more often, but they still induce swings-and-misses at nearly the same rates, and his slider is doing the same. His change-up hasn't missed as many bats as it had in the past, but he's using it more often, and still throwing it for strikes 61 percent of the time. His sinker isn't the groundball machine it was, but with all of the missed bats and the improved control, that hasn't been a problem.

Before his 15-strikeout game, Sale had been punching out 8.2 per nine. There's nothing wrong with that well-above-average figure, but given the extra fouled-off pitches that serve to lengthen at-bats and pitch counts, mixed with the lack of swing-and-miss in his change-up to this point, that might be more realistic going forward than his current 9.5 per nine pace. Monday's outing was a case of everything working out for him -- as was the 11 whiffs in 6-1/3 innings on April 20 -- but expecting that every time out isn't advised.*

*It also helps that he was facing the punch-less Mariners and Twins on those days. His stuff against those lineups isn't fair, as the box scores would later suggest.

Of course, the more Sale refines his approach against major-league hitters in a starting role, the more likely he is to succeed. His change-up was important before, but hasn't done what it's capable of just yet in 2012. His sinker hasn't been bad, but it isn't any better than average right now at its diminished velocity, and because of that, Sale is posting the lowest ground-ball rates of his career. He's actually inducing ground outs at a slightly higher pace than in the past, but expecting him to maintain that (as well as his .264 batting average on balls in play) throughout the year might be asking a bit much, unless those grounder rates improve.

This is nitpicking, though, as Sale has been great, and even accounting for a little luck and the two-month small sample, he's likely to continue being great. He's not only been capable in the rotation, but has already matched 2011's production in a matter of two months: according to Baseball-Reference's wins above replacement, Sale's 2012 has been worth 2.2 wins, equaling last year's career-high output in 14 fewer innings pitched. It's likely that, in his next start, he'll set a new career-high for value.

Just how much the White Sox use Sale in 2012 is the most interesting question surrounding him at this point. He started in college, and that was just two years ago, but he has relieved exclusively since he was drafted in 2010. The White Sox have been careful, but not constrictive, when it comes to his pitch count: He's reached or exceeded 110 pitches twice, but for the most part hasn't been forced deep into games. If he continues to average 6-1/3 frames per start, and starts 30 games, he'll be around the 190 mark for innings. That would be a massive jump in workload.

At 23 years old, the White Sox will likely remain cautious with Sale, letting him stick in games when he's strong, and pulling him when he looks fatigued, when there's risk of an injury. Should they remain in contention, they might find themselves in the same situation that the 2010 Padres did with Mat Latos, where they needed to balance protecting their young, star hurler with trying to win games. With any luck, Sale won't hit the same kind of wall that another convert, Alexi Ogando, did in 2011, and will be able to stick in the rotation throughout the year. That's not something you can bet on, though, and it's a situation that will need to be monitored throughout the season.

PITCHf/x data courtesy Brooks Baseball and Texas Leaguers

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