Often obscured by the dominating performance of Chicago’s other team, the Cubs, White Sox ace Chris Sale became baseball’s first eight-game winner and the first White Sox pitcher to win his initial eight starts since Jon Garland in 2005. The team makes it easier for Sale to get those wins by providing 6.5 runs of support per nine innings pitched, almost two runs more than the league average (4.7), although Sale believes he is helping himself, too, by pitching to contact more often than in the past.
But he may not be in control of the results as much as you’d think.
When a pitcher “pitches to contact,” it means just what it sounds like: more contact and fewer strikeouts. And through eight games, Sale is striking out eight batters per nine innings, fewer than in any of the prior four seasons in which he received votes for the AL Cy Young award. His contact rate, meanwhile, has spiked to 80 percent in 2016, a career high. It was 70.4 percent in 2015.
“That is a good call for him,” catcher Dioner Navarro told CBS Chicago. “That is a good mind-set to use your stuff more wisely and save your stuff and bullets for October and November. If he does that well, that will do nothing but help the team and himself out.”
So far, it’s hard to argue with the results. His popup and flyball rates are up to 14.5 and 40.5 percent, respectively, while his line-drive rate has dropped from 22.1 to 17 percent. Opposing hitters have a .204 batting average on balls in play against Sale, too — but that unlikely figure may not last.
Three factors influence BABIP: defense, luck and talent level. Of those, the pitcher has limited control of only one: talent. And it takes 2,000 balls in play to get a sense of what a pitcher’s true talent BABIP truly is. In other words, we know little about how much Sale has improved by “pitching to contact” after only seeing him throw 856 pitches, other than that his figure is much lower than both the league average (.296) and his performance over the past four seasons (.298).
The lack of production off Sale’s line drives is the most notable. This season, major leaguers are hitting .661 with a 1.044 OPS and .635 BABIP on line drives. Against Sale, those numbers drop to .419, .935 and .419, respectively. Based on Sale’s average line-drive exit velocity (93.8 mph) and launch angle (16.4 degrees), though, we would expect a .516 average against; that suggests his current numbers will, in time, come back to Earth.
Here’s another problem: Sale has lost more than 2 mph on his fastball.
That, too, could be part of the plan. Former teammate John Danks’s advice for Sale on pitching to contact was “to throw it a little easier.” But as we saw earlier, fewer strikeouts are the result. And so is a higher overall exit velocity: 89.3 mph to 91.9 mph in one year. That may not sound like much, but it causes a hitter’s average against to go from .239 to .268 on fastballs alone.
In other words, Sale’s improved performance could be more directly related to the White Sox providing him with a ton of run support and being strong in the field. Eventually, his luck will probably run out.