I love everything about what Chris Sale did last year. By winning 17 games on the back of a 3.05 ERA in 192 innings, Sale gave us a blueprint for what a successful reliever-to-starter conversion looks like. Until further notice, whenever I read that a reliever is going to give it a shot in the rotation, I’ll compare him to Sale to estimate his chances at succeeding.
But while almost every single aspect of Sale’s surprising 2012 season points to his success being legitimate and not fueled by luck, there are a few warning signs. I love his ground ball tendency, but he allowed line drives 23.0% of the time compared to 20.9% MLB average. Sale’s infield fly rate was good (12.2% versus 10.0% MLB average), but those line drives indicate batters were able to square up on him a little too easily.
Plus, Sale’s strand rate was 80.0%, noticeably higher than the 72.5% MLB average. While strand rates in the high-70s and 80s are possible in any given season, they’re tough to maintain over the long haul. Over the last three years exactly 100 pitchers have totaled 400 innings pitched. Only Jeremy Hellickson has a strand rate over 80.0% during that span (82.2%) and only 15 of the 100 have posted strand rates better than the 75.5% we project for Sale.
To make a long story short, Sale is a legitimate fantasy starting pitcher, but he’s not as god as the 52nd overall ranking he earned last year. I’d expect an increase in ERA in accordance with a drop in his strand rate as well as a rise in his WHIP. Still, Sale is a high-K pitcher with a lot of potential, and at just 24 years old he has plenty of room left to grow.
At a Glance
Strengths: ERA, WHIP, K, K/9, QS
Neutral: W, L, BB, IP
Best-case scenario: Cole Hamels (PHI)
Likely scenario: Lance Lynn (STL), Jeff Samardzija (CHC), Zack Greinke (LAD)
Worst-case scenario: Tommy Hanson (OAK)
Chris Sale 2013 Fantasy Projection
Last season Sale’s stats looked almost identical to Cole Hamels’. According to MockDraftCentral.com’s early draft results, Sale is going in the same range as Roy Halladay, Yovani Gallardo, Max Scherzer, Johnny Cueto, and Ian Kennedy. We recently did profiles for Gallardo and Kennedy, so clearly we’d take Sale over them, but the rest seem like pretty fair value.
There’s also the potential that Sale’s 2012 line is repeatable. Anyone who points to his second-half ERA (4.03) as evidence of Sale’s impending demise, it should be noted that the drastic rise in ERA was due to a 19.2% HR/FB rate after the Break that led to 14 second-half homers. In reality, Sale’s 3.20 xFIP in the second half was lower than his 3.28 xFIP in the first half (xFIP normalizes for HR/FB rate).
If there is cause for concern, it’s that Sale’s line drive rate rose to 26.0% in the second half and his infield fly rate fell to 9.6%. Both were below league average.
As for Sale’s projected fantasy value, he will continue to strike batters out and remain one of the best command pitchers in the game (measured in K:BB ratio). That prevents him from having a surprisingly terrible ERA, as does his low fly ball rate. A little correction in luck will probably lead to his ERA and WHIP rising, but he’ll still be no worse than league average there, and probably noticeably better. Sale contributes positive gains in every category, and he’ll be elite in some.
And he’s just 24 years old.