Originally posted on Fangraphs  |  Last updated 4/10/12

Chris Sale was among the elite relief pitchers last season with the White Sox, throwing 71 tremendous innings in just his second professional season. But the White Sox never saw Sale’s long-term future in the bullpen. The Sale-as-starter project got it’s first MLB regular season test Monday night against the Indians, and the 23-year-old lefty passed with flying colors. Sale breezed through 6.2 innings against the Indians, allowing just one run on three hits and two walks in leading the Sox to a 4-2 victory.

There was little question Sale would be able to handle lefties with the move to the starting rotation. At 6’5″ and with a low arm slot, he releases the ball over two feet to the right of the plate and gets a good deal of extension with his long arms. As such, the left-handed batter has an extremely tough time picking up the ball out of his hands, and the path of the ball to the plate only adds to the difficulty. Lefties hit just .208/.275/.283 against Sale last season, including a 39-to-10 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

The true test came against right-handed bats, and the Indians loaded up. After running out a lineup with six natural lefties the past two games (as well as switch-hitters Carlos Santana and Asdrubal Cabrera), the Indians swapped out four of them for righties against Sale, leaving the Indians with seven total right-handed bats. Sale has a changeup, one that he used to largely neutralize right-handers as a reliever (.199/.292/.368). But he can’t throw it every time, and maintaining a 95 MPH average fastball as a starter is unrealistic. The same pitches at some four MPH slower (91.2 average fastball in Monday’s start) wouldn’t necessarily be so effective. And with pitches that naturally move through the right-handed hitting zone, as shown below, any dip in velocity could allow right-handed batters to catch up.

Although the Cleveland lineup wasn’t full of mashers — Jason Donald, Lou Marson and Jose Lopez, for example, aren’t striking fear into anybody’s hearts soon — all of Sale’s pitches passed the sniff test as a starter. Only four of the 19 right-handed batters Sale faced reached, on just a walk and three singles.

Sale stymied these righties by keeping the ball either too far outside or too low to make consistent, hard contact:

Pitch F/X Data via Brooks Baseball
As Sale pitched, he tended to throw on lines moving from out-and-up to in-and-down (click the links for three examples). This forced hitters to try and hit the ball the other way — something Carlos Santana managed on his RBI single — or else they would roll over into ground ball outs. As the game wore on, it was apparently simply taking the ball the other way was easier said than done. Sale induced 10 ground balls in addition to his five strikeouts, allowing just seven balls in the air against 25 batters.

Given Sale’s height and arm action, throwing on this plane is natural. With his ability to push his fastball into the mid-90s and the movement on his offspeed pitches, he has more than enough to make the results seen in his first start a consistent reality.

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