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Chris Sale Is Dominant Once More

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Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been a long time since we’ve seen Chris Sale pitch like an ace — or it had been, until recently. For the first time in more than half a decade, the 35-year-old lefty is dominating hitters on a routine basis. On Monday night in Atlanta, Sale turned in his third consecutive scoreless start, shutting out the Padres for seven innings while striking out nine, and helping the Braves halt a four-game losing streak.

Sale allowed just five hits, didn’t walk a single batter, and went to a three-ball count just twice (he retired both hitters). Only in the fourth, when Donovan Solano and Ha-Seong Kim hit back-to-back two-out singles, did the Padres put two men on base against Sale. Solano took third on Kim’s single, and then Kim stole second, but Sale escaped the jam by getting José Azocar to fly out. San Diego mustered just five hard-hit balls, which together amounted to two singles — a 95.9-mph one in the first inning by Jurickson Profar, and a 108.2-mph scorcher in the second inning by Manny Machado — plus two groundouts and a fly out. The last of those, a towering 104.9-mph drive to left center by Kyle Higashioka, would have been a home run in 28 out of the 30 major league parks according to Statcast, but at Truist Park it was a routine warning track out to left fielder Adam Duvall.

Meanwhile, Sale generated 18 whiffs, seven apiece with his four-seamer and his slider, and four with his changeup. He had a 35% called strike and walk rate, and got the Padres to chase on 37% of his pitches outside the zone, consistent with his season rate, which is also his Statcast-era high. All but one of his strikeouts came on pitches out of the zone, most of them on the outer edge; six of them were swinging (three sliders, two fastballs, one changeup) and two were foul tips, while the other was a swinging strike at the top border:

Sale struck out Fernando Tatis Jr. three times, and Cronenworth and Solano twice apiece. He was flat-out dealing.

He has now pitched 20 consecutive scoreless innings, which as best as I can tell — Baseball Reference’s Stathead isn’t built for inning-by-inning counts — is the fourth-longest streak of his career. His longest ran for 35 innings from July 6 to September 21, 2018, a timeline drawn out by the All-Star break and two trips to the injured list for shoulder inflammation. He also had a streak of 28 innings (May 6–June 2, 2013) while with the White Sox, and one of 21.2 innings (July 6–26, 2017) in his first season with the Red Sox.

This scoreless streak is part of a longer run of dominance that began with a seven-inning, two-hit, one-run start against the Guardians on April 26. Coming into that start, Sale had put up numbers quite consistent with last season, when he made 20 starts for the first time since 2019, his final season before undergoing Tommy John surgery.

Chris Sale’s Run of Dominance

March 31-April 19424.2206.1%27.6%1.094.383.40
April 26–May 20532.0211.6%35.0%0.280.561.06

After stifling the Guardians, Sale held the Mariners to one run in five innings while striking out nine in Seattle on May 1; then back in Atlanta, he shut out the Red Sox for six innings while striking out 10 on May 8, and blanked the Cubs for seven innings on two hits with nine strikeouts on May 14. His numbers during this run have been microscopic, save for a strikeout rate that seems like a tribute to injured teammate Spencer Strider.

Indeed, Sale has now struck out nine or more hitters in four straight starts, his longest streak since May 31–June 15, 2019. He now leads the NL in strikeout-walk differential (28.1%) and WAR (1.9, tied with Shota Imanaga and Zack Wheeler) while ranking second in FIP (2.23), xERA (2.52) and both strikeout and walk rates (31.7% and 3.6%, respectively), as well as fifth in ERA (2.22). If the NL Cy Young voting were today, he’d be in the picture, though Imanaga’s 0.84 ERA would probably carry the day.

When the Braves dealt for Sale on December 30, they could only have dreamed they would get a version of the pitcher that resembled the one who received Cy Young votes and made All-Star teams annually from 2012–18. Instead, their hope was that he’d at least be more reliably available than the one who spent more time than not on the shelf from ’20–23 while making just 31 starts due to Tommy John surgery, stress fractures of both a rib and a scapula, and fractures of his left pinky and right wrist to boot. Their investment wasn’t a huge gamble, but it was a gamble nonetheless. Though they did take on $17 million from the Red Sox, they sent infielder Vaughn Grissom — who still has six years of club control — to Boston, then reworked Sale’s remaining guarantee of $27.5 million for ’24 into a two-year, $38 million extension that contains a $18 million club option for ’26.

With Strider out for the season due to internal brace surgery to repair his damaged UCL, Max Fried taking awhile to recover his front-of-the-rotation form, and the fifth starter spot a revolving door of largely ineffective performances, Sale’s resurrection has been a godsend for the Braves. That said, it might not even be the most unlikely run of dominance within the team’s rotation given Reynaldo López’s 1.54 ERA in 46.2 innings, though he does have a 4.02 FIP.

Better health has obviously been a factor in Sale’s resurgence, in part because it has restored some lost velocity. From 2019–23, his four-seam fastball averaged 93.7 mph, down from a career-high 95.2 in ’18; this year, he’s up to 94.7 mph. Batters have actually produced better results on contact with the pitch than in ’19 or ’23 (to say nothing of ’18), but he’s throwing it less often than his slider for the first time since ’19 (38.1% vs. 40.7%, the latter a career high):

Sale’s slider and changeup have been particularly effective, compensating for the aforementioned improved results against the four-seamer. I’ve dimmed the usage stats for his small-sample 2021 (nine starts, 42.2 innings) and ’22 (two starts, 5.2 innings). For the results, I’m focused on comparing his ’18 (dominant) and ’23 (workable) with ’24 (dominant again):

Chris Sale Results by Pitch


SOURCE: Baseball Savant

Sale’s slider — with which he has never, in 14 seasons, allowed a batting average higher than .197 or a wOBA higher than .267 across a full season — has been almost as effective as it was in 2018. His changeup hasn’t been this effective since that season, though the sample size for this year isn’t all that big. (He threw it a lot more often while with the White Sox.) He’s throwing his slider 48.2% of the time against lefties (0.3 points off last year’s career high), compared to 36.6% with the four-seamer, and it’s helped him hold same-side hitters to a .223 wOBA (.149/.200/.298), down from .331 (.245/.309/.469) last year. Meanwhile, while throwing the four-seamer and slider both 38.5% of the time to righties, he’s held them to a .239 wOBA (.211/.253/.273), down from .302 (.224/.290/.409) last year, and, in fact, the lowest mark since his 2010 season as a rookie reliever.

As for what’s fueled this latest run, it does line up with increased usage of his changeup (and sinker) relative to earlier this season:

That said, I don’t think that’s a perfect explanation if we’re using his April 26 start as a point of inflection, as his overall usage rates have only shifted by a few points (42.4% to 39.1% for the slider, 39.2% to 37.2% for the fastball, 11.1% to 14.8% for the changeup, 7% to 8.7% for the sinker). Even if I cut out that four-seam-heavy first start, his percentages have moved by only a few points as well. I think it mainly comes down to better command of his slider. Again using April 26 as the dividing line, compare Sale’s percentage of sliders and results over the heart of the plate versus in the shadow and chase zones:

Chris Sale Slider Results by Attack Zone

Through April 25Heart15.414.
Since April 26Heart10.316.
Through April 25Shadow + Chase22.
Since April 26Shadow + Chase24.940.

SOURCE: Baseball Savant

Sale is throwing fewer sliders where they can be hit hard, and more of them on the fringes, and batters have been utterly helpless against them.

That may not be everything that’s driving the recovery of Sale’s ace form, but his slider has been his signature pitch throughout his career, and it’s currently tied for second (with Tanner Houck’s offering) in Statcast run value (10 runs) behind only that of Imanaga (13 runs). This season has a long way to go, and Sale’s difficulties staying healthy still looms large, but right now, he’s back to top form, and that’s pretty impressive.


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