Switch your style up

Chris Sale's pitching change has resulted in unparalleled dominance, but will it last?

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In a year of fascinating pitching stories — with Clayton Kershaw having a 95-5 strikeout-to-walk ratio and Jake Arrieta pitching about as well as anyone ever and Max Scherzer offering up some legendary performances and the emergence of Noah Syndergaard and so on — my eye follows Chicago’s Chris Sale. He is playing a fascinating game. And nobody knows exactly how it is going to turn out.

You probably heard: Sale is a different kind of pitcher this year. It’s an interesting and even curious tactic because Sale has probably been the best pitcher in the American League for five years. This seems a bit like Tiger Woods changing his swing after winning the Masters by 100 shots or whatever.

But, then, change is the story of Chris Sale’s life. He blossomed late. As a freshman at Lakeland (Florida) Senior High, he was just 5-foot-8 and barely pushed 120 pounds. His only obvious baseball skill was the obsession he had with the game. His parents built a pitcher’s mound in the backyard, and he threw so many pitches against the concrete wall of the house that — as his father Allen dutifully reported later — he chipped a hole in the wall.

Sale sprouted 10 inches between his freshman and senior year, though at first he didn’t seem to know exactly what to do with all that extra height. He did show enough raw talent that the Colorado Rockies drafted him in the 21st round and offered him a $100,000 signing bonus. But Sale’s parents wanted him to go to college. Only one college in baseball-rich Florida even looked at him. That was Florida Gulf Coast University, a school that had only started its baseball program four years earlier. Sale decided to go there.

He will admit to being adrift in those days. He almost quit baseball after his freshman year. But then he started to get in sync with his stretched-out body — Sale maintained his flexibility even as he grew to 6-foot-6 — and he developed a three-quarter pitching style that gave his pitches a nasty bite. As a junior, he went 11-0 and led the country in strikeouts. He was supposed to be a Top 10 prospect; projections had him going fourth overall to Kansas City. But the Royals passed (taking Christian Colon) and so did the next eight teams.

The White Sox took him with the 13th overall pick. He signed almost immediately — one of the concerns about Sale was that he would hold out — and two months after draft day he was pitching for the White Sox. By the end of the year, he was closing out games and being compared to Randy Johnson.

Sale pitched angry. That was his character. In his first year as a starter, he went 17-8, was fourth in the American League in ERA, and ninth in strikeouts. The next year, he was third in strikeouts and was fantastic (though many people failed to notice because his won-loss record for a 99-loss Chicago team dwindled to 11-14). In 2014, he led the league in strikeouts per inning pitched and finished third in Cy Young voting. Last year, he led the league in strikeouts and strikeouts per inning pitched and was fourth in Cy Young voting. While so much of the attention went to Felix Hernandez and David Price and Justin Verlander, Sale was the real star of the league.

Strikeouts defined Chris Sale. He made hitters swing and miss. He led the AL in swinging strike percentage in 2014 (12.9 percent) and 2015 (14.6 percent). With two strikes, Sale went for the K by attacking hitters with his drop-off-the-table slider and his disappearing change-up. Bat contact was to be avoided, more or less at all costs, and this had its advantages (Sale was a thoroughly dominant pitcher) and disadvantages (high pitch counts often forced him out of games and he endured numerous nagging injuries).

This year, Sale has changed his style. He explains it various ways: He wants to stop “overthrowing. He needs to stop “pitching angry.” He intends to pitch later into games and save the bullpen. Pitchers often say stuff like that but you rarely see any actual difference in their styles. With Sale, you absolutely can see the difference. He really is a markedly different pitcher.

1. His velocity is unquestionably down. According to the indispensable Brooks Baseball data, Sale is throwing his four-seam fastball, his sinker and his slider one-to-two mph slower than last year. Sale says this is by design.

2. He has more or less stopped throwing the change-up to get strikeouts. That is his best swing-and-miss pitch (and also the pitch hitters will hit hardest if they connect). Last year, he threw the change-up about 28 percent of the time — and about 22 percent of the time with two strikes. This year, he is throwing it about half as much and almost never with two strikes.

3. He is throwing many, many more sinkers this year. The sinker is, by far, his least effective swing-and-miss pitch. But it is his most effective pitch for getting ground balls.

The results have been striking. Batters are not swinging and missing Sale’s pitches in the same way — his swing and miss rate is all the way down to 9.2 percent. Hitters are not chasing his pitches out of the strike zone like they did. And even when they do chase, they’re connecting a lot more often. For the first time in his career, Sale is not striking out at least one batter per inning.

And the overall result? Well, for the first nine starts of the year, Sale was impossibly efficient. He started the year 9-0, completed three of those games (he threw a 99-pitch complete game) and posted a 1.58 ERA. The league was hitting .163 against him.

In the 10th game against Cleveland, though, he only lasted 3 1/3 innings and gave up seven hits and six earned runs. Cleveland went 7-for-17, a .411 average if you are scoring at home.

Of course, every pitcher will have a bad game now and again, and that might be the only thing that happened Tuesday. But here’s the question: Was Sale’s bad game INEVITABLE? Here’s what I mean: Sale’s shift in pitching tactics is based on a very simple premise. He wants hitters to make more contact. Sure, he still wants to get some strikeouts (he has 69 Ks in 71 2/3 innings, so we’re not talking about slow-pitch softball here) but strikeouts are hard on the arm, they require a lot of pitches, they are not always cost-effective. Sale wants, instead, for hitters to make light contact — ground balls, pop-ups, soft line drives — and for the White Sox defense to get the outs.

For nine games, this worked in a historic way. Nine games in, opponents’ batting average on balls in play (BABIP) was .197. How amazing is that? No pitcher in the record books has EVER held hitters a sub-.200 BABIP for a full season. When hitters put the ball in play, they will hit around .300; it has been that way for 20-plus years. One of the more prominent theories in baseball right now is that starting pitchers, no matter how good, do not have much control over BABIP.  After bat meets ball, this theory goes, it is up to the team’s defense and the hands of destiny to determine whether it becomes a hit.

And, sure enough, we saw Sale’s destiny turn Tuesday night. Let’s look a little bit more closely. In the first and second innings, Francisco Lindor and Marlon Byrd hit ground balls that scooted through the infield for hits, though these were not damaging.

But the third inning was a nightmare. With two outs, Sale got a 1-2 count on Jose Ramirez. As per usual, he did not go for the strikeout with his change-up. Instead, he fed sliders and fastballs, and Ramirez kept fouling them off until he drew a walk. Lindor followed with solid single and then Mike Napoli hit a ball to the outfield that landed in the perfect spot, just out of reach of White Sox center fielder Austin Jackson, scoring two runs. Sale then got two strikes on Carlos Santana, but again could not put the hitter away. After he walked, Juan Uribe fouled off six pitches before blooping a single to right field to score another run.

Do you see the pattern? For nine games, those bloops became outs, those foul balls had been caught. This is what pitching coaches and managers hope for when they say “pitch to contact.” But on Tuesday, those balls kept dropping in, and Sale was clearly rattled. In the fourth inning, he gave up a home run to Chris Gimenez, then, after striking out Michael Martinez, he walked back-to-back hitters and gave up another single to Lindor, and his night was done.

The Indians put nine balls in play. Seven of them were hits.

“We ran into a buzzsaw,” Sale said.

Was it a buzzsaw … or was it inevitability? Well, hey, it’s just one game. Chris Sale is a fantastic pitcher, one of the best in the game, and whatever style he uses, he will be a terrific pitcher. Still, I wouldn’t be surprised if, sooner rather than later, he goes back to pitching angry again. Chris Sale’s awfully good when he’s angry.