Chris Sale shows he's still dominant pitcher, and his massive extension could work out after all

Alex Reimer
August 09, 2019 - 9:01 am

Chris Sale is a shining example of how sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good. The left-hander has limped through the the bulk of the season, with the Red Sox winning just nine of his 24 starts. But when one looks deeper at Sale’s statistics, and reflects on his dominant performance against the Angels Thursday, it’s possible he’s been the victim of bad luck more than anything else.

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Perhaps there’s hope for his massive five-year, $145 million deal after all.

Sale struck out 13 Angels on 99 pitches in a breezy 3-0 Red Sox victory that took just two hours and 16 minutes to complete. The average Sox game this season has hovered above the three-hour and 20-minute mark.

His hardest pitch of the evening came late in the outing: an elevated 98 mile per hour fastball that future Hall of Famer Albert Pujols swung right through. Sale leads the league with 13.2 strikeouts per nine innings, a definite sign his stuff is still tantalizing. 

Though Sale’s been hit hard at times this season –– already allowing 22 home runs, which is just five shy of his career high –– his high strikeout totals show he can still dominate Major League hitters. This does not appear to be the case of a 30-year-old pitcher with diminishing stuff.

As the excellent “@RedSoxStats” points out, Sale’s 4.41 ERA is significantly higher than his 3.35 FIP, which measures what a pitcher’s ERA would look like if he were to experience league average outcomes on balls in play. In other words, it measures a pitcher on the elements he can control, such as strikeouts and home runs allowed.

Oftentimes, FIP is an excellent indicator of where a pitcher is trending. Look no further than Andrew Cashner, whose 4.27 FIP in Baltimore compared to his 3.83 ERA showed he was performing above his ability level. 

He’s leveled off in Boston, posting a ghastly 7.53 ERA in five starts.

Sale’s strikeout totals aren’t just a result of the swing-and-a-miss happy times in which we live. He’s fanned 35 percent of batters faced this season, which is roughly 12 points higher than the league average strikeout rate of 22.7 percent. When batters do make contact against Sale, their average on balls in play (BABIP) is 20 points higher than it’s been throughout his dominant career. 

Certainly, Sale’s meltdown against the Yankees last Saturday was very concerning. He’s struggled mightily against New York this season, just like the Red Sox as a whole. 

But his sterling performance Thursday shows hope is not lost. For the first time in his career, maybe Sale is gearing up for an electrifying finish. The numbers indicate that may be the case. With David Price hitting the Injured List with a cyst on his wrist, and the Red Sox gasping for their last playoff breath, it couldn’t come at a better time. 

Related: Vintage Chris Sale silences Angels in dominant performance