I know, it's April. First rule of April: Don't bet on April.
But it's late April! And I'm betting on Chris Sale.
White Sox win again!— Baseball Tonight (@BBTN) April 27, 2016
Chris Sale tosses another solid game allowing just 1 R in 8 IP as he moves to 5-0 on the year. pic.twitter.com/RjX8IWqWmL
Chris Sale is not human... Nearly a month into the season and he has more wins than the Atlanta Braves. Untouchable.— Scott Phillips (@phillipshoops) April 27, 2016
Chris Sale continues his 30-wins pace.— Bill Veeck (@Bill_Veeck) April 27, 2016
Those tweets tell us what happened as Sale and the Chicago White Sox steamrolled the Toronto Blue Jays in a 10-1 victory Tuesday night. Sale allowed only a seventh-inning home run to Edwin Encarnacion, throwing 100 pitches over eight innings. As I watched on TV, he seemed in cruise control, with the Blue Jays hitting harmless fly balls and three infield popups. I loved the pitch efficiency. He threw fewer pitches in just six of his 31 starts last season and averaged barely five innings per start in those six games.
That's one reason both Sale and pitching coach Don Cooper talked about pitch efficiency before the season. Sale led the American League and set a White Sox club record with 274 strikeouts last year. But he also had a 4.33 ERA in the second half and gave up 45 hits and eight home runs in 37 innings in September. Sale insists he wasn't tired, and Cooper told the Chicago Sun-Times in January, "There were a few things going on with that that I'd rather not even talk about. Things that might have been going on."
Assuming it wasn't health -- and given his strikeout rate, there certainly wasn't anything wrong with his stuff -- or fatigue, since Sale said it wasn't, you wonder if Sale was tipping his pitches. That's just speculation on my part, but some of the numbers bear that out. Six of the eight home runs he allowed in September came off fastballs, and batters hit .363/.407/.638 against his fastball that month. That fastball had the highest swing-and-miss rate among starters in the majors at 27 percent prior to September -- a rate that dropped to 23 percent in September.
Maybe Cooper was alluding to something else, but tipping pitches is certainly something you wouldn't want to discuss. Still, Cooper made the point to mention pitch efficiency in that article. "I'm looking for Chris Sale to be a little economical with his pitches," Cooper told Rick Morrissey. "Let's get 'em out quicker. Let's get strikeouts when [you] need them."
I'm always a little hesitant when I hear talk about pitch efficiency, because strikeouts are good things. Only a few pitchers are able to have some measure of control over the hard contact they allow -- Jake Arrieta appears to be one of those guys, and Dallas Keuchel was expert at it last season. Sale, at least in 2015, was not one of those pitchers; among 78 qualified starters he ranked 74th in wOBA allowed when a ball was put in play. In other words, when he did give up contact, opponents hit it hard. (The White Sox also had a poor defensive team, which, of course, hurt his numbers.) He was better in this area in 2014, when he ranked 19th out of 89 qualified starters, lending more credence to the tipping pitches theory.
That said, the new approach is producing excellent results so far. He has gone at least seven innings in all five starts yet hasn't reached 110 pitches in a start, something Sale did 15 times last season. His strikeout rate has dipped from 32.1 percent to 23.2 percent, but his BABIP is a miniscule .186 (defense matters!). And batters aren't teeing off on his fastball:
Batters hit .363 against Chris Sale's fastball last September. In 2016? Not so much. pic.twitter.com/Rxu3qhehzi— David Schoenfield (@dschoenfield) April 27, 2016
One White Sox fan on Twitter said Sale is changing speeds better on his fastball; that gets to the idea of trying to induce more weak contact. I suspect Sale will still crank up the strikeouts when needed. He just hasn't needed to.
Given the slow starts for Cy Young contenders David Price, Chris Archer, Keuchel and Corey Kluber, Sale's hot start probably makes him the Cy Young favorite at this moment (many picked him before the season, of course). Remember, he had a 2.17 ERA in 2014; if he hadn't missed five starts that year he likely would have beaten out Kluber for the award. This looks like the season Sale will win out.
Oh, and the White Sox are 15-6 and have the best record in the American League.