What can we make of Chris Sale the starting pitcher?
He's not as hot an early fantasy pick as Neftali Feliz, and he's on the less competitive "Sox" team than Daniel Bard's, but among the three most prominent American League relievers-turned-starters, Chris Sale might be the smartest value this season.
That's more opinion than fact, yes, but one of the primary reasons Sale fits that description is that he's the one of the three for whom there exists the most factual data regarding his ability to handle the transition.
Let's discuss Sale's arsenal first.
Unlike Feliz or Bard, for whom the fastball is a critical pitch, Sale doesn't rely on the fastball nearly as often, nor is it his "out" pitch. He's a fastball-slider-changeup pitcher, and, per ESPN's pitch-tracking tool, in his career he's thrown fastballs 55.2 percent of the time, sliders 35.2 percent and changeups 9.6 percent, with practically every one of the changeups utilized versus right-handed hitters. Opponents have managed .283/.385/.520 lifetime triple-slash rates (.905 OPS) versus Sale's fastball; compare that to Bard's .664 OPS allowed and 71.4 percent reliance upon the fastball or Feliz's .573 and 79.6 the past three seasons combined.
It's for that reason the concerns about diminished fastball velocity -- these pitchers perhaps needing to dial it down a bit to hold up over longer outings -- are lesser for Sale. He has averaged 95.5 mph with his so far in the big leagues, not a far cry from Bard's 97.4 mph or Feliz's 96.1 mph averages.
Two other points about Sale's fastball: One, he actually went to his slider more often in two-strike counts; he has thrown it 49.8 percent of the time in those. Two, he has both two- and four-seamers; the former is what helps contribute to his healthy 51.7 percent lifetime ground-ball rate (on all pitches).
But what Sale lacks with his fastball, he offers with his secondary pitches. These are his career performances with both slider and changeup:
Slider: .094/.115/.102 triple-slash rates allowed, 50.0 Miss%, 132 PAs
Changeup: .167/.211/.194 triple-slash rates allowed, 34.7 Miss%, 38 PAs
Those numbers represent the kind of success that ease any worry about a starter's transition. If you've been following the "30 Questions" series, you know that this was the primary concern with Feliz, for example. From a pure statistical angle, Feliz has concluded only 119 plate appearances with a pitch besides the fastball or 13 fewer PAs than Sale has with his slider alone. And that's accounting for the fact that Feliz has faced 258 batters more than Sale overall in their careers. We've already seen that Sale varies his pitches with success; can Feliz?
Sale's next advantage over his brethren is his proximity to his new role; he's the one of the three who has most recently been a starter.
It was less than two calendar years ago that Sale made his last start, a May 25, 2010, outing for Florida Gulf Coast University, mere days before he was tabbed the 13th pick overall in the 2010 amateur draft. In that calendar year, he totaled 136 1/3 innings between college, the minors and majors, 101 of those as a college starter, then another 35 1/3 as a reliever between his stops.
During the 2010 college season, Sale routinely handled workloads of greater than 100 pitches -- eight of his 15 starts were of at least that many -- and, with the exception of his two relief appearances, he usually worked on a similar schedule to a big leaguer, between four and six days of rest. It represented a boost from his 2009 college season, during which he made 12 starts of 89 1/3 innings, frequently going a full week between turns.
To again reference our other "30 Questions" columns, this was the primary concern with Bard. Bard has never thrown more than 77 2/3 innings in any professional season, has not started a game since 2007 -- Feliz most recently did in 2009 -- and hasn't thrown as many as 100 innings since his final year of college in 2006, when he tallied 101 1/3 for North Carolina. There's reason to believe that Sale would be most capable of the bunch to handle the workload increase.
Speaking of handling the workload increase, Sale has one advantage neither Bard nor Feliz does: He's on a team much less likely to contend for a playoff spot, meaning less of a need to pace him to keep him fresh for the postseason, less pressure on him in each individual outing, and less of a risk that he'll be bumped to the bullpen as a strategic measure for said playoffs, a la Alexi Ogando a year ago. Would anyone be surprised if the Chicago White Sox allow Sale to breeze past 150 innings, perhaps even approaching 175, only giving casual thought to shutting him down entirely at the end of August or in early September?
As for the ballpark concerns, Sale's aforementioned ground-ball rate minimizes some of U.S. Cellular Field's homer-friendly effects. So far during his career as a reliever, he has a 3.62 ERA and 1.21 WHIP at home, significantly worse than his sparkling 1.41/0.99 road rates, though much of the home struggles have been a direct result of a whopping 13.6 home run/fly ball percentage at "The Cell."
Considering Sale might spend more time pacing himself during his individual outings, he might put more of an emphasis on his two-seamer, helping assure another season of a better-than-50 percent ground-ball rate. If he does, there's no reason to think he can't post at worst 3.62/1.21 rates at home, so long as he's not as unfortunate on the fly balls he allows as he has been as a reliever.
Perhaps Sale doesn't have the stuff that either a Bard or Feliz does, but his advantage might be the least amount of needed adjustment of the three.
Sale shouldn't have any trouble meeting -- or potentially exceeding -- the 143 innings that we have projected for him. That's about double his 2011 relief workload, and only 40 innings north of what he totaled in college.
Sale shouldn't have any trouble maintaining what were remarkably balanced rates against left- and right-handed hitters -- .587 and .605 OPS allowed in his career -- considering he already has a diverse enough arsenal to succeed against either.
And he should remain a ground-baller, which is a critical thing to be if you're a White Sox pitcher.
Put it together and, in a season in which Bard and Feliz might have the stuff that most dazzles us of the group, it's Sale who might be the one who surprises us all.