OK, so Chris Sale is awesome. He is MLB’s first pitcher to seven wins, as he has won all of his first seven turns. The Chicago White Sox have the best record in the American League, and if you want one more reason to start daydreaming about a postseason with both Chicago’s teams, you’ve got one after the Sox trounced the Twins 7-2.
Here are a few quick takeaways from Chris Sale’s victory tonight:
There’s plenty about Sale’s early-season performance that isn’t easy to ascribe to a catch-all such as “pitch efficiency,” just because his strikeout rate is down this season. He isn’t walking fewer batters. His strikeout rate might be down -- from 28.4 percent through 2015 to 24.9 percent in his seven starts -- but he isn’t more pitch-efficient. He is averaging 4.01 pitches per batter, which is effectively as high as his highest career rate as a rotation regular, back in 2014 (4.02).
What’s really different about Sale this season? Take a deeper dive into TruMedia’s data, and you’ll find that he’s throwing more fastballs than ever; he is throwing heat 61.8 percent of the time this season, compared to 53.4 percent in his career. And though he is throwing all those fastballs, they’re slower, around 92 mph, while his career average before this season was 93.5 mph. But Sale's fastballs are also showing more break -- 6.9 inches this season versus 6.3 in the rest of his career. Same for his slider, which is breaking 12.5 inches this year versus 11 inches over his career. The only lefty in the majors who is getting more break on his stuff is Rich Hill of the Athletics, another towering southpaw, at 6-foot-5 (just shorter than Sale’s 6-foot-6). That is a reflection of the benefit a truly talented big man can get from angle and tilt.
Another thing to note? While Sale is working with much more movement this season, he is also working up in the zone more than ever, as he is putting 47.6 percent of his pitches in the upper half of the zone -- again, a career high.
What does all that sound like? Add it up: Sale is throwing more stuff with wicked English. He’s generating more bad contact. He is benefiting from more reliance on a better defense behind him, which has helped generate a .206 Batting Average on Balls In Play, which is third-lowest in the league and fifth-lowest in the majors. Because of the way the White Sox have been throwing the leather around in the early going, the only guy with a higher out rate on balls in play is Jake Arrieta.
It’s easy to start wondering and worrying about individual pieces and how sustainable any one is. High strikes in the Cell sound like balls that might get planted in the cheap seats in left field once the weather warms up. If Sale's pitch efficiency isn’t up, people already predisposed to fret over workload will have additional reason to worry, and maintaining a BABIP that low over a full season isn’t likely.
Small-sample caveats apply, but from all of this, we can say more than that Sale is hot and has started well. You can bet your bottom dollar that Sale’s ERA will eventually go up from 1.79, and Sale will eventually lose a game or two. But this new combination of inducing bad contact with stuff that is moving more while getting help from an improved defense? You better believe Sale’s hot start has the stuff to stick around.
Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.