How Chris Sale was a Top 10 Pitcher in Baseball in 2019

Since the departure of David Price, Red Sox Nation’s favorite pitcher to pick on has become southpaw Chris Sale.

This, from a results standpoint, can be understandable, especially if you’re somebody who believes the best ability is availability. Sale has only exceeded 158 innings and 27 starts once in his three years in Boston (2017) and is fresh off a season that began with him receiving a handsome five-year, $150 million extension.

Sale struggled with consistency in results, then found himself off the mound after an Aug. 13 start against the Indians in an unfortunate ending to a season that looked poised for resurrection despite being battered by the Yankees twice in his final five starts.

Overall, the veteran lefty with a funky delivery finished with a 4.40 ERA, 1.47 home runs per nine innings (career-worst), and a career-low 147.1 innings pitched (excluding 2011, when he was used out of the bullpen for 71 innings).

At face value, one can look at Chris Sale’s season and say that he was certainly lackluster, especially considering the amount of money he’s slated to make until the 2024 season expires. However, to understand the season Sale put together, you need to look at all of the data, which indicates that Sale was still a top-10 pitcher in the league who suffered from some seriously bad luck.

For starters, his ERA of 4.40 looks bad at face value. However, when you look at his Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP), which accounts for what a pitcher’s ERA should look like with league average luck on balls in play, you’ll see his 3.39 showing was good for 13th in baseball (min. 140 innings). He fell just 12 points short of Justin Verlander for the 10th spot and 17 short of Zack Greinke for eighth in baseball.

His expected FIP (xFIP), which accounts for league average luck on fly balls, and Sale’s 2.93 would rank third behind only Max Scherzer and Gerrit Cole. On top of that, his expected ERA (ERA) of 3.54 ranked 17th whereas his actual earned run average ranked 66th. His 0.86-run difference made him the fourth-most unlucky pitcher in baseball from a run prevention standpoint (min. 500 plate appearances against).

When you delve a little deeper, Chris Sale’s Skill Interactive ERA (SIERA) was 3.00. That metric is an ERA estimator used to determine why some pitchers are better at inducing poor contact than others. When you look at Sale’s posting, he ranked fourth in all of baseball, seven points behind Max Scherzer for No. 2 in the league but miles away from Gerrit Cole, who was on another planet in 2019 in his own right.

Next comes his strikeout rate. It goes without saying or showing that Chris Sale is one of the best strikeout artists the game has ever seen. However, even in a down year (worst showing in Boston), he still ranked second in the league in strikeout rate at 35.6 percent.

To put that all into one place for you, Chris Sale ranked:

  • Second in K-rate (35.6 percent)
  • Third in xFIP (2.93)
  • Fourth in the difference between actual and expected ERA (0.86)
  • Fourth in SIERA (3.00)
  • 13th in FIP (3.39)
  • 17th in ERA (3.54)

The unfortunate reality is that Tommy John surgery will keep Sale out of the shortened 2020 season, where he was poised to be one of the strongest rebound candidates in baseball. It’s also hard to project where he’ll be health-wise in 2021, or if he can regain the level of sheer dominance he’s shown in the past.

However, one simply would be doing the future Hall of Famer a disservice if they ignored how unlucky he was in 2019. He’s still one of the top five-to-10 pitchers in the entire league and it would be fair to anticipate a rebound whenever he returns to action.

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