Hot off the presses, White Sox GM Kenny Williams has announced that Chris Sale, who has not started a game since college, will be in their starting rotation next season. So what might we expect from the lanky (I believe this word was invented with Sale in mind) southpaw?
The soon-to-be 23 year old Sale has been fantastic during his first 94.1 innings in relief, posting a 2.58 ERA and sub-3.00 SIERA and xFIP marks. He has struck out a dazzling 29.2% of batters faced, which ranks him an impressive 13th among all pitchers with at least 90 innings pitched over the past two seasons. His 11.2% SwStk% is a tick lower than you might expect from someone with that strikeout rate, but he has generated gobs of called strikes, which count just the same.
He is also a pretty heavy ground ball pitcher, which is rare among strikeout artists. He sports a 50% ground ball rate, which is quite helpful in a park that inflates home runs. However, like many young pitchers, Sale’s seemingly only weakness is his control. His 9.7% walk percentage is a bit above the league average, but good enough given his huge strikeout rate and excellent GB%.
So we know that Chris Sale the reliever is pretty darn awesome. Just last season in 2010, we saw a similarly skilled reliever named C.J. Wilson be successfully converted into a starter. He also induced lots of grounders and possessed good strikeout ability, while his control was somewhat lacking as well. Of course, Sale throws quite a bit harder than Wilson, but the underlying skills were not too different. Although Wilson has managed to throw over 200 innings these past two seasons, the stamina issue will likely be Sale’s biggest hurdle and will put a ceiling on his ultimate fantasy value.
Pitchers obviously lose velocity when starting versus relieving. Though it varies by pitcher, the drop-off is typically in the 2-3 mile per hour range. That would still allow Sale to average around 93.0 miles per hour with his fastball, which would be excellent for a lefty. The velocity decline is one factor that contributes to relievers losing about 15%-20% of their K% upon the move to starting. That would bring Sale’s K% down to around 23% to 24.5%. The below handy table published by Carson Cistulli over the summer suggests this would correspond to a strikeout rate of a bit below 9.0.
The good news for Sale is that while the strikeout rate does drop, so does BB% by a similar rate. Applying the same 15%-20% range, we find that Sale would see his BB/9 improve to around league average territory of 3.1. Given that his career F-Strike% is already just about at the league average, this would seem like a reasonable expectation.
So mixing those numbers together, the best comparables to Sale’s skill set are Josh Johnson, Jon Lester and C.J. Wilson. That’s pretty wonderful company. It would be unwise to project his performance to rival those pitchers in his first year as a starter, of course, but it tells you just how strong his skill package is. Sale also doesn’t face the problem that gets most relievers banished to the bullpen in the first place; he actually has three pitches. As alluded to earlier, he will likely have an innings limit, so his value is going to be capped. Many of you play in daily transactions leagues that has an innings maximum, though, which requires you to value pitchers based on per inning ratios. Sale is going to be a steal in those leagues. In standard weekly transaction leagues, he still has great profit potential.
Mike Podhorzer is the 2015 Fantasy Sports Writers Association Baseball Writer of the Year. He produces player projections using his own forecasting system and is the author of the eBook Projecting X 2.0: How to Forecast Baseball Player Performance, which teaches you how to project players yourself. His projections helped him win the inaugural 2013 Tout Wars mixed draft league. Follow Mike on Twitter @MikePodhorzer and contact him via email.