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Chris Sale Trade: Fantasy Impact

The biggest trade in recent memory has consequences for fake baseball as well, but which Chris Sale will the Red Sox get in 2017?

Tampa Bay Rays v Chicago White Sox
You might know this guy from such trades as December 6, 2016.
Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

You might have heard that a certain left-handed starter from the White Sox recently switched teams. You might also know which team he moved to and for what prospects he was traded. It was kind of a big deal. Anyway, as Fake Teams’ resident Red Sox fan, I feel obligated to discuss this trade and its fantasy impacts.

For the White Sox, this trade meant getting four prospects of varying ability. The two lower-level prospects, Luis Alexander Basabe and Victor Diaz don’t have much fantasy value. Basabe might be useful someday, but I’m not going to discuss him further here. Michael Kopech is a starter that can throw 100 mph easily, but has major control issues to work on. I would bet he ends up a great closer someday, but he could start as well.

Finally, the consensus #1 prospect in all of baseball, Yoan Moncada, is clearly the prize in this deal. He is a potential future fantasy monster as soon as late 2017, with plus plus speed and plus power to go with a great walk rate. He could be the next Justin Upton or Robinson Cano with more speed. Please check out the work of our Fake Teams prospect staff for more details on all these young ‘uns. They follow prospects much closer than I do. This is all I’m going to say about these guys today, so check out those other writers’ stuff for more.

Let’s move on to the Red Sox side. Chris. Sale. That is all.

You know, the guy that finished in the top-5 in Cy Young voting in 4 straight seasons? He’s left-handed, throws 93+ mph, and has had K%-BB% over 20% for four consecutive seasons. He’s never posted a swinging strike rate below 10%. I could go on, but you know this. Sale is moving to Boston, and that means a new home park.

Mike Podhorzer over at Rotographs did an excellent job describing the park factor changes for Sale moving from cringe Guaranteed Rate Field (yes, that’s the official name now) to Fenway Park. You should read that article. Basically, the summary is that while Fenway does increase doubles for right-handed batters significantly, it suppresses home runs more than the ballpark-formerly-known-as-US-Cellular-Field. In the end, it is mostly a wash for park factors and runs allowed.

Yes, the AL East is generally more fearsome than the AL Central, but I don’t think that will be a huge factor. Therefore, the biggest factor in evaluating this trade is simply: will his strikeout and velocity drop from 2016 linger into 2017?

Sale reportedly decided to pitch to contact more in 2016 to limit his pitch count. This lowered his strikeout rate (predictably). It also caused his velocity to dip, we think. The velocity definitely dipped, but was it all part of the plan? His K% went from 32.1% in 2015 to 25.7% in 2016. His velocity went from 94.5 to 93 mph. According to the article I linked from May, his new strategy was working. It allowed him to pitch deeper into games. His K% at that point was only 23.5%, but his ERA was 1.66 and his FIP was 2.99, so it did work. Until you look at his xFIP of 3.78, which is awful for him. Any xFIP over 3.0 is terrible for his career.

Here is the K% trend for Sale’s 2016 season. You can see that his late August and September starts (games 23 and above) showed noticeably more strikeouts. If you look at his velocity chart (not pictured), there is almost no change in velocity, though.

Despite all of this pitch-to-contact stuff, Sale’s swinging strike rate for the season was 11.3%, down from the crazy 14.2% of 2015, but good enough for 15th best among all qualified starters. His slider’s swinging strike rate was basically unchanged from 2015: 15.2% to 15.9%.

However, here’s where things get interesting. His bread-and-butter two seam fastball’s swinging strike rate dropped from 12.8% (!!!!) to 9.4% in 2016, but that was still better than his 2014 or 2013 marks on that pitch, so no big deal right? How about his change-up? It went from 18.9% in 2015 to 11.3% in 2016. For a guy with only three pitches, that’s a big deal. He throws his change-up a ton and a drop like that is an issue.

And it’s not like he was going for grounders more with that pitch. In fact, none of his pitches are good ground ball pitches and the change-up’s GB% was basically the same as 2015. You would think a weaker change-up would lead to worse performance against right-handed batters. And you would be right.

2014 xFIP vs RHB: 3.1

2015 xFIP vs RHB: 2.66

2016 xFIP vs RHB: 3.77

Plain-old FIP shows the same general trend, with 2016 being much worse than previous years. If an intentional effort to pitch-to-contact allows him to pitch deeper into games at the expense of a few Ks, I think we would be ok with that. However, when he does that and loses the effectiveness of his key out pitch against righties at the same time, he suddenly looks very mortal. With righties able to use the Green Monster against him in 2017, he will need to rediscover his changeup.

Good news, Chris Sale fans! He started to re-discover it in September. This just happens to coincide with the uptick in K% I mentioned earlier. What a coincidence!

Look at that whiff% trend on the change, but October was only one start, so don’t put too much on that. I can see several changes he made that led to this. First, he started throwing the change-up softer, giving it more velocity distance from his fastball.

See how the velocity drops late in the year? His other pitches showed only very minor changes in speed. I don’t know if it was intentional or not, but it worked. In addition to that, he also started to throw the pitch lower and more away. You’ll have to trust me on those things, because this post is already long and two more charts isn’t going to help that.

So, let’s wrap this up. Chris Sale will continue to be a fantasy monster in 2017, even in Fenway. He seems to be healthy and is only 27. If he decides to continue to pitch to contact, you should expect similar K-rates to 2016, but with better results because I believe his change-up will be better in 2017 and more like its old self. However, he still has the potential to put up elite (top-5) strikeout rates if he decides to go back to what worked so well for him in the past.

Keep a keen eye on his velocity, strikeout rate, and his change-up (swinging strike rate, velocity, and location) early on next year to see if he can challenge for the most valuable pitcher in fantasy or just top 10 starter. Tschus!