After Sunday's de-stressing 5-1 victory over the Royals, Robin Ventura let the beat writers in on what his strategy would have been had the game stayed 1-0.
Letting the starter finish out a complete game shutout is usually a vanity project, so it's interesting to hear Ventura describe his decision in opposite terms. Instead of the situation being too important to risk it on a starter on the end of his rope trying to add a feather to his cap, Ventura is implying that Sale, coming out for his ninth inning of work at 116 pitches, was better than every reliever in his bullpen. The five-run lead simply did not merit his attention.
Sale finished the top of the eighth inning by retiring Royals' lead-off man Omar Infante, other than that one batter, the decision to run Sale in the ninth is almost directly a question of whether he should face the batting order a fourth time through or not.
As Mitchell Lichtman, co-author of The Book: Playing the Percentages of Baseball, has stated and re-explored recently, the biggest correlations in decline in starting pitchers comes with every additional time through the order, not pitch count.
Once you factor out that mostly only good pitchers get the opportunity to go through the order a fourth time, it becomes a pretty clear decline.
The rough adage is that the pitcher has the advantage the first time through, is about their normal average selves the second-time through, and fighting against the sunset every time after that. Sale's average wOBA against him is .284, so declining at the factor shown in this chart would put him closer to .299 when he's in his fourth time through the order.
In something approaching laymen's terms, by the time hitters are seeing Sale for the fourth time, he's a lesser version of himself, and starts becoming comparable in effectiveness to relievers in the bullpen. For example, Addison Reed and Nate Jones both were better as relievers (meaning working in short bursts) than Diminished Sale, but Lindstrom wasn't, and certainly hasn't been so far. Neither has Donnie Veal.
And those are the only relievers that Ventura has any rapport with (not that Scott Downs and Ronald Belisario are aces in the hole). Daniel Webb performed up to par in 2013, but is hardly at a level of trust to protect a 1-0, ninth-inning lead.
I entered into research with the intention of impugning Ventura and instead find sympathy. We trumpet the lasting value of scrapping together bullpens on the fly, but there's no denying the early-season headaches it puts upon the manager. How unstable is the White Sox bullpen? Well, without Nate Jones up and functioning, there's no one who's a sure shot to outperform Chris Sale during his fourth trip through the batting order.