Establishing a reasonable floor for Chris Sale

If you follow our newest writer Ethan Spalding on Twitter, you'll notice his remarkable talent for holding his finger to the wind, gauging a current, vibrant discussion about a starting pitcher, and comparing that pitcher unfavorably to Chris Sale.


Cole Hamels has yet to be dealt because all parties involved are dwelling on what a unsatisfying consolation prize he is. That 150 ERA+ mark has to be qualified. Sale has worked over 95 innings as a reliever, which provides a much lower bar for performance that he cleared with a much better than 150 ERA+ mark.

Sale's most authoritative statement on his endurance and ability to hold up under a season of ace workload also doubles as his least effective showing as a starter, as he finished with a 137 ERA+ mark that would have to settle for sixth-best in the American League if he flashed it in 2014. It was a slight dip from his 140 ERA+ debut season, which he managed despite some shaky beginnings and his dead arm end. While last season was marred by a scary month-long absence on the disabled list, around that void he was a perfected three-pitch monster, with a fully enabled wipeout changeup that allowed him to kill at-bats in any way he chose. That league-leading 178 ERA+ season dragged his career average as a starter up to, well, by my calculation, 151 ERA+.


Part of the trouble projecting Sale is expecting regression from a miracle. He had blown away expectations just by being as effective as he was out of the gate, but the nutty pitch development ability from which his slider was born never stopped being at play. 'Sale working on using his changeup vs. lefties' seemed like a space-filler offseason story about a guy who was already death to lefties, but then he went and reduced his OPS against them to sub-.400 levels. Despite only having three pitches, Sale has never been as simple as just betting on his ability to repeat prior performances. 178 ERA+ is too preposterous to become his new baseline, but he's not just going to zap back to the guy he was in 2012-13 either; he's evolved.

To add some terrifying sobriety, I think the model for a Sale return to Earth is Justin Verlander, though ideally not to the same severity and not anytime soon. Just like Verlander stopped being able to work his way to his elite secondary pitches as his fastball abandoned him, so too has Sale struggled in the past when arm fatigue has sapped his velocity, and his command when he has to reach back to compensate. The Sox have been working to manage Sale's stamina ever since this phenomena emerged, but if there are any struggles in 2015, that's the most likely path.

Of course, Sale has set the precedent that struggles would be regressing to being just a top-10 pitcher in the league. This is a reasonable floor for him, all injury anxieties--which exist for everyone--aside, which is to say there is no reasonable floor for Sale. His skill is unreasonable.


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