Chris Sale the Starter
Chris Sale has used his slinging, low three-quarters delivery and power fastball/slider combo to dominate hitters out of the Chicago White Sox bullpen over the past two seasons. But, with Mark Buehrle a free agent and both John Danks and Gavin Floyd possibly on the trade block, GM Kenny Williams recently confirmed that the 22-year-old lefty will slide into the rotation in 2012.
Stuff shouldn't be a problem. Sale, a starter at Florida Gulf Coast University before Chicago took him 13th overall in the 2010 draft, has struck out 10.6 batters per nine innings, walked 3.2 per nine unintentionally and allowed 0.8 homers per nine in 94.1 innings pitched out of the 'pen from 2010-2011. He has accomplished that primarily with a fastball averaging slightly over 95 mph (only Aroldis Chapman, teammate Matt Thornton, and Rex Brothers cook with more gas among lefty relievers) and a low-80s slider with an absurd miss rate (49 percent, 33 percent average for relievers).
Sale will likely lose a 1-2 ticks on his fastball while having to pace himself, but that would still leave him with elite fastball velocity among left-handed starters. David Price, Derek Holland, CC Sabathia, Jon Lester, Jorge de la Rosa and Danny Duffy are the only southpaws to average 93 mph or faster with their fastballs in 2011. With plus velocity, Sale hasn't been shy about challenging batters with his heat:
He has thrown about 54 percent of his fastballs in the strike zone, above the 51 percent average for relievers.
Sale has also done a nice job of spotting his slider down in the zone:
Well over half (54 percent) of Sale's sliders have been thrown in the lower third of the zone. When the breaker isn't getting swings and misses, it generates ground balls (54 percent, compared to the 46 percent average for relievers). Keeping that slider low could be key for Sale as a starter, considering that U.S. Cellular Field pumps up home run production by 26 percent for left-handed hitters and 38 percent for right-handers.
Sale's biggest challenge might be dusting off his changeup. He didn't really need the pitch out of the 'pen, going to his fastball about 56 percent of the time, his slider 37 percent and his changeup just seven percent. Happily, the pitch got positive reviews from scouts before Sale largely shelved it in the pros. In its 2010 draft coverage, Baseball America said "Sale's changeup grades as plus like his fastball," and "he has always been able to throw [it] for strikes." ESPN's Keith Law noted before the 2011 season that "he's shown he can turn over a changeup from that [arm] slot."
With great velocity, a whiff-inducing slider and a third quality pitch in his back pocket in his changeup, Sale should have little trouble transitioning to the rotation so long as his skinny 6-foot-6, 180 pound frame can handle the work load. Dan Szymborski's ZiPS projection system has Sale missing well over a batter per inning in slightly over 150 IP while posting an adjusted ERA that's nine percent better than the league average.
The White Sox would certainly miss the 200+ innings that they could count on from Buehrle if he does leave, and both Danks and Floyd have significant value and above-average starters under control at reasonable prices. But for a team woefully short on young talent, Sale provides a nice building block in the rotation for the (likely) post-Buehrle/Danks/Floyd years.