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How Chris Sale rediscovered his Cy Young stuff with Braves: Three reasons for southpaw’s early success

During an offseason in which impact pitching was in short supply, the Atlanta Braves found a creative way to address their rotation needs. On Dec. 30, the Braves landed seven-time All-Star Chris Sale in a one-for-one trade with the Red Sox that sent infielder Vaughn Grissom to Boston. The Red Sox agreed to pay $17 million of Sale’s salary to facilitate the trade, and soon thereafter Atlanta signed him to a two-year extension.

“We think he’s a playoff-caliber starter,” Braves GM Alex Anthopoulos said after the trade. “And that’s what we were in the market for if we could acquire that this offseason, someone that we felt could start playoff games for us.”

A quarter of the way through the 2024 season, things could not be going better for Sale with the Braves. The 35-year-old southpaw owns a 2.54 ERA through eight starts and 49 2/3 innings with strikeout and walk totals (61/8 K/BB) reminiscent of his Cy Young-caliber peak. On Tuesday night, Sale struck out nine Chicago Cubs in seven scoreless innings of two-hit ball (ATL 7, CHC 0).

“I’m obviously happy with where we’ve been and where we are, but we have a long way to go,” Sale said after Tuesday’s win (via the Atlanta Journal Constitution). “I’m appreciative of where we are, but it’s nothing to hang your hat on quite yet.”

That’s good perspective from a veteran pitcher who’s had more than his fair share of injuries the last few years, and knows just how long and demanding the season is. Eight starts in, Sale has been fantastic. It is only eight starts though. May is not the time to start hanging banners and making victory declarations.

A year ago, a stress fracture in Sale’s shoulder limited him to 20 starts and 102 2/3 innings with the Red Sox, and in those 102 2/3 innings he wasn’t especially effective: 4.30 ERA with a .709 OPS against. That’s not bad by any means, though it was a far cry from the pitcher who finished in the top six of the AL Cy Young voting every year from 2012-18.

The Braves bet on Sale bouncing back and were positioned to do so because, coming into 2024, Sale was penciled in as their No. 3 starter at best behind Spencer Strider and Max Fried. He might have even been No. 4 behind Charlie Morton. Atlanta did not need Sale to pitch like an ace the way the Red Sox did. They just needed him to be better than everyone else’s No. 3 or 4. The Sale trade was my favorite offseason move for that reason.

Strider’s season-ending elbow surgery does increase Sale’s importance to Atlanta’s World Series hopes, and so far he appears up to the task. What is Sale doing this year to rediscover his Cy Young caliber form? Here are three reasons he’s once again one of the game’s most dominant pitchers.

1. He’s healthy

We have to start here. For the first time in a long time, Sale is healthy, and he was able to have a normal offseason. Last offseason he was coming off a finger injury and wrist surgery. The two offseasons before that he was rehabbing from Tommy John surgery. This was a normal winter for Sale. He could simply prepare to pitch.

“The No. 1 thing for me is health,” Sale said Tuesday (via MLB.com). “I had to get strong again.”

Here is the laundry list of injuries Sale has dealt with in recent years:

Date Injury Days missed

July 2018

Shoulder inflammation

42 total (two IL stints)

Aug. 2019

Elbow inflammation

44 (season-ending)

March 2020

Tommy John surgery

All of 2020 plus 177 days in 2021

April 2022

Rib stress fracture

99

July 2022

Broken finger

79 (season-ending)

June 2023

Stress fracture in shoulder

70

Sale’s finger was broken by a comebacker on July 17, 2022, and, while recovering that August, Sale fell of his bike and broke his wrist. He needed surgery. The broken finger is a bad luck injury and is the broken wrist is the result of carelessness, I suppose. All those other injuries are baseball injuries. It’s all arm trouble and they limited Sale to 151 innings from 2020-23.

Being healthy right now and staying healthy all year, including during what the Braves hope is a deep postseason run, are two very different things, and the team has made sure to give Sale extra rest as often as possible this season. He’s made only one of his eight starts on normal rest. The Braves have given Sale an extra day of rest almost every single time out.

The single biggest reason for Sale’s return to form is health. He hasn’t been in this good a place physically in almost seven years now. Will the good health last? We’re just going to have to wait and see. The best predictor of future injury is past injury, and Sale has an awful lot of past injuries. Right now though, he’s healthy, and throwing the ball as well as ever.

2. He’s leaning on his slider

Throughout his career Sale has been a fastball/slider monster who mixes in the occasional changeup. He is still very much that guy, and now he’s throwing his slider more than ever. At 42.2%, Sale ranks fifth among qualified starters in slider usage. Only Jon Gray (46.2%), Dylan Cease (45.3%), Brady Singer (43.4%), and Tanner Houck (42.8%) throw their sliders more.

Here are Sale’s pitch usage rates since moving into the rotation full-time in 2012:

brooksbaseball-chart.png

Chris Sale is using his slider more than ever in 2024. Brooks Baseball

Despite all-time high velocity, pitchers are scaling back on their fastballs and upping their breaking ball usage a little more with each passing season. Sale’s former team, the Red Sox, finally got with the times and figured it out this season. The Braves have been ahead of the curve for a while now and they’ve got Sale throwing more sliders than fastballs.

The logic is simple: breaking balls are harder to hit than fastballs, so throw more breaking balls. And in Sale’s case, he has one of the best sliders in the sport. It has been one of the game’s great swing-and-miss pitches throughout his career, and even during his substandard 2023, opponents hit only .162 with a .358 slugging percentage against his slider.

Sale is throwing his best pitch — one of the best pitches in the sport — more often, so he’s having more success. Sometimes it really is that simple. It helps that Sale’s fastball is averaging close to 95 mph, his best velocity since before Tommy John surgery. We can attribute that to good health. More velocity + more sliders = great results.

3. He’s locating his slider better

Throwing more sliders is one thing, but to really make the plan work, Sale has to locate his slider well, and he’s doing that this year. He’s landing his slider in the zone more often, and when you show you can throw your slider for strikes, it puts hitters in protect mode and opens them up to chases off the plate. They get ready to swing and Sale can use that aggressiveness against them.

Here are the numbers on Sale’s slider:

2023 Sale 2024 Sale MLB slider average

Strike %

64.3%

73.5%

63.3%

In-Zone %

43.9%

50.8%

45.6%

Swing %

45.5%

52.6%

48.0%

Chase %

36.9%

42.4%

31.7%

Non-Competitive %

21.1%

17.4%

21.0%

Non-competitive pitches are pitches that are at least 18 inches away from the center of the plate. They are the easiest takes. They are the pitches that are a ball right out of the pitcher’s hand. Sale has reduced those this season and he’s throwing more strikes with his slider in general. He’s so aggressive with it that hitters have to respect it, and it leaves them vulnerable to this:

That slider started in the left-handed hitter’s batter’s box and it almost hit Seiya Suzuki in the back leg. The whole “throw the slider for strikes more often” thing won’t work for everyone. Some guys have to pitch off the plate with their slider. Sale’s slider is so good that he can pepper the zone with it and get good results. Not many pitchers can do that.

With Sale, this is not really a case of a team picking up a pitcher and helping him get to another level. We’ve see Sale pitch this well in the past. He’s going about it in a slightly different way, but this isn’t some out of nowhere success story. It’s a Cy Young caliber pitcher putting up Cy Young caliber results thanks to good health and a slight tweak to his pitch mix.

Sale’s health will be an ongoing story all season. He has a long arm injury history and pitchers with long arm injury histories tend to have more arm trouble. It is what it is. To date though, Sale has returned to being a dominant strikeout pitcher and one of baseball’s top starters. Atlanta’s gamble is paying off handsomely.

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