Chris Sale has been one of the best pitchers in baseball during his six-year career. He’s been an All-Star in each of the last four seasons and finished in the top six in AL Cy Young voting in 2012, 2013, and 2014. Over the course of his six years in the bigs, Sale has a career 2.93 ERA, 1.07 WHIP, and terrific rate of 10.3 strikeouts per nine innings (K/9). In fact, over the last six years, Sale has the highest strikeout rate of any pitcher with more than 800 innings, better than Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer, and Felix Hernandez, among others. By Fangraphs WAR, Sale has been the 11th-best pitcher in baseball since 2010 (with over 800 innings pitched).
In many ways, this has been a typical Chris Sale year. He has a terrific strikeout rate of 12.0 K/9, the highest rate he’s had in a full season. He isn’t walking many batters, just 1.8 walks per nine innings, also the best mark he’s had in his career, and he’s allowed fewer than one home run per nine innings, with a home run rate barely higher than his career rate.
Except . . . his 3.55 ERA is almost a half-run higher than any other season in his six years in the major leagues and his .326 Batting Average on Balls In Play (BABIP) is over .300 for the first time in his career. His career ERA is 2.93 and his career BABIP is .294.
This is where the story of Chris Sale in 2015 ventures into Bizarro World. The chart below shows Chris Sale’s career stats and his stats against every team EXCEPT the Minnesota Twins this season:
Now let’s add the games Chris Sale has pitched against the Twins to the mix:
Against the Twins, Sale has struck out 29.6% of the 152 batters he’s faced and walked or hit just 4.6%. He’s given up home runs to 2.6%. That means he has allowed batters to make contact 96 times and they’ve had a non-HR hit 42 times, resulting in a .438 Batting Average on Balls In Play. It’s unreal.
Looking back, Chris Sale didn’t have a problem with the Twins before this season. Coming into the 2015 season, Sale had faced the Twins 16 times, with eight of those games being starts. In 62 1/3 innings, he had a 2.46 ERA and 1.00 WHIP against the Twins.
This season, Sale pitched well against the Twins the first time he faced them, back on April 12th when he gave up a single run and had eight strikeouts in six innings. This would be the only victory for Sale against Minnesota this season. In late April, Sale was knocked round for eight earned runs in three innings. He bounced back by allowing just three earned runs in eight innings on May 23rd. He faced them again in June and gave up five earned runs in 6 2/3 innings, then followed that up with a four earned runs in 6 1/3 innings appearances. Finally, He was again battered and bruised for six earned runs in just three innings on Sunday, September 13.
With his strikeout rate, walk rate, and home run rate being as good or better against the Twins than against every other team he’s faced, Sale’s poor performance is likely due to bad luck. That .438 BABIP suggests that balls are falling in for hits at a ridiculously high rate against a pitcher who is otherwise dominating the opposing hitters. It’s not likely to continue to be this way for Sale and the Twins. He won’t face them again in 2015 and should be back to his regular self next year. You can expect the Bizarro World of Chris Sale will return to normal in 2016 when facing the Minnesota Twins.