Chris Sale is dominating hitters like it's 2018

May 20th, 2024

is healthy, slinging wipeout sliders and mowing down hitters like it’s 2018 all over again.

Sale finished that season at the top of the MLB mountain, coming on in relief against the Dodgers in Game 5 of the World Series and striking out the side in the ninth -- memorably getting to fall down whiffing on a devastating slider for the final out -- to clinch the Red Sox's fourth championship in 15 years.

He went on to earn his seventh straight top-six finish in the American League Cy Young Award voting that November and inked a five-year, $145 million extension with Boston the following March, just a week before his 30th birthday.

At that point, the left-hander was on a clear path toward the Hall of Fame.

However, Sale’s career took a turn for the worse after that, and he hasn’t really looked the same since -- until 2024, that is.

After battling myriad injuries and recording a 4.16 ERA over 56 combined starts from 2019-23, Sale has recaptured his ace form with the Braves, who acquired him from the Red Sox for in December.

Through eight starts, Sale has posted a 2.54 ERA, a 2.46 FIP and a 0.89 WHIP. He has a career-best 7.63 K/BB ratio, with 61 strikeouts and eight walks over 49 2/3 innings.

Sale will enter Monday’s start against the Padres on a five-game winning streak, having allowed just five runs over 32 innings (1.41 ERA) with 41 K’s and three walks in that span.

The southpaw’s success has been a welcome sight for Atlanta after the team lost for the season when the ace righty had to undergo elbow surgery to repair his UCL.

All stats below are through Saturday.

Sale’s slider has been a big part of his success throughout his big league tenure, and this year has been no exception.

The left-hander has thrown the pitch 42.2% of the time in 2024, the highest rate of his career, and batters haven’t been able to do much of anything against it:

Accordingly, Sale’s slider sits near the top of the MLB run-value leaderboard, which takes the result of every pitch thrown and measures its impact on run scoring.

Most valuable pitches in MLB, 2024

  • 1. Shota Imanaga’s four-seam fastball: +13
  • 2. Carlos Rodón’s four-seam fastball: +10
  • 3-T. Chris Sale’s slider: +9
  • 3-T. Corbin Burnes’ cutter: +9
  • 3-T. Tyler Glasnow’s four-seam fastball: +9
  • 3-T. Javier Assad’s sinker: +9
  • 3-T. Zack Littell’s slider: +9

As you might expect, Sale’s slider is a top-notch chase pitch, and throwing more of them has helped him push his chase rate -- which was already stellar last year at 33.6% -- to new heights. In fact, his 36.9% mark ranks second in MLB this season.

Highest chase rate, 2024
Min. 250 out-of-zone pitches thrown

  1. Nick Martinez: 37.2%
  2. Chris Sale: 36.9%
  3. Jared Jones: 36.5%
  4. Shota Imanaga: 36.1%
  5. Tarik Skubal: 35.5%

At the same time, Sale's ability to command the ball in the zone -- especially early in counts -- has been crucial as well.

His in-zone rate is a career-high 54.7%, including 61.4% on the first or second pitch. He's also throwing first-pitch strikes at the highest rate (71.8%) of his career and the sixth-highest rate in MLB (minimum 100 batters faced).

As a result, only one pitcher across MLB (minimum 500 pitches) has thrown a higher rate of his pitches with the count in his favor than Sale.

Highest rate of pitches thrown while ahead in the count, 2024
Minimum 500 total pitches

  1. Zack Littell: 38.4%
  2. Chris Sale: 38.3%
  3. Tarik Skubal: 38.0%
  4. Jared Jones: 37.1%
  5. Tyler Alexander: 37.0%

And once Sale is ahead, it’s game over. With the count in his favor this season, he has yielded a .145 wOBA, compared to a .328 wOBA with the batter either ahead or even in the count.

You’d think that throwing the ball in the zone more would leave Sale prone to allowing more contact, but his whiff rate is actually up this season, from 29.7% in 2023 to 31.1%.

It certainly helps that his velocity has ticked back up after he averaged 93.9 mph on four-seam fastballs across 2019-23. In 2024, he's averaging 94.7 mph on four-seamers, which is similar to where he was in 2017-18 (95.0 mph).

Sale's percentage of four-seamers thrown 95-plus mph

  • 2019-23: 25.9%
  • 2024: 44.7%

Sale is also benefiting from hitters’ passivity on hittable pitches, a testament to his ability to keep his opponents off balance despite a fairly predictable repertoire (he throws a four-seamer or a slider 80% of the time).

Roughly one-third of the time this season, when he has thrown a pitch in the heart of the plate, batters simply haven’t swung, letting their best chance to do damage against him pass them by. Sale’s 33.7% take rate against on pitches in the heart of the plate is among the highest in MLB. His 40.4% take rate on “meatball” pitches (defined as true middle-middle pitches in the strike zone) is the highest (minimum 50 swings).

Of course, even when they do swing, batters aren't exactly putting themselves in position to have consistent success against Sale, as evidenced by Statcast’s new bat-tracking metrics.

Batters rarely swing fast (75+ mph or faster) or square up their swings against him, and as a result he hardly ever gives up blasts, which are the most valuable types of swings because they involve a squared-up ball and a fast swing. Sale has allowed a blast on just 6.0% of the swings against him this season, the seventh lowest in MLB.

He is also tied for the MLB lead with 10 swords, which are awkward -- and oftentimes embarrassing -- half-swings that typically occur when a pitcher fools a hitter badly with a particularly nasty pitch. The term was coined by the "Pitching Ninja" Rob Friedman, and we now have a way to quantify it thanks to Hawk-Eye bat tracking.

Coincidentally, Monday will mark the first time since the final out of the 2018 World Series that Sale squares off with Machado.

A lot has changed since then, including both players' teams, with Sale now with Atlanta and Machado with San Diego. For Sale, though, it’s looking an awful lot like 2018 once again.