This article is one in a series that uses the FantasyLabs Tools to build daily fantasy scouting reports for MLB’s brightest stars.
Last year’s sixth-highest scoring pitcher on DraftKings, Chris Sale is the second ace in two seasons to make the move to Fenway Park, following in the footsteps of David Price in 2016. Sale will look to outdo Price’s somewhat underwhelming debut season and serve as the foundation for what could be a very talented pitching staff.
Sale: Coming to (the) America(n League East)
The last place you ever want your fantasy ace pitcher to wind up is the American League East. Over the years, this division has gained a reputation as the place pitchers go to die. To pitch in the AL East means playing high-powered offenses in hitter-friendly parks: The Red Sox at Fenway, the Yankees at Yankee Stadium, the Blue Jays at Rogers Centre, the Orioles at Camden Yards. And the Rays.
Let’s not forget, though, the AL Central presented its own challenges in 2016, with the Tigers and Indians, baseball’s fifth- and eleventh-highest scoring teams, as frequent foes. In fact, pitchers facing the AL East and AL Central Divisions last season had identical Plus/Minus and Consistency Ratings (minimum $7,000 DK salary):
The AL East is not an ideal landing spot for Sale, but it’s something he can overcome. For one, he won’t have to face the Red Sox offense, which has been the most imposing in the division (per our Trends tool):
Sale’s track record at Fenway over the last three years is not great:
But there are a couple things to note:
- The sample is tiny.
- He was facing the Red Sox, a top offense over the past three seasons.
- His performance actually isn’t horrible. He hit value in two of three games.
To get a greater sense of Sale’s possible future at Fenway, I’ve set up a trend for lefty pitchers who cost above $7,000 DK in games at Fenway:
Unfortunately, the results are still bad. In fact, they’re worse than Sale’s alone. Of course, this trend includes some pitchers not as skilled as Sale who faced the Red Sox, so it probably still doesn’t paint a highly accurate picture.
To adjust, we can use the FantasyLabs Park Factor metric, which shows the historic percentile rank of a ballpark’s hitter-friendliness (adjusted for handedness). Here’s how Sale’s former and future home ballparks were ranked at the end of last season for lefty pitchers:
US Cellular Field: 45 Park Factor
Fenway Park: 44 Park Factor
Sale’s batted ball chart over the past two seasons (Fangraphs) shows the majority of his home runs allowed have gone to left field:
Left field at Fenway Park is considerably closer to home plate than it is at US Cellular Field (ESPN Ballpark Overlay):
BUT the Green Monster is over 37 feet in height, the tallest outfield wall in the league.
All of this is to say that it isn’t lock that Sale’s move to Fenway represents a significant downgrade based on ballpark alone.
Moving past Sale’s move to Fenway, let’s find out what else we can learn about him using our Trends tool. In 2016, Sale’s baseline Plus/Minus on DraftKings was +2.31, as he averaged 23.12 fantasy points per game against a salary-based expectation of 20.81.
Four times last season, Vegas set the implied total for Sale’s opponent at four runs or higher. In these games, Sale smashed his expectations:
One thing to note here is that his average expected point total in the result set is 18.95, down from his season average of 20.81. This means DK priced him down in these games. Even though the bar was lowered, Sale actually played better in these games, adding five fantasy points to his per-game average.
This year, we may see even more games in which Sale’s opponent is implied to score four or more runs, and Sale will remain very much in play. His low ownership in these games is just the icing on the cake.
Now that you feel good about Sale based on the previous trend, get ready to puke when you see the next one.
When Sale’s opponent was implied to score three or fewer runs, the results were unbelievably bad. Of course, the sample is small — as it is for the previous trend — but that Sale was able to exceed expectations only once in four attempts against the Twins (twice), Braves, and Rays is surprising.
Considering the performance and ownership values we see above, it’s possible that Sale is best deployed as a contrarian play in extreme matchups — a fade in strong matchups due to increasing price/ownership and a target in poor matchups.
As we saw above, DK can be quick to price a player down ahead of a perceived difficult matchup. Seven times over the past three seasons Sale’s salary has fallen by $1,500 DK or more over a 30-day period. In these games, Sale has posted a double-digit Plus/Minus:
Sale is a great player to buy . . . on sale.
[Editor’s Note: Ladies and gentlemen, the first ‘Sale’ pun of 2017!]
Sale also bucked normal conventions when it came to K Prediction in 2016. Overall, when we predicted a pitcher to have eight or more strikeouts in a game last season, 3.6 points were added to his DK Plus/Minus.
Sale, on the other hand, lost nearly one full point from his baseline Plus/Minus in seven of these games. Even stranger, he performed better in his 10 lowest-rated K Prediction games last season, adding over a half point in Plus/Minus. Further, Sale’s expected price in the two cohorts was nearly identical.
Last season may have been an aberration, as Sale’s career trends more closely follow the standard conventions, but his performance in such games should be monitored in 2017.
Overall, last season Sale lost around 1.5 miles per hour on his primary pitch, the two-seam fastball. In a comparison of 2015 to 2016, Sale’s K% dove by nearly eight percentage points on his most important pitch. He still allowed a comparable batting average and weighted on-base average (wOBA), but it’s hard to feel all that confident, as his batting average on balls in play (BABIP) was 50 points lower, indicating that he probably ran a little better than he should have. If you had to come up with one reason for Sale’s (relatively) disappointing peripherals last season, look no further than this pitch.
Keep an eye on Sale’s velocity to begin the 2017 season. When he is throwing hard, he is very good:
But if he can’t bring the heat, his 2016 BABIP and expected fielding independent pitching (xFIP) numbers may catch up to him.
Sale took a small step back in 2016 and now arrives at a crossroads in his first season at Fenway. Early in the season, Sale can be deployed in guaranteed prize pools against top offenses. In 2016, he thrived in these situations at reduced ownership. (Pro subscribers should track his early-season ownership in these situations via our DFS Ownership Dashboard.) Long term, Sale’s success will likely depend on whether his velocity and K-rate return to 2015 levels.