Braves: The ceiling and floor for Chris Sale

MLB: APR 24 Red Sox at Orioles

The Chris Sale acquisition by the Braves undoubtedly comes with some risk, which was only exacerbated when they handed him a two-year, $38 million extension yesterday. However, it’s also an understandable and exciting one.

Buying low on a talent like Chris Sale is a prototypical Alex Anthopoulos move. The free agent and trade markets are absurd for starting pitching these days, and the Braves aren’t ones to ever pay sticker price. They also don’t have the prospect capital necessary to swing a blockbuster trade without completely depleting their farm system. Sale’s value has never been lower due to three straight injury-plagued campaigns, but he’s healthy now this offseason for the first time in years. If he can stay that way, the upside is immense.

Chris Sale Ceiling

Chris Sale has to be up there with the best pitchers to never win a Cy Young. From 2012-2018, he was among the elite arms in the game and his consistency is that of a future Hall-of-Famer. Sale never finished outside the top six of the AL Cy Young race, leading the league in strikeouts twice and K/9 three times.

For his career, Sale averages 11.1 strikeouts per nine innings. That’s not just good; that’s the best in MLB history. But what’s so remarkable is he’s able to punch opponents out at will without giving up any free passes — 2.1 BB/9 for his career.

Of course, Sale hasn’t been nearly as effective since 2018 in the run prevention department. But even in his 31 starts since 2021, he’s averaged 10.8 strikeouts per nine with 2.5 walks per nine. Sale’s given up a few more hits and home runs over the last few seasons, but it’s nothing drastic, and a lot of that can probably be attributed to injuries. That much time off would affect any pitcher, especially since he hasn’t been healthy entering the offseason for four years.

Expecting Sale to return to the pitcher that was competing for Cy Young awards might be far-fetched, but we are talking about a ceiling here. This is still one of the best strikeout pitchers in the game that doesn’t let a lot of guys reach base. That is a recipe for long-term success.

Sale’s workload does have to be taken into account, however. Given his injury history, it’s hard to imagine him pitching 200+ innings like he did regularly in his prime. The Braves aren’t going to let him do that because there’s no reason for him to. Every time out, he’ll be expected to give 5-6 innings of his best stuff. That will be more than enough to help the Braves to their seventh straight NL East title.

2024 Ceiling: 160 innings, 2.90 ERA, 1.050 WHIP, 1.7 BB/9, 11.5 K/9

Chris Sale Floor

Obviously, Sale’s ultimate floor is he gets injured and makes a couple of starts before being shut down for the season, kind of like Cole Hamels did back in 2020. That would be a nightmare situation, but I’m not nearly as concerned about Sale’s injury history as some. He missed a long time from Tommy John surgery and suffered a couple of fluke injuries last year. It’s not unthinkable to believe he will be healthy for most of the season, and the Braves are clearly confident that will be the case or they wouldn’t have handed him a contract extension. Plus, if all I wrote for the floor is he doesn’t pitch, it wouldn’t be a very fun exercise.

So, let’s imagine he does stay healthy for most of the season. What’s his floor?

It probably looks something a lot like last year. Sale missed time and never really found a groove until the end of the season. His 3.80 FIP was the highest of his career by a wide margin, and his 4.30 ERA suggests he even suffered from some pretty poor luck. Still, a 106 ERA+ — 6% above league average and also the lowest mark of his career — isn’t half bad for a pitcher that the Braves are essentially getting for free this year with the Red Sox paying the entirety of his salary.

2024 Floor: 100 innings, 4.50 ERA, 1.207 WHIP, 2.8 BB/9, 9.0 K/9

I really wanted to do this exercise to highlight the kind of pitcher Sale is. His stat sheets are a thing of beauty, whether you’re looking at Baseball Reference or Baseball Savant. At every point of his career when he toes the rubber, he’s been nothing short of dominant. Even his “bad” years are well above average. If Chris Sale can stay healthy, the Braves fans are going to fall in love with him.

Photo: Charles Brock/Icon Sportswire

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