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Game 55 Preview: Chicago White Sox at Detroit Tigers

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Mike Pelfrey faces his stiffest test of a winless 2016 season: White Sox ace Chris Sale.

David Banks/Getty Images

Chicago White Sox (29-26) at Detroit Tigers (26-28)

Time/Place: 4:10 p.m., Comerica Park
SB Nation blog: South Side Sox
Media: Fox Sports Detroit, MLB.TVTigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: LHP Chris Sale (9-1, 2.29 ERA) vs. RHP Mike Pelfrey (0-5, 4.96 ERA)

Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Sale 78.2 25.2 5.3 2.91 2.4
Pelfrey 52.2 12.0 8.3 5.64 -0.2

Well, this should be fun. White Sox ace Chris Sale has long been considered one of the most uncomfortable at-bats in baseball, and it shows in his stat line. He is a soon-to-be five-time All-Star with a career 2.86 ERA and 2.95 FIP. He has struck out 200 batters or more in each of the past three seasons, including a league-leading 274 punchouts in 2015. Opponents are hitting .221 against him, with lefties batting a meager .203. He has a 1.05 WHIP since 2012. Long story short, he's really effing good.

While a quick glance at Sale's 9-1 record and 2.29 ERA hints that he's getting even better, that's not necessarily the case. His strikeout rate is actually down from last season's gaudy 32.1 percent rate, and he is walking a few more batters. Opponents are batting just .187 against him with a .521 OPS, but that seems largely fueled by a .234 BABIP, over 50 points lower than his career average.

There does not seem to be any rhyme or reason to these differences from last season, either. Sale hasn't developed a new pitch or drastically alter how often he throws any of his current pitches, and his batted ball rates are nearly identical to what he posted in 2015. His pitch location is similar too: fastball away, slider buried down and in against righthanders (lefties stopped trying years ago). He has eschewed the changeup a bit, but if anything, that's why his strikeout rate is down from previous years; opponents swung and missed on the change-piece over 20 percent of the time last season.

The drop in strikeouts may be by design, though. FanGraphs has poked around at Sale's low strikeout rate, and they found that he's simply pumping more fastballs into the strike zone. However, this doesn't mean that Sale has gotten any better.

In 2015, he was able to overcome the high liner rate by squelching authority of all BIP types. His average overall authority allowed of 85.9 mph was second best in the AL, fractionally behind Dallas Keuchel. He allowed the weakest ground balls (81.4 mph) and second-weakest line drives (90.4 mph) among qualifying AL starters, only to be done-in by the AL-worst team defense.

[...]

So is this version of Chris Sale an improved one? I would say no. With a very low liner rate, he’s basically the same guy he was last year. As that liner rate regresses upward, his "tru" ERA will likely rise into the upper twos, unless he can push his K rate upward, back into familiar territory.

Hitter to fear: Avisail Garcia (.400/.400/.467 in 15 plate appearances)
Hitter to fail: Brett Lawrie (.200/.200/.200 in 5 plate appearances)

Bad news: the current White Sox roster is collectively hitting over .300 against Mike Pelfrey. The good news? It's an "empty" .310 batting average, with just a .055 ISO to show for it. This is the type of performance that Pelfrey needs on Saturday if he is to have any chance of beating Sale. Luckily for him, this White Sox team isn't hitting for much power. They rank 13th in the American League in home runs and isolated power (ISO), with over one-third of their homers coming from third baseman Todd Frazier. The Todd-Father is 1-for-3 against Pelfrey in his career.

Outlook

Mike Pelfrey earning his first win of the season in this game would be the ultimate "because baseball" experience. While Pelfrey has improved lately with a 3.22 ERA in his last four outings, he still only has one quality start to his name this year. The White Sox don't sport the most robust offense in baseball, but they can still cause problems for opposing pitchers, especially those allowing batters to hit .412/.467/.863 the third time through the order. With Shane Greene now in the bullpen, expect manager Brad Ausmus to be a bit more aggressive with his hook in the fifth and sixth innings. It might not matter in this matchup, though.

Prediction

Pain.

★★★

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