Not Sold on Sale: Boston's Ace Won't Stand in Houston's Way
Boston will try to even its four-game series with Houston tonight at 8:10 ET. Ace Chris Sale may make Boston a tempting underdog pick, but don't waste your money on the Red Sox.
Boston Red Sox (39-18) at Houston Astros (36-22)
MLB Picks: Houston ML -114 And „Over“ 7
Baseball is such a long season, that looking at season statistics can mislead bettors. Boston ace Chris Sale's (5-2, 2.76 ERA) season FIP (like ERA, but factors out luck) is 2.94, but in the second half of May it exceeded 4.00. He's inducing less soft contact and more line drives than his season average.
Until May 15, Sale threw his fastball with 38% frequency against righties. Since then, he's upped that usage to 46%. He relies on it most frequently in an uneven count and with two strikes. Despite his increased reliance on this pitch, it has become more vulnerable. Sale, who has surrendered a homer in five consecutive outings, allowed two with his fastball in the past three games. Opponents are slugging .440 against it. Sale's fastball yielded its highest opposing average exit velocity against two of his last three opponents. Sale's increased fastball usage makes him a bad match-up for Houston, which is 4th in slugging fastballs from lefties in the past two weeks and sixth against high-velocity fastballs averaging 93-97 mph.
This season, Sale has dropped the vertical release point of his pitches. This helps make him extremely effective against same-handed hitters, but he's yielding a 3.23 FIP to righties. The Astros rank sixth in slugging against lefties. Based on the metric SLG-xSLG, they are even underachieving. They're enjoying progression, slugging .578 in the past two weeks against lefties. Houston's six leading batters in terms of BA with 100+ AB's are right-handed. Jose Altuve, for example, has multiple hits in six of his last seven games. George Springer slugs .643 against southpaws.
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Gerrit Cole (5-1, 2.05 ERA) has been a moneymaker for bettors, yielding +5.9 units and going 4-0 as a favorite of less than -200. Oddsmakers are still not appreciating Cole, who dropped his FIP over 2.00 from last season.
Cole has rediscovered comfort with his fastball, which he again throws with 50% frequency. This season, he consistently elevates its location. Last season, there were zero spots in the highest quadrant of the strike zone in which he located his fastball with over 3% frequency. This season, there are three such spots. He's vastly upped his fastball spin rate so that it appears to rise. In 40 at-bats against Cole, Boston hitters have a promising .275 BA and .400 SLG and match up even better with him now. With or without Mookie Betts, expect them to improve upon those numbers because they rank third in slugging against the fastball in the upper-middle parts of the zone and are metrically even underachieving. Cole's worst performance this season came against the Angels, who rank sixth in the category.
Despite the fastball vulnerability that Cole shares with Sale, I still like Houston because Cole has more secondary stuff to offer—a slider whose vertical movement he's reduced so that it slides more and a curveball with strongly increased horizontal and vertical movement that makes it more elusive. He locates the former with 22% frequency in the lowest-right corner of the zone and the latter with 38% frequency in the lowest three right corners of the zone. He changes the opponent's eye level with these pitches and throws them off balance with their velocity differential. He makes life hard for hitters by locating them well despite their newfound movement.
Sale's shown poor form everywhere whereas Cole has been consistently stellar in Houston, where his FIP is 1.84, and Houston's bullpen is tops in FIP.
Two fastball-hitting lineups justify an „over,“ but Cole and co. will triumph with stronger pitching.