2012 Prospect Breakout Candidate: Josh Sale
Almost nobody watches the MLB Draft. But for for those of us who do, we get really emotionally attached to the drafted players, especially the ones that our favorite teams draft in the first round. When the Rays selected outfielder Josh Sale in the first round of the 2010 draft, despite the fact that players drafted in the MLB Draft are so much likely to fail than players drafted in the NFL and NBA drafts, every Rays fan watching the draft thought in unison “Josh Sale is going to be a great outfielder for the Rays someday.” But after Sale’s struggles in his pro debut, we don’t know what to think.
All season I was looking at the stats of Rays minor leaguers and it was alarming when Josh Sale hit just .133 when he made his pro debut in June for the Advanced Rookie-level Princeton Rays in the Appalachian League. But it was in just 8 games, and everyone thought it was just a momentary blip. Unfortunately, it wasn’t. Sale posted just a .210/.289/.346 line in 60 games for Princeton with 11 doubles, 3 triples, 4 homers, 15 RBI, and 4 stolen bases in 7 tries. What happened?
There were some underlying factors in Sale’s season were nice. He struck out just 41 times, 17.2% of his plate appearances, while walking 23 times, 9.6% (although only 8.8% when you take out two intentional walks from early in the season). Those rates were well ahead of the Appalachian League averages of 21.4% and 8.5%. Sale made contact at a nice rate according to Minor League Central, connecting on 61.9% of his swings compared to the 56.5% league average. The positives end there. A player who possesses great raw power, Sale posted just a .136 ISO in 2011, a bit below the .142 Appy League average, and although we’re sure he’s better than that, based on his batted ball tendencies, it was no fluke. Power typically comes from hitting line drives and flyballs to the outfield. MLC tells us that Sale couldn’t hit line drives at all, posting just a 11.5% line drive percentage among his batted balls, well below the 14.1% league average. And he was just average in terms of hitting flyballs to the outfield, posting just a 30.5% mark compared to the 30.0% league average. And to make matters worse, despite the fact that he didn’t hit many flyballs to begin with, he also hit too many pop-ups, 9.2% of his batted balls compared to the 6.8% league average. The results of the dearth of line drives, just an average amount of flyballs to the outfield, and an overabundance of pop-ups was both Sale’s batting average and lack of power. He posted just a .241 BAbip compared to the league average of .320, and he wasn’t unlucky to post such a ratio. Sale simply could not make hard contact in 2011. Josh Sale was lauded coming out of high school for his outstanding hand-eye coordination and presence in the batter’s box. Those qualities didn’t suddenly evaporate in 2011. But Sale’s 2011 is very disconcerting.
The good news is that we can surmise what happened to Sale in 2011 from his splits on the season. In June, Sale was going for purely power. On the season, 7.5% of his flyballs to the outfield went for home runs, a significant margin below the league average of 9.7%. But in June, Sale’s HR/OFB% was actually 12.5%. In 8 June games, Sale hit flyballs to the outfield on 34.8% of his batted balls. However, he was hitting for purely power. Just 4.3% of his batted balls were line drives and he hit just .133 on the month (with a .257 OBP and a .233 SLG). It was a very limited 8 game sample, but the P-Rays’ coaches saw something was up and made an adjustment.
In July, Sale wasn’t up to full strength with the bat, but he definitely made strides. In 28 games in the month, he posted a .230/.294/.400 line with 7 doubles, 2 triples, 2 homers, and 6 RBI. He upped his line drive percentage all the way to 13.1%, much closer to the league average, although it did cost him in terms of both flyballs to the outfield and HR/OFB%, as those came in at 31.0% and 7.7% respectively, both of which are just above the league average. He did still manage a .170 ISO, however. Sale also make contact at a much higher proportion, 65.6% of his swings compared to his 57.5% in June, and he also cut down his strikeout rate from 20.0% to 14.7%. If Sale’s entire season was like his July, we’d still be worried, but not quite to the same extent.
In August, the Rays hoped that Sale would be able to combine his performances from June and July and hit for power and average. But Sale could not pull it off. He posted just a .214/.295/.321 line in the month with 4 doubles, 1 triple, 1 homer, and 7 RBI in 24 games. His line drive percentage dropped to 11.9% and his OFB% fell to 28.4%, but the real problem was that he was hitting flyballs, but on the infield. A crazy 13.4% of his batted balls were pop-ups, and those were basically guaranteed outs. And even when he hit flyballs to the outfield, he couldn’t get them into the stands, posting just a 5.3% HR/OFB%. To complicate matters, Sale struck out in 18.9% of his plate appearances while walking just a bit more than he had in July, 9.5% of his plate appearances. Sale simply could not find the balance between power and solid contact all season.
While Sale was a patient hitter in 2011, he was overaggressive at swinging at pitches within the strike zone. He swung at 90.5% of pitches thrown in the zone against him compared to the 88.9% league average. All season, pitchers actually threw less pitches within the zone to Sale compared to the average Appy League players, with 66.4% of pitches to Sale being strikes compared to the 68.5% average. But whenever Sale got a strike, he pounced, and sometimes that wasn’t the right decision. It’s nice that Sale draws walks, but his plate discipline doesn’t really help him in the batter’s box unless he works the count not only to draw walks but to find the inevitable hittable pitch that he’ll be able to drive. That’s the key adjustment the Sale has to make. Sale has been known to swing aggressively and aim for a home run every time. In 2011, the Princeton Rays’ coaches tried to shorten up Sale’s swing so he could make more contact. But considering how much Sale works the count, shortening his swing uniformly isn’t really the best strategy. Sale has to be able to pick his spots, specifically when he’s ahead in counts, to bring out his full swing and swing for the fences.
Josh Sale may have come out of high school with an advanced approach in the batter’s box, but he psyched himself out in 2011. He was over-thinking matters, working the count but then getting himself out by swinging at pitcher’s pitches. In 2012, Sale has to get his approach right, and all his tools should come out. When Sale gets the ball onto the barrel, the ball goes a long way. But even when he isn’t able to kind the type of lift he needs to hit home runs, his great bat speed should allow him to hit a nice amount of line drives and between that and his ability to avoid strikeouts, he should be able to hit for a high average. Josh Sale had a very disappointing pro debut, but he continues to possess great talent. In 2012, he needs to showcase his talents and put up the kind of numbers we expect. It’s not panic time yet for Sale as he turns just 21 in late July. But it’s time for him to complete the adjustment that he started making in 2011, and overcome his struggles to have an excellent 2012.