Chris Sale is going to be great regardless of who he throws to. I’m extremely confident that this is the case, as he’s simply one of the most talented pitchers any of us have ever seen. That kind of stuff works regardless of who is behind the plate. In fact, he’s thrown to many catchers over his career, and he’s had success throwing to almost all of them. Talent is what matters most, and Sale is overflowing with talent. With this in mind, it’s worth pointing out that the Red Sox ace deserves the overwhelming amount of credit for the kind of season he’s put together. This is, of course, obvious, but it’s worth pointing out since the rest of this post will focus on the less important half of the pitcher/catcher relationship.
The relationship between Sandy Leon and Sale has been a clear win for the Red Sox essentially since the beginning of the year. They’ve had a great rapport that has only helped take Sale to the next level. The success of that relationship only became more clear last week when the ace took the mound with Christian Vazquez behind the plate. It was the first time he started a game without Leon, and some were concerned with how the night would go. It...did not go well. It was Sale’s worst outing of the year, as he allowed a whopping seven runs over five innings of work with only five strikeouts.
It was easy to put that outing on Vazquez. We haven’t seen anything close to that bad from Sale all year, and the most noticeable difference on the field was that he had a different catcher. So, that had to be it, right? Well, it’s obviously not that simple. I’m of the belief that, for the most part, it was just a bad day for the Red Sox ace. He was facing a good lineup that was more familiar with him than most teams around the league. If you look at his game logs, AL Central teams have had the most success against him this year. Plus, all great pitchers have bad outings now and then. Hell, Pedro Martinez allowed nine runs in an outing against the Marlins back in that amazing 1999 season. Baseball is just weird.
That being said, there were some differences between when Vazquez was behind the plate and when Leon had the pads on. One thing that I noticed — or at least thought I noticed but haven’t been able to confirm — is that Sale’s pace wasn’t quite the same. He is a different kind of beast on the mound and he works at a tremendously quick pace that most catchers probably aren’t used to. If I find a way to look up the exact numbers on this, it could very well turn out that this was simply part of my imagination. My eyeballs told me he was moving a little bit slower with a less experienced catcher behind the plate, though.
There’s also the matter of pitch calling. Sale is unique in that he really tries to never shake off his catcher. It’s part of the reasons he works so quickly, and it’s possibly the most remarkable part of watching one of his starts. Of course, it helps that he has so many elite pitches. It hardly matters what he throws and when since any pitch is liable to end in the hitter looking silly. That being said, it’s no secret that Leon and Sale have built up a great feel for what to throw and when, and it’s hard to replicate that on the fly for a new catcher. Leon can pass on his thoughts when the two are in the dugout, but things get more difficult in the heat of battle. As it turns out, there was one big change with Vazquez behind the plate: He hardly called for changeups. This alone isn’t the reason Sale was hit hard, but it was a noticeable difference from this start and Leon’s starts previously.
The final thing I noticed, and it could be related to the pitch calling, was that Sale had some uncharacteristic issues finishing off batters. We saw a lot more foul balls with two strikes and many fewer swings and misses. In fact, as you can see in the graph below, the start included Sale’s lowest swinging strike rate of the season.
As I said, this start was more on Sale than on Vazquez, but above all else it should make you appreciate how incredibly smooth things run when Sale and Leon are paired together. There is a shorthand between the two and each understands what to throw and when. Sale’s trust in his catcher is practically unmatched across the league, particularly among the elite in the game. Vazquez is a great catcher and if he had the time to work with Sale I’m sure they’d be close to the same level, but Leon is special when it comes to working with pitchers. He had the same kind of rapport with Rick Porcello last year, and could very well be catching his second-straight Cy Young winner. For Sale and Leon, it’s like a machine at work, with quick decisions and efficient results. If Major League Baseball had a yearbook, there’s a 100 percent chance these two would best couple.