Chris Sale is an incredible pitcher. I’m sorry to share this controversial opinion with all of you, but sometimes you just have to jump out onto that ledge. There are going to be some criticisms and worries about the Red Sox ace later in this post, so I just want to get out of the way early that I recognize and fully acknowledge that Boston has one of the truly elite pitchers in the game, and I get as psyched as anyone for any given Sale Day. It’s the best day of the week, after all. We should never take for granted how lucky we are that we get to enjoy watching such a talented pitcher on such a regular basis. He came in last year and immediately showed that he was not going to be one of the all-too-common big acquisitions in recent years to underperform, whether due to injuries or other issues. All Sale has done since arriving to this roster is lead one of the game’s best rotations and completely electrify the city every time he takes the mound. Seems pretty good! Okay, is that enough gushing? Because, while he’s still been amazing in 2018, it looks a little different and in some ways it looks a little concerning.
So, despite some of the stuff we’re going to get into in a minute, the basic numbers still show that the Red Sox ace is as good as ever. The lanky southpaw has made four starts so far this year and he has pitched to a wildly impressive 1.23 ERA, a 354 ERA+. The peripherals are as outstanding as other, too, as he’s striking out 12.7 batters per nine innings — 0.2 lower than last year’s rate — while walking just two batters per nine. All told, he has a 1.51 FIP that leads all of baseball. So, in a way, that there are any concerns whatsoever about a guy who has performed as one of the best pitchers in baseball is absolutely, mind-bogglingly impressive. Still, just watching the Sale starts, they don’t look quite the same as they did last year or even in his White Sox years.
There are a few differences that stand out with the ace so far in 2018, but the most drastic and most obvious on any given night is that his velocity is consistently down. Now, we saw last year that Sale has a number of different fastballs and part of the reason he’s so dominant is that he can throw fastballs that range from 90 mph to the high 90s, and it doesn’t seem to be much work for him to do that. It’s a rare skill. This year, he hasn’t really dialed it up nearly as often and right now his dialing it up looks more like 94-95 mph. In fact, his velocity is down on all of his pitches besides his changeup, and it appears that the changeup data is skewed because his slower fastballs are being registered as an offspeed pitch. Either way, the velocity isn’t quite there early in the year. It’s possible that he’s holding back on purpose, but, well, we’ll get to that in a minute.
Beyond that, there’s also been a weird lack of command. This issue hasn’t been nearly as consistent for Sale as the velocity issue has been, and you don’t put up the numbers he has by consistently missing your spots. That being said, anecdotally it seems as if he’s been a little bit wild compared to his pinpoint accuracy in 2017, and it’s been different pitches at different times giving him trouble. The numbers back this up, too. Based on three different plate discipline numbers — Fangraphs’, the pitch info numbers also featured on Fangraphs, and Baseball Prospectus (which only include his first three games as of this writing) — he is missing the zone a lot more often. To wit, the rate at which Sale has hit the zone has fallen by an average of six percentage points by these measures getting down to the low-to-mid 40s. It’s entirely possible that a lot of these misses have been intentional in an attempt to get batters to chase, but (again, anecdotally), it seems like he’s had more pitches that are way off the zone than before.
There’s also the small matter of his pitch usage. This hasn’t been as noticeable to me, though the numbers on Brooks Baseball paint a pretty clear picture. To put it simply, Sale is leaning heavily on his fastball in the early parts of the season, with his slider usage down to 16 percent. That cuts his 2017 rate exactly in half, for what it’s worth. It’s unclear whether this is due for a lack of feel for the pitch or some other reason, but it’s certainly something to watch.
These changes in Sale’s profile have been noticeable to a lot of people, and there are plenty of reasonable theories being thrown out about why this is happening. One is that the coaching staff has emphasized taking it easy early in the year, and that could be why Sale’s not throwing as many hard fastballs. It makes sense, though I’m not entirely convinced it’s coming from the coaching staff. The emphasis on “saving bullets” (or easing into the season or however you want to put it) certainly plays into why Sale hasn’t gone deep into games — he’s thrown only 22 innings in his four starts — but I’m not sure if plays into his stuff. The other pitchers don’t appear to be taking it easy with their pitches early on. It’s entirely possible that this is a Sale-only strategy from the coaching staff, and they’d be justified in it given his recent downturns at the end of seasons, but I don’t think it’s as sure a thing as others are letting on.
There’s also the theory that this is Sale trying to slow things down at the start of the year. To support this, people have pointed to his spring training quotes about getting too amped up with his new team in 2017. However, most of that strategy seems related to how he was getting ready in spring training, not really having to do with the regular season. Finally, there’s the idea that the early-season cold weather has held him back. That’s probably a fair point, particularly with respect to Sunday’s game against Baltimore, which was brutally cold and not really baseball weather. However, Sale also made two starts in Florida and the issues were similar to how they’ve been in recent starts.
To be clear, none of this is to say that we have to be worried about Sale or anything like that. Ultimately, whatever is happening is working wonderfully as he’s been one of the very best arms in the game yet again. What I am saying is that the theories behind his early-season differences may not be as solid as they may seem at first, and these trends are certainly something to watch moving forward. It wouldn’t shock me at all if Sale flipped a switch at some point in his next few starts and turned into his early-season 2017 self again. If this was all on purpose and him trying to preserve himself, it would be totally reasonable. At the very least, for whatever reason Sale has been this version of himself, we could be getting a glimpse of what the ace could look like as he enters the later stages of his career, and it’s just another reason to hope the Red Sox extend him before he hits the open market. All that said, I wouldn’t hate it if we saw some vintage Sale at some point soon.