Pretty much nothing has been fun about the first 12 games on the Red Sox schedule. The eleven-games-in-eleven-days road trip out west to start the season was incredibly painful as Boston never found their footing and didn’t have a chance to collect themselves. Bad snowballed into worse which snowballed into disaster. The hope, reasonably so, was that returning to Fenway and getting a day off would be enough to kick the team into gear. That didn’t happen, and with each loss the hole this team is digging itself is only getting bigger. Obviously it’s too early to say anything of true meaning in terms of long-term contention potential with 150 games remaining on the schedule, but angst is understandably and rightfully growing every day. You don’t get off to a 3-9 start without a plethora of poor performances all over the field. Among them all, though, it’s clear that Chris Sale has become the unfortunate face of the early-season struggles.
The Red Sox ace, fresh off a big contract extension signed right before Opening Day, has started his new contract off in just about the worst possible way. His first outing in Seattle saw him allow three home runs with a combination of poor stuff and poorer command. His second outing was actually good by the results, but even there he had the lowest fastball velocity we’ve ever seen from him. The one good start had perhaps the most concern, which isn’t a great sign. Then, he came out for the Fenway crowd on Tuesday with his fastball velocity back to a respectable level even if it was far behind what we expect from him at peak form. Even with the improved velocity, he still allowed a ton of contact and that contact found enough holes to know the ace out after just four innings of work. Three starts, three causes for concern, all from one of the best pitchers in baseball. It’s not ideal!
So, what the hell is going on? Fastball velocity continues to be the biggest focus, and it is a big part of the issue. Whether or not it’s a long-term concern is a different discussion, as there is still an argument to be made that this is a build-up period after a short spring training, along with some other issues not relating to health and age. Whatever the reason, the effects are real and they count. Sale is simply not getting the results we are used to with his fastball. The slider is the pitch with which he is most associated with, but when he’s at his best he works a ton off his fastball and dominates with it. In 2019, he has just one swing and miss on the heater, with that coming on Tuesday against Alen Hanson. In 2018, for some context, over 15 percent of all fastballs he threw ended in a swing and miss.
Hitters are, to put it simply, all over everything Sale is doing on the mound. The Red Sox ace is just a different guy right now, and opponents are taking notice. After Tuesday’s game, Blue Jays catcher Danny Jansen admitted that Toronto didn’t even bother with tape from previous seasons in preparation for facing Sale. He acknowledged that with the reduced velocity hitters were a little more comfortable, and it showed. Again, there was some bad luck in this most recent outing with singles finding holes, but at the end of the day Sale opened himself up to that run of bad luck by failing to get the swings and misses necessary to avoid contact in the first place.
Right now, hitters know what is coming from Sale in a way that is not the case most of the time. When he is at his best, you have to think about both a fastball that sits in the 95 mph range and can get up even higher in big situations as well as a changeup that sits about 10 mph slower on top of his big, sweeping slider. This year, the difference between is more in the 6-8 mph range, and his slider isn’t as unpredictable as it was in the past. They can sit on slower velocity, and they can also sit on location. Below you can see, via Baseball Savant, where Sale’s pitches are going in 2019 compared to 2018. As you’ll notice, it skews heavily towards his arm-side.
Through his first three starts this year, a whopping 36 percent of his pitches have been out of the strike zone on his arm-side, up six percentage points from last year. He can certainly have success out on that side of the zone, but with his slider this is not where he wants to live. Look at that bottom left portion of the charts above, where his rate is nearly cut in half in 2019. This is where he should be having the most success with his slider, breaking in at the ankles of right-handed hitters and through the zone into an unhittable spot for lefties. It’s just not happening early in 2019, and even more than the fastball velocity this has seemed like the biggest difference with Sale during this rough stretch. For whatever it may be worth, he has had success when he has gone to that zone.
Given all of the apparent predictability for Sale, it’s no surprise that he’s getting crushed. Basically the entirety of his struggles comes down to contact, and good contact. He’s walking a few more batters, but his rate is at 6.6 percent, up just a percentage point from 2018. The contact is unlike anything we’ve seen from him, though. Opponents are launching everything, with Baseball Savant’s batted ball data putting his fly ball rate over 32 percent. Prior to 2019, Sale’s career-high rate was 26 percent. The balls in the air are also being hit hard as almost 13 percent of his batted balls have been barreled and his early-season hard-hit rate is just under 39 percent. Granted, there’s a lot of noise with small-sample batted ball numbers, but these specific numbers back up what the eye test has shown. It’s also worth noting that over half of batted balls against Sale have gone up the middle of the field, suggesting again that batters are confident and timing up the ace extremely well.
The most common explanations for all of these struggles tie back to the shoulder injury that ailed the southpaw in the second half of last season. It’s a reasonable conclusion, as pitchers suffer injuries all the time and shoulder injuries don’t always just go away without issues. When you throw in the lack of velocity and just general poor performance, it all lines up. Except, well, it doesn’t make a ton of sense on one front: The Red Sox just had a full physical on their ace. When he signed the extension the team put him through a physical, and one would imagine they would find something if it was there and either A) not sign the extension or at least B) put him on the injured list. That’s not to say there definitely isn’t a physical ailment causing all of this. There very well might be! If that is the case, though, it’s a pretty harsh indictment on the Red Sox training staff.
The other explanation, and one that has come from Alex Cora himself, has been mechanical. Specifically, Sale isn’t getting the extension he’s gotten in the past and that is hurting his overall stuff. That also makes sense, and is something we can double-check. Brooks Baseball hasn’t updated to include Tuesday’s start as of this writing, but we can compare Sale’s horizontal release point from his first two seasons in Boston to this year.
All three of his main pitches have seen a slight decrease in extension from 2018. However, they are comparable to his 2017 when he was obviously spectacular. Reviewing video, this isn’t a case of him moving on the rubber, either. I don’t doubt that there very well could be something mechanical going on here that I am not noticing, but extension doesn’t appear to be it by this simple measure.
With all of these struggles, the frustration is clearly starting to catch up to Sale. After Tuesday’s game, it started pouring into his post-game comments when he said he has “never been so lost on the field.” He did follow that up with all of the right things by indicating he is still driving to get right, and that’s not a surprise to anyone who has followed him for the last couple of years. At this point, though, the results need to come. If the fastball velocity can’t increase, perhaps he can find a way to slow down the changeup a bit and get that differential back up, though this is clearly easier said than done. Additionally, he needs to start getting that slider on the glove side of the plate again. Sale has been Sale for too long to expect these issues to continue, but this entire team needs a change. A vintage Chris Sale start his next time out could be the perfect way to kick things into high gear.