Something is going on with Chris Sale right now, and to be honest I don’t like it very much. I don’t know whether it’s something physical or mental or relating to the weather or his lack of work in spring or a curse placed on him by an ancient warlock during offseason misadventures, but something is not right at the moment. Sale wasn’t terrible in Sunday’s game, being hurt by a Rafael Devers error and going strong for his last five innings, but he still gave up a ton of hard contact. It wasn’t Chris Sale, ya know? Everything is at least a little off right now, and the Red Sox ace now has a 6.30 ERA with a 5.23 FIP through his first six starts and 30 innings.
What stands out the most to me right now, and this is a totally subjective feeling, is that he currently looks like a middle-of-the-road pitcher going through a bad stretch. That is to say, even with a tweak or two he looks like a number three, not one of the three or four best pitchers in baseball. Now, this isn’t me saying that version of Sale is gone forever. It’s just saying he appears to be more than a couple tweaks away from returning, and that is depressing.
Over the course of this entire first month of the season and the main focus around Sale has been his fastball. There’s a good reason for this, because this pitch has strikingly been far off what we’re used to. The velocity has been anywhere from down to oh-my-god-what-is-happening down, and he’s not working off the pitch like he always has. The velocity has been trending up, to be fair, though on Sunday it trended back down to the low-90s. All of that being said, as I watch his starts and fill my mug up with tears, it’s the slider that has stood out the most to me as the pitch that most makes me long for the Chris Sale of yesteryear.
We know what happens with pitchers when they get older. CC Sabathia is the most famous recent example of overcoming a lost fastball to continue success, and David Price has taken a similar path of late. Sale isn’t necessarily at that point yet, as we’ve seen he still has that 95-97 mph fastball in that arm somewhere. That said, as he still tries to find it he does have to lean on his secondaries a bit more and be effective with them. He certainly is leaning on the slider more, throwing it almost half the time so far this year per Baseball Savant. If that breaking ball is working, it can mask plenty of other deficiencies, because it is filthy. We all know this, and it is one of the reasons the slider stands out so much to me right now. The ideal version of Chris Sale from a strictly aesthetic perspective as a dude who sits in a chair and watches baseball involves him making hitters look silly with a slider. That hasn’t happened nearly as much this year.
He just doesn’t seem to have a consistent feel for the pitch right now. This isn’t to say he hasn’t featured any of those back-breaking sliders, because they have been there. On Sunday, for example, he did have six swinging strikes on 52 sliders for a solid 11.5 percent whiff rate. It’s just that the feel hasn’t been consistently there and it hasn’t been the kind of weapon he can constantly fall back on. It seems like a large percentage of these breaking balls are either not sharp and simply looping into hittable zones, like this one, or just nowhere near its target and being spit on, as Eck would say, like this one.
Like I said above, though, despite all of the issues this has had to have been his most-used pitch because his fastball has been so relatively ineffective. It’s worth noting the lack of fastball velocity means his changeup is less effective, too, given the relative lack of velocity separation. So, he’s using the slider over 42 percent of the time, but the results are not what we are used to. Statcast has his expected wOBA on the pitch at .254, which isn’t terrible but is still almost 100 points higher than 2018. Those kind of expected numbers aren’t always as reliable as we think, particularly this early in the year, but the difference between this year and last year does match the eye test.
Looking more at more concrete results on the pitch, the differences remain stark. In 2019, he is getting whiffs on 29 percent of swings. That doesn’t seem terrible until you realize that just a year ago he got whiffs on over 44 percent of swings against the slider. That’s a significant difference! More generally, Sale is getting chases on a similar number of pitches this year compared to last year, down from 32 percent to 31 percent, and most of his chases do come on sliders. However, the chases are having different results. Last season, opponents made contact on just under half of those chases. So far this year, that contact rate is up above 67 percent, easily a career-high for Sale. That goes back to the point of his slider just not being as sharp and being much easier to track.
It also speaks to the location of his sliders. Below, you can see the contour of all of his sliders this year compared to 2018. The red represents where a higher percentage of his pitches have been, and there isn’t a huge difference here. However, focus on the bottom of the zone.
Now, it is worth mentioning the red in 2019 is more concentrated in a hittable zone, which is not ideal. What stands out more to me, though, is how far down below the zone the blue portion of that goes. Normally, you wouldn’t want a pitcher to pound locations that far away from the strike zone. However, with Sale and his slider, throwing his slider that far below the zone is what leads to last season’s low contact rate on pitches that were chased. His slider, at its best, it going to get swings pretty much no matter where it is, and batters aren’t hitting it if it’s in or right above the dirt. However, when they are simply balls directly below the zone, you are going to see more contact and that contact will turn into baserunners in a large enough sample.
At the end of the day, assuming there is nothing noticeably physically wrong with Sale, there’s nothing that can be done except hoping better things are to come. Like I said, the final five innings on Sunday were solid and a step in the right direction. The slider did look a little better in that time. The Red Sox need to hope he can build off that and get back to his old self when the calendar turns to May. I miss watching peak Chris Sale, or at least something close to it. The fastball improving would certainly help, but what I really want to see is that slider back to the level to which we’ve grown so accustomed.