For as long as he’s been healthy, Chris sale has always been one thing as a baseball player: one of the single most dominant pitchers on whatever field he stepped on. He never even really went through an adjustment period to the Major Leagues — Sale put up an absurd 225 ERA+ as a 21-year-old rookie reliever and made the All-Star team in his very first season as a starter two years later. His life as a baseball player has been defined and shaped by the fact that he’s always been able to get hitters out.
Last week, Chris Sale struck out 11 Minnesota Twins over 6 innings, allowed just a single run, and looked very much like the vintage slider-slinging, jersey-cutting Chris Sale we grew to love and the league grew to fear. But last night, Chris Sale struck out 0 Baltimore Orioles over 5 innings, allowed 9 hits and 5 runs, and looked very much like the inconsistent, clubhouse-destroying Chris Sale we’re slowly growing to dread. What explains the difference between these two outings?
First, it wasn’t velocity. Sale actually threw harder last night against the O’s than he did against the Twins, with his slider barreling towards hitters over a full mile-and-hour faster last night than in his previous outing. It probably wasn’t the movement either; if you can identify a meaningful difference between the two charts below (the Twins outing on top, the O’s on the bottom) then get yourself to a bar somewhere and spend the afternoon hustling people in games of Photo Hunt.
And, lastly, we can’t blame wildness. Sale threw too many pitches outside the strike zone in both outings (42 balls out of 83 total pitches last night, 42 out of 94 against the Twins), and he was actually more wild against the Twins, issuing two walks and hitting two batters, compared to just a single walk last night.
Ah, but while wildness itself wasn’t the problem, it may have been the root cause. Because as it turns out, the one meaningful difference between what Sale threw last night compared to what he threw against the Twins was the location of the pitches he threw inside the strike zone.
Against the Twins, Sale lived on the bottom of the strike zone, hit the corners, and mostly stayed away from the danger areas up and over the middle:
But last night in Baltimore, Sale left more pitches up, struggled to keep things on the corners, and put far too many balls right in the heart of the zone:
Chris Sale pounded the zone, and the Orioles hitters pounded him back. And this brings us back to the question of Sale’s overall command and control. There are two possibilities that explain what happened to Chris Sale last night: either he was trying to hit the corners and he just couldn’t command the ball like he used to (extremely possible!) or he was deliberately trying to limit the free-passes he’s been issuing and got punished for it (also extremely possible!) Either way, it points to the same larger issue: Chris Sale doesn’t really know what to do on a baseball field right now.
After a lifetime of taking the mound in the pitching equivalent of body armor, Chris Sale suddenly finds himself in street clothes. He is — much to what must be a gnawing mix of disappoint, confusion, and surprise — mortal.
We all get to this point eventually, even if, for non-elite athletes, becoming mortal means wheezing while climbing the stairs or being unable to overcome a hangover instead of giving up four doubles in four innings. What Chris Sale is going through is essentially a midlife crisis: he’s slowly realizing that the he can’t bend the world to his will; that there’s no guarantee that the trajectory of his life always points up; that this might be all there is.
But one of the cruelties of life as a professional athlete is that these midlife crises don’t really come in the middle. For many pitchers, they signal the beginning of the end. If Chris Sale doesn’t want this to be the end, he’s going to have to do do the same thing that the rest of us need to do. He’s going to have to accept that he’s not the same pitcher he once was, that the body armor isn’t coming back. He’s going to have to adjust to this new reality and redefine success.
Can he do this? Throughout his career, Chris Sale famously has been loath to shake off his catcher. He’s never gotten hitters out by thinking, because he’s never needed to. But as the Orioles showed last night, merely throwing the ball in the zone and trusting his stuff isn’t going to cut it anymore. He needs to adjust. He needs to think about pitching differently. It’s ironic, but the only way for Chris Sale to become the old Chris Sale again, is to become something he’s never been before.