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The Anatomy of an Inning: Chris Sale’s Return to the Red Sox

The lefty dominated in a short stint.

In each installment of this series, I’ve tried to explain how there’s more than meets the eye in an inning of baseball, with each pitch having a purpose. Even if the pitch doesn’t make perfect sense strategically, pitchers almost always have a reason for each offering. For the elite, it sometimes appears like it doesn’t matter what they throw. Prime Chris Sale was one of those pitchers. With his length, his velocity, and his devastating off-speed pitches, batters were pretty much guessing.

As he’s yo-yoed back and forth from the IL to the active roster over the past few seasons, his stuff has diminished a touch, which is to be expected. He still pitches with fury, attacking hitter after hitter, it’s not quite the dominance that used to be expected of Sale. If he can stay healthy, his start on Friday gave plenty of reason to believe he can still be a key piece of the Red Sox push for the Wild Card.

The Situation

It’s August 11th - Chris Sale’s first game since June. It’s his fourth inning of work in a game where he was scheduled to pitch four innings. Coming into the inning, he’s thrown 36 pitches. He’s about to face the top of the Tigers’ order for the second time.

AB #1: Matt Vierling

Vierling shows bunt on the first pitch, but he’s really taking all the way as Sale throws a 92 MPH fastball for strike one.

Second pitch, a changeup in the dirt. For me, this has been one of the biggest differences in today’s version of Chris Sale. His changeup has always been his third pitch, but he’s gone away from it even more since returning from injuries. Pitchers will often say a changeup is a pitch you need some feel for, so maybe the usage will return as he ramps up. This one was nowhere near the zone, but in an 0-1 count it’s not a bad time to hone in that pitch.

Much better. Out of his hand, this ball looks like a fastball that would finish over the middle of the plate but in reality, it fades towards the arm side and ends up just over the plate. Vierling is out in front, gets it off the end of the bat, and grounds out.

AB #2: Andy Ibanez

This first pitch is interesting. Sale throws a slider, looking for the “I’m sitting on a fastball middle-middle or I’m taking this pitch” free strike that pitchers love to get. Ibanez seems to be waiting on the slider, but he really tries to pull it. It’s on the outer half of the plate and up, so if Ibanez was to go with the pitch, he probably could have shot it down the right-field line for extra bases, but he swings out of his shoes and tries to put it over the monster. Ibanez fouls it off, but he may be okay with that as he probably wasn’t going to get a ton on it if he did put it in play.

If Ibanez wants to hit a slider, the last thing Chris Sale should do is give him a slider in the zone. He could throw one in the dirt to try to get a chase if he wants, but he definitely shouldn’t throw one in the zone.

This is a thing of beauty. A fastball at the top of the zone that goes right by Ibanez. Good luck.

If the first one worked, why not do the exact same thing but even higher? Sale makes quick work of Ibanez by getting him to expand the zone and punch out.

AB #3: Spencer Torkelson

First pitch, a fastball on the outer edge of the plate. Spencer Torkelson does Chris Sale a favor and gets himself out. Interesting decision by Torkelson by being aggressive so early in the count after seeing seven pitches his first time up.

Just seven pitches here in the fourth inning; they don’t tell the full story of the start, but they’re a decent jumping-off point. Go ahead and rewatch the full start. You’ll see a whole lot of fastballs up and sliders down, with changeups mixed in sparingly. It’s a good first start for Sale, but there’s still room for improvement. With 40 games to go and the Red Sox on the outside of the playoffs looking in, let’s hope Sale can put it all together in a hurry.

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