The list of rewatchable Chris Sale moments is long and actively seeking new submissions. Just his return to Tampa this past weekend conjured memories of his Memorial Day coming out party in 2012, where he struck out 15 Rays batters over seven innings in an explosion of pure stuff.
Friday night’s shutout at Tropicana Field found Sale in a different place. He can still rush it up at 96-98 mph, and show a wipeout slider, but he has an eye for the future now, a sense for planning and conservation. He used to be a highlight reel, but Friday night was a complete work, and rather than look at his best moments, it’s the start I most want to rewatch in full. I wish he’d release it on DVD with a commentary track. In lieu of that, we can only try to look back at what on Earth he was doing.
Sale spends the first inning doing two prominent things: sitting well below his normal velocity on his fastball at 90-92 mph, and pumping it on the outer half to right-handed hitters, and also doing it a lot, if we want to count a third thing.
The process results in some loud outs to right field, but challenging hitters to take him deep to the opposite field on pitches on the outside edge is a bit risk-reduced. He keeps up the same pattern with Evan Longoria — who typically prefers middle-in — even trying to backdoor him with a slider before blowing a 92 mph fastball by him on the outer half for his first strikeout of the night.
That exposes some of the genius of his tapering velocity plan; Sale works so much two-seamer action on his fastball that there’s still swing-and-miss potential at lower velocity.
By now, the first countermove has begun, not even one time through the order. Sale is still holding back velocity — his first pitch challenge to Steve Pearce is 89 mph down the pipe — and he starts the same way against Desmond Jennings before throwing one of his first changeups of the night. It’s not a great change, since it stays up enough for Jennings to poke it out to center for one of two hits the Rays collected all game, but it foreshadows the knot Steven Souza gets tied into.
After showing fastballs on the outer half in the first inning, Sale’s first pitch change in that location fools Souza, who barely taps it foul, then he follows it up by busting a fastball on the inside corner that Souza isn’t ready to tuck in his hands and turn on. When the third pitch is a looping slider high and outside, Souza’s timing is so banjaxed he’s actually late on something under 80 mph.
When the bottom of the order comes up, Sale gets less cagey on location, and tries more to get through while holding out at least one of his pitches entirely.
Kevin Keirmaier is the rare lefty left in to face the Sale meatgrinder, but is unsurprisingly unable to do much with six straight fastballs all over the place, though it’s notable that Sale cranks it up to 98 mph the first time. Light-hitting catcher Curtis Casali gets low fastballs he can’t put in play until getting blown away by the trademark hard slider in to right-handers that he has been hurting the league with for four years.
His second time up, Forsythe is still aggressively offering at another lower velocity fastball Sale is putting in the middle of zone for him, but can’t do anything with beyond bounce it to first. Sinking two-seamer action, more groundballs and less pitches was said to be a focus going into the year, and pounding the bottom of the zone with his two-seamer is how he can make that switch.
The way Chris Sale’s double-digit strikeout streak ended last summer was because the Blue Jays essentially willed it to end. After watching him vaporize batters with unhittable stuff in two-strike counts, the Blue Jays swung early and often. It didn’t really work — Sale threw a complete game and the Sox won 4-2 — but the strikeout streak died and it altered the doomed calculus into something that shifted the emphasis on the Sox defense; a typically more vulnerable element.
Maybe the Rays felt similarly, since the top of the order remained content to chase whenever Sale offered them something in the strike zone early in the count. Brandon Guyer hacked at both changeups Sale offered, and Longoria bounced the first pitch he saw — a low 90 mph fastball splitting the zone — to third. Sale went back to staying away from Pearce, but once his slider even clipped the outer edge of the zone, he chased and flipped a weak fly to center.
After allowing Jennings to stay aggressive and get himself out on 92 mph fastballs on the outer edge, Sale noted Souza’s discomfort with his slider the first time through the order and threw him three more. After looking confused at the first offering, Souza was actually right on a 90 mph fastball down the pipe and just fouled it back, but was helpless when Sale switched back. A bender hard inside sent Souza back to the dugout cursing to himself.
After getting 95 mph upstairs to start off, Tim Beckham was happy to track a slower slider, and made good contact on a liner out to left, but still had to reach too much to get a real power swing on it.
These middle innings might have secretly served as the backbreaker for the Rays. There were only a handful of hittable pitches, but the failure to immediately convert on them allowed Sale to get through both frames in 13 pitches and have steam left for the later innings.
Brad Miller, in the game as a substitution after a scary collision between Forsythe and Keirmaier forced both from the game, had the typical lefty experience vs. Sale. He saw only fastball and sliders, let a 95 mph heater spilt the plate on him on a hitter’s count without even flinching at it — as if he never got a good look at it — and wound up pushing a slurvy looper on the outer half weakly to short.
If that approach seemed kind of generic, Casali saw one of Sale’s biggest mistakes. After starting him off with changeups downstairs that didn’t draw offers, Sale tried to go upstairs with fastball, but winds up going belt-high on the inner half with 92 mph. It’s possibly the first run of the game if he throws it to someone other than the catcher out of the nine-hole, but instead it’s a flyout to left field that leaves Casali cursing to himself.
Corey Dickerson, who was also an injury replacement who originally sat to avoid Sale, looked like a guy in a terrible matchup while he was taking impossible sliders on the outside corner early, or barely clipping a 95 mph fastball upstairs. But with nothing to live for at 0-2 against the worst matchup in baseball, he got a hanging slider that he crushed to the warning track, which doubled as the best contact anyone made on the slider all game.
Adam Eaton‘s running catch wound up being the defensive highlight of the evening, and seemingly every shutout has one, but it’s worth nothing here that another pitcher probably starts getting watched closely after this or placed on a short leash. It’s six innings on a low pitch count, but Sale had just made two bad, seemingly unforced mistakes. Unless he’s coming apart at the seams, though, there’s no reliever who engenders more confidence than Sale on the Sox pitching staff, even in short bursts.
With his third trip through the top of the order on tap, Sale begins ramping things up, velocity-wise. He throws 96 mph in the upper half of the zone to strike out Guyer, and steps up to 93 mph to Longoria, even if it’s in between changeups to use the aggression in Longoria he fostered earlier in the game.
The increased velocity doesn’t mean much to Pearce, who had been in swing-mode in every plate appearance, and laced a 93 mph heater on the inner half to left field for the second and last hit of the game.
In back-to-back plate appearances, the natural swing-and-miss ability from Sale’s sinking action crops up against Jennings, who somehow swings over a 91 mph fastball thigh-high and on the inner half, then weakly grounds a second one to short, reaching on a Jimmy Rollins throwing error. Souza, who has spent the whole night baffled by Sale’s slider, all of sudden gets 97 mph over and over for four pitches, before one-last hard-and-in slider caps a three-strikeout day.
In the eighth, after Beckham led off by flying out on a slider down broadway to right, Sale began toying with dramatically different fastballs mid-at-bat.
He started Miller off in the high-80s both outside, then in, before rushing 95 up and in, and finishing him off by placing a 92 mph heater with tons of sink inside and under his hands in a spot that couldn’t show up on any possible swing path. Casasli watched Sale bounce between 90 and 95 mph versions enough times that when he split the plate with a slider through the back door, he just stared helplessly at it.
By the end, Sale’s command has reached the point where the hope is that his stuff is still too lively to be punished even if it’s in the wrong location, and since he’s still touching 95 mph and just broached 100 pitches, that hope is largely being fulfilled.
For the second time, Sale’s matchup with Dickerson looks like one that would prompt Rays manager Kevin Cash to sit his power hitting outfielder — Dickerson winds up having to drop to one knee just to pop a slider off the roof of the dome, but still ends with Sale floating him a cookie that he lines out to short.
At least that was on the outer-half. Guyer might have gotten Sale’s worst pitch of the night: a 91 mph fastball in a spot to crush thigh-high and on the inner-third and drove it to the wall, where Melky Cabrera had to make an interesting catch.
But on his final out, Sale looked to be executing a plan again. Facing Longoria for the fourth time, he went back to baiting him to dive over the plate to chase fastballs off the edge and weakly fly out to right.
Sale’s saving himself more to last deeper into games, but the payoffs are multifold. By working the bottom and edges of the zone with an easier-to-touch version of his two-seam fastball, he’s providing something to put in play to generate easy outs on the ground. The strategy keeps his pitch count down, but also creates more separation with his top velocity, which he can tap into when needed in later innings.
He should continue to have opportunities to use it and prove this method works, since his reputation as a high-strikeout, extreme-control monster has taken away most incentive to wait him out for a mistake to drive. If he’s going to put something in the zone for hitters to offer at, they’ll take it.
It’s just one start, after two outings where Sale was seemingly struggling to just maintain rather than spin a lineup around his finger. But there’s diminishing returns from trying to blow everyone away with elite stuff, and at this point, the threat of what he can do when he reaches back is just as potent as what he actually does.