MLB: Chicago White Sox at Toronto Blue Jays

South Side Morning 5: Chris Sale’s bizarre reign of terror

1. To date, we’ve had two starts of traditional-looking Chris Sale: one was a step away from greatness due to a command lapse and in the other he was just freezing cold. There has been one kitchen sink, 1,000 ways-to-kill-you masterpiece, and two starts where Sale has thrived with a couple of miles on his fastball tied behind his back, along his typical wipeout slider, and thrived in spite of it, or because of it. Who is to say at this point?

His fastball in his last two times out has been a solid four miles per hour slower than even his Opening Day start, his slider has dropped by the same magnitude while he’s switched to a loopy slurve that didn’t get any swings and misses Tuesday, and his strikeout rate has dropped eight percent from last season’s reign as king of whiffs in the AL.

It could also be the best month of his career. It’s the first five-win month of his career, which is ephemeral, but since he’s averaging more than seven innings per start, Sale has more impact on the decisions than most.

Superficially, Sale is getting all the luck that eluded him last year. Even Philip Humber in 2011 rode rock bottom BABIP and high strand rates longer than Sale has so far without getting written up breathlessly. The difference is whether it can still be trusted that Sale has the whiffs in his back pocket when he needs them. He pops out top velocity (touched 96 mph Tuesday) and ramps it up over the start enough to keep the faith, and if 99 out of 100 pitchers would simply be grappling with physical decline rather than giving a feint to the entire league, the 100th would be Chris Sale.

2. Sale pumped in first strikes to 21 of 29 hitters Tuesday night, using a lot of low-90s fastballs early in the count against the Blue Jays lineup that’s one of the least aggressive in baseball so far in 2016. That’s one of the largest hints of how he was acting on his preseason goals for more efficiency, but Adam Eaton also threw out a quote that was a bit more provocative than the usual ‘this team is great’ fare.

“He has a chance to throw a no-hitter every night. He has that type of stuff,’’ Eaton said. “I definitely think his mentality has changed this year and that has to do with the catching. [With] Navarro and Alex [Avila], he seems not to get mad as much. He stays on task.’’

Sale had nothing but praise for Tyler Flowers, but that has little impact on the outside perception of Flowers’ ability to rein Sale in. Recently, Sale’s outings are too low stress for this principle to really get a workout, but it’s something to watch for the rest of the season.

3. Yesterday’s note about it still being early enough to flip a batting line with a few hot games certainly applies to Avisail Garcia, who vaulted his OPS more than 150 points just by having four hits over the last two games, including slapping a lifeless R.A. Dickey knuckler to the moon Tuesday night (and promptly getting a very eager free pass his next time up).

Garcia hasn’t done anything in the last two days that he hasn’t done before (spray singles to right field, swat hangers), but if the conversion rate on the things he can do was higher, he probably wouldn’t have people suggesting he be demoted. An Avisail Garcia full of limitations but being excellent at the things he’s capable of is not a foolish thing to hope for and can probably at least fight off Jerry Sands for playing time. The Sox’ ridiculously hot start will still ratchet up the scrutiny on Garcia either way, especially since DH help will be the easiest to find.

4. Hector Sanchez is now with the big club after injuries felled Alex Avila and Kevan Smith, and it would stand to reason that he would get into a game soon, since Dioner Navarro, of 32 years on this Earth, parts of 13 seasons in the majors and 921 games, has appeared in parts of the last six games in a row.

Navarro has been looking increasingly hitterish since working regularly, going 5-for-10 with two home runs and two walks in the last four games. Returns against right-handed pitching can probably be expected to diminish when the opposition is not a bad knuckleballer who can’t break 80 mph, though.

5. Zach Putnam worked the ninth inning of Tuesday’s blowout, striking out the side with his usual recipe of “Here, try to hit my insane splitter.” He threw splitters on 10 of his 13 pitches, and half of those 10 went for a swing and miss.

That actually dragged down his whiff percentage for a pitch he throws roughly three out of every five times on average (he gets whiffs on ~56 percent of swings). His success is … odd. That Putnam is striking out more than 30 percent of hitters again is actually a repeat of last season, but he was hurt down the stretch of 2015 and finished with a 4.07 ERA despite a flashy 64 strikeouts in 48.2 innings. Putnam’s one dimensional nature is hysterical to watch — everything we know about the complexities of pitching makes a guy throwing the same nasty tumbler over and over and getting major leaguers out absurd — but it also serves to make him more volatile. Naturally, if he comes out and doesn’t have his splitter working, he’s a tomato can and your first hint of such is typically a ball rocketing over the fence.

It would still be nice to see him get more high-leverage work due to just how useful a reliever with no real platoon split, a high strikeout rate and a pitch built to induce grounders can be in U.S. Cellular Field.


Lead Image Credit: Dan Hamilton // USA Today Sports Images

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