A funny thing happened to Chris Sale while the American League seas were parting for him and the old lions who once stood in his path to the Cy Young award fell to the wayside: he stopped pitching well.
Only 4 of Chris Sale’s last 9 were quality starts. The 14-game winner is 5-3, 5.56 ERA, 1.43 WHIP, .291 opp. average and 61 Ks in last nine.
— Daryl Van Schouwen (@CST_soxvan) July 18, 2016
Saberists find themselves saying “homer-prone” a lot after a cursory glance of a mediocre pitcher’s peripherals don’t reveal anything else interesting or more telling, but Sale was very blatantly besieged by home runs over this stretch coming into Monday night. He allowed 12 bombs over just 56.2 innings, and allowed opposing hitters to slug .507 against him.
He wasn’t just not Sale-like, not racking up strikeouts like he used to and oddly interested in pitching to contact, he was bad and not helping his team, despite a surprising wave of run support leading him to a 5-3 record.
On those 12 home runs, I made some very basic notes:
May 24–high 90 mph fastball, June 4–high outside 92 mph fastball, June 10–outside 94 mph fastball, June 10–high 80 mph slider, June 10–high 96 mph fastball, June 15–high 96 mph fastball, June 26–low and inside slider, June 26–low and inside 91 mph fastball, July 2–high 93.5 mph fastball, July 8–high and outside 93 mph fastball, July 8–low 92 mph fastball, July 8–low and in 90 mph change or fastball
They are mostly fastballs, predominantly elevated, and with some exceptions, at velocity that would be expected of him in years past. For someone who has seen their strikeout rate plummet alongside a decision to cut his changeup rate in half, to go through a prolonged stretch of being punished by hitters sitting on elevated fastballs, while forsaking his tools for dropping eye levels and slowing down bats, reads as ignoring the warning signs of his own approach. Or at best, acknowledging it and choosing to endure.
Sale de-emphasizing strikeouts for the sake of endurance and conservation is only appealing on the basis that his escape tricks will be there when he needs them, but if a month and a half of being pounded isn’t enough to sound the alarms, what is? Does he listen to the alarms when they ring?
Monday night in Seattle would be an evening of redemption of sorts for Sale. His approach remained unchanged and inscrutable into the season’s second half, but his fortunes reversed. His peripherals were as ugly as ever–just six strikeouts, three walks, and really five free passes overall since he hit two batters–but who can argue with eight scoreless, one-hit innings? Sale certainly was aware of his spacious dimensions and made great use of the long flyout by way of challenging hitters to drive his fastball over the heart of the plate, but David Robertson coming on in the ninth and immediately imploding really lent a degree of magic to what Sale had accomplished earlier in the night.
Sale’s offspeed stuff remained as potent as ever. Of the 14 sliders and changeups which Mariners hitters even bothered to offer at, they swung and missed at eight, and only put another three in play (all outs). Other than that, he seemed consumed with trying to throw the perfectly spotted fastball, and did it enough times to make it look like a smart pursuit, but flirted with disaster enough to leave open whether his struggles had chastened him at all.
In the second inning, in his first career matchup against Dae-Ho Lee, Sale fell behind 2-1 before throwing Lee the perfect changeup: a tight, fading 86 mph pitch that dropped into the armside of the zone, with Lee swinging over the top of it as if on command. Sale responded by immediately throwing another to induce a weak groundout, before hiding it entirely from their second at-bat (and striking out Lee with just fastball-slider) and bringing it back once as a first-pitch strike stealer in the third at-bat, before it disappeared again.
And those were three of the 10 times he threw it all night, as kind of a specter to taunt a first-time hitter. It was incredibly effective, but only faintly seemed like a means to an end, and just as much a ghost for Lee to chase in future showdowns.
Post-game player quotes are not a great source of unvarnished truth, and players tend to err on the side of respect for their peers, but discussion of Sale by opponents throughout the year has stayed consistent with that of a small village trying to stay together and endure the monster that haunts them once or twice per season.
“That’s him…he’s that good” Nelson Cruz told Bob Dutton of the News Tribune.
“Chris Sale was Chris Sale tonight,” Mariners manager Scott Servais told the AP.
Sale is in his fifth year as a starter, and despite the sense that he’s buried on the South Side of Chicago, his renown around the league is on par with anyone’s, and the book on him is long. For someone who burst on the scene with an impossibly deceptive delivery, who looks like they should be throwing in a janky sidearm motion but comes out with a clean three-quarters release, who tinkers with the speeds of all his pitchers constantly, altering the looks he gives the opposition varies between a focus and an obsession with him.
He lowered his ERA to 3.18 with his effort Monday, to slide back down into top-10 in the AL, he widened his innings lead, and even though his teammates cost him a win, he burnished a Cy Young case that figures to lean on his monstrous reputation to give him a leg up on pitchers who have shown more consistence dominance. The irony is that he could earn his crowning achievement in a year that could pass by without Sale ever looking like himself, as he’d rather endure the bumps in the road to a change than wait for the diminishing returns of his previous ways.
Lead Image Credit: Joe Nicholson // USA Today Sports Images