Chris Sale still doesn’t look familiar

Chris Sale‘s outing Wednesday night looked like a return to form in many respects. Though they used to roll in for him as easily as the morning tide, he victimized the Tigers with his first double-digit strikeout effort of the season and his fourth complete game.

His slider, restrained to a slower, slurvy, strike-grabbing version of itself for much of the year, was a harder and more overwhelming pitch, and closer resembled the self-taught monster that made him a sensational reliever back in 2010. Sale still seems too new, too hard to wrap our minds around, and still too nationally unexposed to be just drumming up memories of past best moments, but here we are.

His fastball command was not quite throwback. He fell just short of jamming Nick Castellanos enough to prevent him from fisting an RBI double down the right field line and grooved one over the heart of the plate to J.D. Martinez for the decisive blow of the night. That blast further inflated Sale’s worst home run rate of his career to the flat-out bad 1.1 HR/9 level he’s sitting at right now, and didn’t take any spotlight off his peculiar avoidance of his changeup, as he remained strangely fastball-slider heavy for someone obsessed with self-preservation earlier in the season.

It was good, but not his best. It had enough reminiscent elements to suggest his best work is still within reach, but was far enough removed to show it wasn’t quite all available to him Wednesday night. It’s far enough into the season that any explanation seems worth tugging at, so why ignore the elephant in the room?

I didn’t want to be too quick to jump all over the decisions the White Sox made at catcher for this season. They were moving on from a backstop in Tyler Flowers who had never hit with consistency, seemingly gained his pitch-framing ability in-house, and was not exactly showered with riches when he shopped his very measurable skills on the free agent market. Moving on for the opportunity to acquire two aging and declining veterans who did not project to be even be average at what Flowers did best seemed bizarre, but when major league teams zig when all public data suggests they should zag, it’s usually prudent to take a step back and wonder what they must know.

Now, the Sox are into August, and it’s still a mystery. The team is floundering, they never got the offense from the position they hoped for, and Baseball Prospectus has them giving up 28 runs below league average due to poor framing alone.  Sale, Jose Quintana, Carlos Rodon all rank among the top-10 most adversely affected pitchers in baseball.

While Quintana is somehow thriving, Rodon is floundering, Sale looks like he’s pitching over limitations that weren’t previously there, and all three are dealing with a spike in their home run rate. So is the entire league, but in trying to figure out how Sox pitching is being hurt by all this, having to live in the heart of the zone because Dioner Navarro isn’t allowing them to reliably graze the corners is a more satisfying theory than just hand-waving it all away.

It doesn’t explain his abandonment of what was a top-level changeup (a 50 percent drop from last season), but less strikes means less pitcher’s counts for Sale to trot out his putaway offerings.

Sale counts

Coming into Wednesday, the rate at which Sale was getting to advantageous counts (0-1, 0-2, 1-2, 2-2) against hitters had regressed to levels not seen since his first year as a starter. While a lot of pitchers succeed in different ways, the benefits of being ahead in the count are immutable across the board, and especially for the former strikeout king.

Clayton Kerhsaw is on the 60-day disabled list, Jake Peavy, who a lifetime ago was a no-doubt top-five pitcher in the National League, is headed to the bullpen. Sale’s level of dominance was always destined to be temporary, and if 2014 and the insane mid-summer stretch in 2015 remain the peaks of his career, when he was at the height of his power it will be a peak that will stack up favorably against those of all but a few. Decline is coming for Sale, and it will be hard to deal with, but it will be natural, unless it comes because he’s not being put in the best position to succeed.

Lead Image Credit: Rick Osentoski // USA Today Sports Images

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