Chris Sale took a funny approach to the beginning of his 26th start of the season: he spent the early part of his day looking like a bad pitcher.
His slider floated through the zone, his fastball velocity hovered around 92 mph, which is fine if he’s locating and playing it off his other devastating off-speed pitches, but he was missing by a foot. His changeup, the pitch he’s been mystifyingly holding back for much of the season for reasons that he’s kept nestled under his black Sox cap, flowed freely, but it was largely a biteless meatball, and accounted for five of the eight hits Sale allowed Wednesday.
With two on and two outs, with a run in already in the fifth inning, Sale–who led the AL in WHIP coming in, for whatever it’s worth–had allowed six hits, walked three and was facing the bane of his existence, Victor Martinez.
Which is naturally, in a thoroughly baseball moment, when Sale’s hard slider that dives into right-handers, showed up to the ballpark and erased Martinez with ease. That set off a streak of seven in a row retired, with Sale striking out the side in the seventh, getting Martinez again in the eighth, only to have J.D. Martinez flick a slider at the knees from the outside corner to left field to ultimately tie the game at 2-2 and leave the day in the fate of his unreliable teammates.
This would be the second-straight start where Sale seemingly revved up down the stretch. Against Seattle, after falling down 3-0 last weekend, he retired the last 16 batters he faced and struck out 10. This falls in line with a larger revving up effort, where Sale is putting together the sort of strong second half finish that has eluded him for his career. He has a 2.52 ERA since the break, has allowed just two home runs in 60.2 innings after being plagued by the long ball in the first half, and opposing hitters have seen their OPS against him drop 85 points since the All-Star Game.
Revved up Chris Sale is an undeniable force, and is inevitably the more fun part of the conversation, but not the part of the approach that is inscrutable. Buying into his conservation plan means seeing his punchless openings to games, and seeing some of the dead stretches of the season as some sort of measured effort, or at least a physical limitation to what he can do.
If Sale did anything in the earlygoing Wednesday that looked intentional, he kept the ball down. It was alarming to watch Tigers hitters track his breaking stuff the way they tracked Anthony Ranaudo and Matt Albers earlier in the week, but it was all at the bottom of the zone, which led to three double plays in the first four innings.
Pitchers, especially all-time great ones, exude a sense of control and intention behind their actions and results, that we would probably never bother extending to others. Ranaudo certainly wouldn’t engender confidence for sneaking through four scoreless where he didn’t strike anyone out and got by on double plays, but all season we have been tempted to try to see something in Sale lowering his performance in the traditional way we measure dominance; some sort of indication that he knows how to prevent runs in a way that defies our presumption.
Simply put, we don’t know. He has results on his side, he has a track record where he could announce that he’s going to throw with his feet and take it seriously. But most of his bad moments just look like bad command and flat breaking stuff, and pitching to contact against the Tigers lineup feels nothing short of insane.
When people ask the tortured question of what’s worth watching about the White Sox these days, beyond watching Tim Anderson develop, seeing if Jose Quintana can keep getting better, finding out the rhyme and reason to what the hell Sale is doing is No. 1. I’m not there yet, I don’t even know if I’m getting closer, but I’m watching.
Lead Image Credit: Rick Osentoski // USA Today Sports Images