Red Sox ace Chris Sale’s pitch counts have been troubling

BOSTON, MA - APRIL 10: Chris Sale #41 of the Boston Red Sox pitches against the New York Yankees during the first inning at Fenway Park on April 10, 2018 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
BOSTON, MA - APRIL 10: Chris Sale #41 of the Boston Red Sox pitches against the New York Yankees during the first inning at Fenway Park on April 10, 2018 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images) /

Boston Red Sox left-handed pitcher Chris Sale hasn’t been as efficient with his pitches this season, leading to some early exits.

Chris Sale is proving once again that he’s among the best pitchers in baseball. The Boston Red Sox ace has yet to have a poor outing in 2018 yet there are some lingering concerns based on what we’ve seen.

Through four starts this season, Sale is 1-0 with a 1.23 ERA and 0.95 WHIP. He’s been the best pitcher on the American League’s top-ranked rotation. That’s what we expected. What has taken us a bit by surprise is Sale’s limited workload.

Sale led the majors with 214 1/3 innings last season so we know he’s a workhorse. So far this season he hasn’t been treated like one. The lefty has yet to last more than six innings or throw more than 93 pitches in a game this season. He’s on a 32-game pace for 176 innings, which would be his fewest since he was a relief pitcher in 2011.

Granted, it’s early in the season and starters take time to ramp up to mid-season form. However, this is drastically different from how Sale was used last season. He lasted at least seven innings and threw at least 102 pitches in all five of his April starts in 2017.

It’s clear that the Red Sox are making a concerted effort to reduce Sale’s workload early in the season. This makes sense given his history of wearing down late in the season. We saw him stumble a bit last September and he wasn’t sharp in the postseason.

The number of innings a starting pitcher logs isn’t quite as important as the pitch count. Long innings can be more taxing on a pitcher’s arm. A starter can breeze through a complete game without the concerns that can stem from struggling through five stressful innings. The number of pitches per frame is the key and thus far Sale hasn’t been as efficient as usual.

Sale matched his season-high with 93 pitches in his last outing against the Baltimore Orioles. It took him five innings to do it. This was the second time this season he’s reached that pitch count through five innings. Sale will eventually be let off the leash to handle a pitch count that hits triple-digits but he won’t last much deeper into games at this rate.

There isn’t a glaring reason behind this inefficiency. He remains among the elite strikeout artists with a 12.7 K/9. It can take more pitches to rack up strikeouts than someone who pitches to contact may utilize, yet this hasn’t been much of an issue for Sale in the past. He had no problem going deeper into games last year when he led the majors with a 12.9 K/9.

He’s not walking significantly more batters either. His 2.0 BB/9 is slightly higher than last year but still a tick below his career rate.

Sale’s velocity is down a bit. His fastball has clocked in at an average of 93 mph compared to 95 mph last season, per FanGraphs. That’s hardly unusual for April though. Sale also isn’t struggling in areas you might expect a dip in velocity to become apparent.

When a pitcher like Sale who can blow hitters away with their fastball loses some of their velocity it typically results in fewer swinging strikes. That hasn’t been the case for Sale. His 16.4 Swinging Strike percentage would be a career-high if he keeps it up.

You might expect that reduced velocity would give hitters a chance to catch up with his fastball. Opponents certainly aren’t having much success putting the ball in play. The loss in velocity should make it easier for a hitter to fight off a tough pitch by fouling it off. Only 16.4 percent of Sale’s pitches have been fouled off this season, compared to 18.3 percent last April.

The culprit behind Sale’s efficiency issues has been his ability to throw strikes. Clearly, he’s finding the zone often enough to pile up strikeouts without seeing a drastic uptick in walks. It’s simply taking Sale more pitches than usual to get those strikeouts.

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Only 64.9 percent of Sale’s pitches have been strikes this season. That’s down from his 66.6 percent career rate and the 68.3 percent he posted last year. His 43 Zone% would be a career-low, indicating he’s throwing a higher percentage of his pitches outside the zone.

It appears that Sale is attempting to get hitters to chase pitches more often than usual. In many cases, it works, as his pitches are so filthy that he can make a bad pitch look enticing. That’s why he gets so many swinging strikes. It’s also why his pitch count climbs so quickly. He’s wasting pitches trying to get the hitter to chase when he’s talented enough to get them to swing-and-miss inside the zone.

If the issue boils down essentially to pitch selection then at least it’s correctable. Perhaps it’s due to working more with Christian Vazquez behind the plate. The battery mates are still getting familiar with each other. Sale isn’t one to ever shake off his catcher so it may be a matter of Vazquez adjusting to what Sale can throw.

As the ace of the staff, Sale is expected to go deep into games. He’s the guy that needs to step up when the rest of the rotation is reeling and the bullpen needs a break. It hasn’t been much of a problem so far because everyone in Boston’s rotation has pitched great, for the most part. Yet getting more out of Sale is still better than relying on additional innings from any reliever outside of Craig Kimbrel. The bullpen already blew one game on Opening Day when Sale lasted only six innings.

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Sale will be able to ramp up his workload as the season progresses and will be better off in the long run from the team holding him back early on. He will start tossing more innings soon. How efficient he is with those innings will be a factor to keep an eye on.