Red Sox starter Chris Sale shows improved velocity vs Texas Rangers

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 pitcher Chris Sale produced his best start of the season against the Texas Rangers while showing improved velocity on his fastball.

Chris Sale‘s latest turn through the Boston Red Sox rotation shows he’s getting back to looking like his old self.

That’s not to suggest that he was struggling through the first few weeks of the season. Sale’s numbers have been as spectacular as ever. He owns a 2.02 ERA and 0.94 WHIP through eight starts. Still, up until his latest outing against the Texas Rangers, something felt off. He wasn’t pitching poorly yet there was a concerning decline in his velocity.

It can take starting pitchers time to build up their velocity, so losing a tick on their fastball is not uncommon. That wasn’t the case for Sale last year. He came charging out of the gates throwing heat, motivated by the desire to impress his new team. Sale averaged 95 mph with his fastball last year, often reaching back to hit the high 90’s. He averaged at least 93 mph with his fastball in every start last year.

Sale seemed to be easing his way in this season. His fastball averaged 93.7 mph through his first seven starts. His average fastball was below 93 mph in two of those starts. It’s taking Sale a few innings to find the velocity we’re used to seeing from him. His fastball has hovered in the low 90’s in the first inning of most of his starts this year.

One of the more glaring examples came in his fourth start of the season against the Baltimore Orioles. Sale’s fastball sat between 89-92 mph in the first inning. He topped out at 94 mph in the fourth inning. Sale was pulled after only five innings when his pitch count reached 93. The decreased velocity made it easier for hitters to catch up just enough to foul off tough pitches they normally would have swung through. The O’s fouled off 21 of Sale’s pitches, which explains his inefficiency.

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His fastball reached 97 in the first inning during his start in Toronto at the end of April. That showed Sale was still capable of ratching up the velocity early yet he still stayed primarily in the low 90’s during the first few innings. The home run he allowed to light-hitting No. 9 hitter Devon Travis came on a 92 mph fastball.

As recently as May 1 against the Kansas City Royals, Sale was still throwing between 91-93 mph in the first inning. He didn’t reach 96 mph until the fourth inning.

Sale has proven he can remain effective with decreased velocity but it hasn’t come without consequences. Staying mostly in the low 90’s instead of blowing hitters away has been part of the reason he’s racked up high pitch counts early. Sale lasted seven innings only twice in his first seven starts and has yet to pitch into the eighth. Last year, he lasted at least seven innings in six of his first seven starts.

His strikeout rate remains an elite 11.6 K/9 yet that’s a steep drop from his league-leading 12.9 K/9 last year. He has reached double-digits in strikeouts only twice this season after he did so 18 times last year, including eight of his first nine starts. It’s safe to say Sale won’t be making another run at 300 strikeouts this year.

The dip in his average velocity may be by design. He’s clearly still capable of reaching back for that upper-90’s heat, he’s just not going there early and often. Combined with his lower innings totals and strict pitch count monitoring, this seems to be a concerted effort to save Sale’s arm for the long haul.

Sale led the league with 214 1/3 innings, then tacked on 9 2/3 more in his first career trip to the postseason. He has a history of wearing down late in the season and that trend reared its ugly head under the pressure of a heavier workload. Sale posted a 4.38 ERA last August, followed by a 3.72 ERA in September. He was shelled for at least five runs on several occasions during that span. Sale also struggled in the postseason when the Houston Astros roughed him up in his Game 1 start.

Conserving his arm early should help keep Sale fresh for what the Red Sox hope will be a deep postseason run. His latest start against the Rangers shows Sale may have been let off his leash. The lefty struck out the side in the opening frame on 14 pitches, reaching as high as 98 and hitting 96 with three other pitches that inning. He averaged a season-high 97.4 mph with his fastball in that game.

It’s no coincidence that Sale’s best outing in terms of fastball velocity coincides with his most effective performance. He allowed only one run on four hits and a walk over seven innings and struck out 12.

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The version of Sale we saw against the Rangers is more in line with the dominant ace who finished second in AL Cy Young voting last year. Expect him to perform more at this level the rest of the season, while the plan to ease him in early should pay off with Sale remaining strong into October.