Boston Red Sox lefty Chris Sale showed signs of progress in his latest start but he’s still not back to the ace we are used to seeing from him.
Chris Sale is slowly working his way back to form but the ace of the Boston Red Sox staff still isn’t where he needs to be.
The final line in his latest appearance was solid enough. Sale allowed two earned runs on five hits and a pair of walks over five innings against the Detroit Tigers. Most encouraging is that he tallied a season-high 10 strikeouts.
Sale threw 72 of his 97 pitches for strikes, a healthy 74.2 percent that represents a season-high. That included 14 swinging strikes, six of which came on his four-seam fastball. That’s a relief considering swings-and-misses have been hard to come by for Sale this year. He entered the day with only two this season with his fastball.
That’s the good news. A deeper dive into Sale’s performance shows he’s not quite back to the dominant form we’re accustomed to seeing from the lanky lefty.
Sale’s fastball velocity was the big storyline through his first few starts. He mostly put those concerns to rest in his last outing against the New York Yankees when he averaged 95.4 mph with his fastball and reached 97 numerous times. Against Detroit, the velocity dipped to an average of 92.7 mph with a max of 94. He was intentionally holding back early in the season in order to gradually build up his velocity but this regression is a bit concerning.
We know that Sale has the most devastating slider in baseball but an overreliance on the pitch may cost him some of its effectiveness if opposing hitters can sit on it. 49 of his 97 pitches against Detroit were sliders, a 50.5 percent rate that represents his second-highest percentage of sliders thrown in a game this season. He utilized the slider 51.6 percent of the time in his previous start against the Yankees, per FanGraphs. Sale entered the day throwing his slider 39.5 percent of the time this season and 27.3 percent for his career so his last two outings have shown a drastic increase in his usage of the pitch.
Vintage Sale doesn’t give up much contact, owning an all-time best 10.8 K/9 for his career. Those fortunate enough to put the ball in play generally don’t make hard contact against him. That hasn’t been the case this season. Sale allowed 10 batted balls against the Tigers that had an average exit velocity of 94.9 mph, an increase of over 10 mph from what he allowed last year. Six of the balls put in play against Sale had an exit velocity of 100+ mph. This marks the third time this season Sale has allowed at least six balls to be hit that hard against him after doing so only once in 2018.
Detroit wasn’t able to do much damage with that hard contact but that’s more of a reflection on their putrid lineup than signs of encouragement for Sale. The Tigers entered the day dead last in the American League with a .277 wOBA. Their 70 wRC+ was 14th in the league and they were tied for the third highest strikeout rate at 25.6 percent. This is not a very good Tigers team and a stronger lineup would have knocked Sale around a bit more.
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Sale racked up an impressive strikeout total but it didn’t come as easily as it should have against a team prone to punching out. Detroit fouled off 25 pitches against Sale to drive up his pitch count early. The Red Sox needed their ace to go deep on a day when they have spot starter Hector Velazquez starting the nightcap of a doubleheader. Sale wasn’t able to give his team more than five innings. Not only did that put the game in the hands of a shaky bullpen that ultimately blew the game, but it potentially leaves the team thin on available options for tonight’s game since they’ve already burned through four relievers.
He is now five starts into the season and Sale is still seeking his first win. Granted, Win-Loss records are an overrated way to measure a pitcher’s ability but it’s hard to argue that Sale deserves much better considering he owns a 7.43 ERA. Falling to the Oakland A’s 1-0 in a six-inning effort is the only tough-luck loss Sale has suffered this season. He’s had his fair share of ugly outings around that one promising one.
Today was somewhere in between. He didn’t get shelled by any means but he didn’t pitch quite well enough to deserve a win. Sale is making some progress and there are signs from this game that he’s getting close to returning to form. He’s just not there yet.