It was only a week ago that we were celebrating the return of vintage Chris Sale following a dominant performance, but his latest outing has us wondering if that version of the Boston Red Sox ace is truly here to stay.
The Red Sox offense spotted their starter an early four-run lead but Sale failed to hold on. The Baltimore Orioles shelled him for five earned runs on nine hits and a walk over five innings to hand him his second loss of the season.
This is not the Chris Sale the Red Sox are accustomed to
Most concerning was Sale's inability to strike out hitters. Last night marked only the second time in Sale's 248 career starts that he failed to record a single strikeout. The only other game he started without striking out anyone was last July against the Yankees when he was drilled by a line drive that broke his finger in the first inning.
Sale is one of the most dominant strikeout artists to ever take the mound in a Red Sox uniform. He made a run at Pedro Martinez's single-season strikeout record in 2017 when he tallied 308. His career 11.1 K/9 is still the highest in major league history by a qualified starting pitcher. Even when factoring in last night's punchless performance, Sale's 11.7 K/9 this year remains elite. For a pitcher with his track record to last five innings without striking out an opposing hitter is almost unfathomable.
According to The Boston Globe's Alex Speier, manager Alex Cora wondered if Sale has been tipping his pitches. The data suggests this concern is a possibility.
The Orioles swung and missed on only two pitches on 42 swings against Sale, per Baseball Savant. That's an uncharacteristicly low percentage of whiffs for the lefty.
The velocity on his four-seam fastball was encouraging, clocking in at a tick under 95 mph, which is slightly up from his season average. The problem was that he had trouble locating. Sale threw only 55% of his fastballs in the zone and the Orioles didn't whiff on any of them.
Sale's slider has always been his bread-and-butter but the pitch was ineffective against the Orioles. Baltimore's lineup whiffed on only one of the 14 swings they took against Sale's slider. That's a 7% whiff rate on a pitch with which he owns a 33.3 Whiff% this season. Back in his pre-injury prime, Sale would generate whiffs with his slider over 40% of the time.
Were the Orioles able to lay off Sale's breaking ball because they knew it was coming or was it because that trademark filthy slider wasn't as sharp as it usually is? Sale's slider averaged a 47 inch vertical break and a nine inch horizonal break in this game, both down about two inches from his season averages. Without as much bite on that slider, opposing hitters won't be as enticed to chase.
When the Orioles did swing at the slider, they were able to make some hard contact. Most of the damage was done in a three-run fourth inning. Ryan Mountcastle's single on a slider diving down in the zone sparked the rally. A double to deep center field by Ramón Urías on a hanging slider sitting over the middle of the plate drove in a pair of runs. Both hits had an exit velocity of at least 100 mph.
The Orioles have knocked Sale around twice this season, plus once in spring training. He's allowed 12 earned runs in eight innings between his two regular season starts against Baltimore while allowing nine runs in 15 inning against everyone else. It's clear the Orioles have his number, which supports the theory that their hitters have picked up on something that has tipped them off to which pitch is coming.
Regardless of if Sale was tipping pitches, he will struggle to find success if he doesn't improve his command. He's made a habit this season of going deep into counts or falling behind because he's missing the zone too frequently. Only 49% of his pitches against the Orioles were in the strike zone. Then he overcorrects in order to throw strikes, which too often serves up a meatball that gets hammered.
Sale ranks in the 23rd percentile in average exit velocity and the 31st percentile in Hard Hit%, two categories he rated among the elite in during his peak. He's getting hit hard due to missing his spots, putting himself in counts favorable to the hitter while leaving too many pitches over the middle of the plate. A lack of command has hurt Sale this season and the issue was further complicated by an inability to put hitters away with his slider against the Orioles.
His command is an issue Sale has worked on with inconsistent results this season but the decline in the break on his slider is another concern he now needs to deal with. Sale isn't going to get very far if that slider isn't sharp enough to fool hitters. Against the Orioles, he wasn't fooling anyone.