Last night, as the lights went out at Fenway Park, Red Sox “Ace” Chris Sale found himself on the losing side of things yet again. In what was his 19th start of the season, Sale had allowed 5 runs in just 4 2/3 innings of work and was credited with his 9th loss of the year. Now yes, this lackluster performance came to the hands of a high powered Los Angeles Dodger offense who can beat up the worlds best on any given day, but by the way Sale is currently pitching, I am not so certain that the Bad News Bears couldn’t rough this big lefty up.
So why is this? Why is Chris Sale, a pitcher who has finished in the top 5 of Cy Young voting the last 6 seasons and a pitcher who has accumulated over 1900 strikeouts in his career, currently sitting on a 3-9 record with a 4.27 ERA? If you look at Sale’s career numbers, the highest ERA he has ever finished a season with is 3.34 which came in 2016. The worst record Sale has ever finished a season with was 11-14 which came in 2013 with the Chicago White Sox (Sale finished 5th in CY voting that season.) Something is clearly wrong. Pitchers go through rough patches throughout their career, but not like this. A once lights out lefty with a slider as smooth as butter, has now hit rock bottom and is struggling to keep his head above water.
When trying to find a solution to exactly what could be wrong with Sale, the first thing that came to mind was age. Sale is currently 30 years old and is pitching in his 10th season in the major leagues. With these 10 years, comes a tremendous amount of strain and workload that is put on the pitching elbow. Sale has thrown a total of 1594 IP in his career and one can only guess how many pitches this equates to. With this being said, one hypothesis you can make as to why Chris Sale is having such a bad season is simply because his arm is wearing down. However, I do not think this is the case as there are pitchers out there like Justin Verlander who is 36 years old and is a current Cy Young candidate.
The next thing that came to mind in my quest to debunk Sales struggles, was my observation of Sale’s slider. When on, Chris Sale has the best slider in baseball. It is a pitch that at times, is unhittable and has been Sale’s go to for upwards of a decade now. With this nasty pitch, comes a substantial amount of strikeouts. In his career, Sale has struck out an almost unfathomable 1949 batters. Sale has also lead the league in SO’s in 2015 and 2017 when he struck out 308 hitters. Immediately, I went to his SO totals from this season to see if they were down. Much to my surprise, his punch out numbers weren’t down at all and in fact, were a tad above average. As of yesterday, Sale currently has a SO/9 of 12.9. To put in comparison of just how impressive this is, Sale had a SO/9 of 12.9 in 2017, which lead all of baseball……. Strike two, one more strike and I guess the mystery of why Chris Sale has underperformed so heavily this season, will be unanswered forever.
OKAY, I think I finally have it!! If you guys follow baseball, you know that Chris Sale’s velocity is down from last season. BUT, I bet you guys didn’t know just how down it currently is. According to Sale’s velocity chart which is made by Fan Graphs, Sale’s fastball is down about 3 MPH from last season. However, this comparison was made from the middle of 2018, to the beginning of 2019. If you continue to look at the velo chart from 2019, you can see that Sale’s velocity has increasingly gone down each month and as of July, his fastball has decreased almost a full 6 MPH compared to last season. This may not seem like a lot, but it is. Due to this decrease in velocity, batters have been able to see Sale’s ball better off the hand and are able to square more balls up along with hit for power. Sale has already allowed more home runs than he allowed during the entirety of the 2018 season, is giving up more hits than he is accustom to and is on pace to shatter his total for allowed runs in a season. So in conclusion, I think the main problem with Chris Sale currently, is the gradual decrease in his velocity. If this pattern continues, we could see Sale throwing 10 MPH slower come September and if that happens, hitters will have an absolute field day.
So where does Chris Sale go from here? He will be the first person to tell you that it’s too late to save this season and for him, this will go down as the worst, most embarrassing year of his career. However, is that to say Sale can’t come back and dominate next season? Of course not. The stuff is still there. Sale had a game this season in which he struck out 17 batters on a cold, miserable night in Boston. If that doesn’t show you he still has something left in the tank, I don’t know what will. I just think he needs to get back in the lab during the offseason, work his ass off, get healthy and get his velocity back up. If he can do all that, we can go back to seeing the dominating lefty we all know and love.