The Red Sox ace has looked nothing like himself to start the season as Boston continues to tailspin with their disappointing start to 2019.
Chris Sale is finally getting the national attention he deserves pitching for the Boston Red Sox, but with notoriety comes more scrutiny when you or your team doesn’t perform.
Up until this point, Sale and the Red Sox have had few bumps in the road, winning the World Series last season with Sale leading the way as their staff ace — a staff that includes two other Cy Young winners.
However, Sale’s first three starts of 2019 have been forgettable at best and his team is currently last in the AL East and six games below .500. And while he’s not the only reason for Boston’s slow start to 2019, he’s not doing much to help the situation.
Currently, Sale owns an gaudy 9.00 ERA on the season and he’s seen a downtick in strikeouts and a massive uptick in home runs allowed.
Sale’s 5.54 K/9 is nearly half his career average, 10.98 K/9 over his 10 seasons in the MLB, while his HR/FB rate has skyrocketed to 23.5 percent — Sale’s never posted anything higher than 12.5 percent for a season.
The 30-year-old lefty also isn’t lighting up the radar gun like we’ve seen him do with ease, particularly his fastball which has dipped from 95-96 MPH to just 91 MPH this season.
Along with the downtick in velocity, Sale is also getting hit harder than he ever has with his hard and medium contact both increasing by nearly 6 percent this season.
So what is Chris Sale doing wrong?
Sale did spend almost the entire month of August dealing with left shoulder inflammation, spending 41 days on the disabled list last season.
However, when Sale returned to the team in September he had no lingering issues in terms of velocity, throwing around his career norms at 95-96 MPH to offset his sharp slider.
According to Brooks Baseball, Sale’s lack of velocity may also be affecting the movement he usually gets on his pitches.
The Boston ace’s fastball typically sinks and has some late movement that causes plenty of swings and misses, however, Sale hasn’t been getting anyone to miss his fastball at the moment.
Out of 51 fastballs thrown so far in April, Sale has only been able to get just over 5 percent of batters to swing and miss.
In April 2018, Sale was getting nearly 25 percent of batters to swing and miss on his fastball and that percentage of whiffs went as high as 58.82 percent last season.
Batters only hit .193 against (BAA) Sale’s fastball last season, but hitters are currently batting .462 BAA against his heater this season.
So if Sale isn’t locating his fastball it makes it hard for him to use his secondary pitches with the same type of results. Strangely, Sale’s first pitch strike rate is up from 67.6 percent to 73.8 percent this year.
Taking a look at his pitch location via Statcast, Sale is throwing his fastball high in the zone quite a bit — which isn’t unusual for him. But, if Sale’s velocity is down and the pitch isn’t moving as much, that fastball at 91 MPH could be easier for batters to get on top of, like Oakland’s Matt Chapman does here.
It could also mean that when Sale is trying to throw a sinking fastball to land in the lower portion of the zone, because of his lack of movement, the ball could be sitting in the middle of the plate instead of finding the black on the bottom of the plate.
All of these numbers could change with just one great start from Sale, he’s only thrown 13 innings this season, and this all could just be Sale working his way into form.
And while it’s a concern when a team’s best starter is throwing nearly 6 mph slower than he was just six months ago, it’s only April and he had a shortened offseason due to the Red Sox deep postseason run.
But if Sale continues to struggle with his velocity in a month, it could be lingering shoulder issues from last season or it could be that his wiry frame and whip-like delivery could be finally starting to fail him with age.
But he’s only 30 years old and we’ve only seen three games from Sale this season. Let’s see where the Red Sox ace is at come June.