One of the biggest questions of the 2019 baseball season is the speculation of what’s wrong with Boston Red Sox ace Chris Sale. With a 5-11 record and 4.68 ERA in 23 starts; his production to date is a far cry from the expectations he has built over the previous seven years as an annual Cy Young Award contender. Taking a deeper look at his stats for this season may yield some answers.
The wonderful sites FanGraphs.com and Baseball Reference have an abundance of data available that allows players to be micro-examined down to their every movement. Having gone 103-62 with a 2.89 ERA entering the 2019 campaign, there is obvious reason for concern for the rapid downfall of the 30-year-old southpaw. Fortunately, these sites have dutifully logged a trove of information that may help us understand what’s going on.
From the beginning of this season the alarm bells sounded over an apparent sharp down-tick in velocity in Sale’s fastball. Although he has seen the average speed of his heater rise as the year has progressed, the pitch is still averaging 93.7 MPH, which is a full two MPH less than last year (when he was 12-4 with a 2.11 ERA for Boston).
Known primarily for a devastating fastball/slider mix, which results in a lot of strikeouts, Sale is averaging an American League-leading 13.1 punchouts per nine innings, which is just a shade below his career-best mark of 13.5 last year. He has already recorded a dozen games with at least 10 strikeouts in a game this year, with a high of 17 on May 24th against the Colorado Rockies. The evidence shows that he still has that good, devastating stuff, but his command has flashed in and out like a distant radio station.
The inconsistent command is evident in two primary areas. First, he is walking more batters than he has since his days as a raw, undisciplined thrower in the bullpen of the Chicago White Sox during the earliest days of his career. His walk rate of 2.4 free passes per nine innings is nearly 30 percent higher than his typical allowance in recent years.
The long ball has also been a consistent issue for Sale in 2019. He has already coughed up 22 gopher balls in just 132.2 innings, which is on pace for a spike of nearly 40 percent more than his previous season-high. He has given up at least one home run in 16 of his 23 starts.
In the seven starts where he has kept the ball in the yard, he is a 4-1 with a 1.57 ERA and a ridiculous 71 strikeouts in 46 innings, with 28 hits and five walks allowed. He has also struck out double digits in six of those seven starts.
In the 16 starts that have yielded at least one ball over the fence, he is 1-10 with a 6.38 ERA. In those 86.1 innings, he has struck out 122, but has walked 30 and given up a total of 88 hits.
With a very good batting average against of .227, the number suggests that Sale is suffering more from inconsistent stuff or even “bad luck” than an overall decline of ability. His .319 batting average against on balls in play strengthen that argument further, as it is a rather high number for a pitcher, who still generates extreme swing and miss tendencies.
Not surprisingly, he is generating more harder-hit balls and fewer weakly-hit balls. His 16.1% soft contact rate is his worst since 2013, and his 35.6% hard-hit ball rate is the highest of his career.
If command isn’t the primary issue for Sale, is it possible he is tipping his pitches or game plan in some way? The first time through a lineup, he has been nearly unhittable in 2019, as hitters have mustered just a .171 batting average and .551 OPS at first blush. However, the second time around, those numbers skyrocket to .319 and .976. That should generate a strong suspicion that hitters are contemplating his arsenal in the early innings and sitting on something specific the next time up, and doing something with it. That something specific appears to chiefly be his fastball, which has seen a precipitous dip in runs above average this season (-2.6 compared to 13.6 in 2018 and 26.3 in 2017). This could be related to velocity, location, or both.
Much has also been made about Sale needing veteran catcher Sandy Leon catch all of his games in order to get him back on track. While it’s true he has struggled mightily in his six starts with Christian Vazquez calling the game (6.68 ERA), he has been far from perfect with Leon (4.07 ERA).
Having inked a massive five-year, $145 million contract extension this past off-season, there are plenty of reasons to worry about the state of Sale’s pitching ability. The good news is that the left-hander is far from being void of talent. On the other hand, it does look like he is pitching with a diminished fastball, both in velocity and effectiveness, and hasn’t yet figured out how to compensate for that and readjust accordingly.