The numbers were all there. Last Wednesday, Chris Sale threw 8 innings without giving up a run while striking out 5 and issuing no free passes. Past the surface, however, things weren't so sparkly. For instance, this was the first start Sale allowed more fly balls than ground balls. But by far the biggest issue was Sale's velocity. After averaging about 93 mph per fastball in his first three starts, he dipped down to 91.4. The slider was off by a similar margin and his swing-and-miss rate was way down across the board. All in all, he managed just 4 whiffs on the day and it's hard to deny that Sale's best stuff, for whatever reason, was not available to him.
Fortunately for us, the A's can't hit. Making matters worse for Oakland, Bob Melvin for whatever reason penciled 4 lefties into their lineup. A solid slider and a 91 mph heater is still enough for all but the best LHB and Oakland possesses none of those. Sale compensated somewhat with what seemed like improved fastball command and did not seem at all fazed given the complications. Meanwhile the A's made it clear their aim was to swing early in the count and make sure they saw the least number of pitches possible.
So yeah, Sale's numbers looked good and with any kind of offense he would have pulled out a win. But all I can think about is whether or not we should be worried.
I'm ever the panicking sort so I tried to reassure myself with some simple statistics. The first was a simple check to make sure the gun wasn't off. I checked Matt Thornton's velocity and it was just fine. So the problem was definitely Sale, which after watching I assumed would be the case. I also thought Sale's average heater against the A's would be at least a standard deviation from his norm. It very nearly was. IMMIR* there'd be something like a 40% chance that it wouldn't be mere randomness leading him to throw a single fastball that slow. Which means there's very little chance that mere randomness lead him to go an entire start throwing that slow.
Now, if you've ever pitched, you know there are days when your stuff just isn't there and you can't figure out why. There's something bodily wrong, but you can't name what it is and it goes away and all is well the next week. So that's option 1. Alternatively, it could be that Sale chose to throw that slow. I doubt that, considering he clearly used two fastballs, one around 91-92, another 87-88. If you're already choosing to throw that slow, keeping the extra slow one in the bag is kinda weird in my opinion. If you are forced to throw that slow, maybe you keep it in there for the sake of seeming/feeling more wily.
And then of course there's the super sad possibility that he's seriously injured in some way. It could be the case, but I'd like to think it's not. I went back and watched some of his bigger heaters and he didn't seem to be over-exerting to throw that hard nor did he seem to grimace or change his mechanics. Overall, it didn't seem to me like anything had really changed. If you forced me to say what if anything had changed, I'd say how much he was flexing his trunk. So perhaps his back was a little sore?
Mostly I think this will be illustrative of what it means to watch every single start as closely as possible. Normally I'd say "huh, his velocity is down," file it into the ol' subconscious and forget about it until the next start. And I do mean "forget" and "subconscious". My popsci understanding of how The Great And Mysterious Human Brain works is that that's the subtle pattern recognizer part of the brain. The conscious just turns that recognition into words. Normally when I'm watching a pitcher, I try to let suggestions bubble up and see if they make sense without consciously analyzing them too much.** But this column is of course the exact opposite. I need an angle each and every start and that aspect inverts what I understand to be the optimal process.
That is, am I focused on this because I should be? I still say yes. The point of properly applied statistics is to give just such concrete foundation to the suspicions of the flimsy fickle human brain. So long as they're properly applied, I think this bears watching. My guess says he's fine. The stats as I've applied them say we need to guess one way or the other.
*If My Math Is Right...no guarantees. I'm feeling pretty dumb today.
**No seriously, sometimes I try not to analyze things to death.