Well that was a bit of a whirlwind adventure in media mismanagement wasn't it? When last I wrote, I expected not to be writing this column for a while. That was my expectation because the White Sox insisted Chris Sale was no longer going to be starting. Then they insisted the opposite and he started on Saturday.
In any case, I only just went back and watched the start. Didn't catch it on Saturday, but I was relieved to hear from a few folks that he looked pretty good. I'm not sure I agree. It was an up-and-down outing, with a lot of frustration. The Royals never really hit him hard outside of Billy Butler's double on a serious fastball up and out of the zone. Beckham's error didn't help, neither did a number of bloops. But, ultimately, all was not well.
His velocity was basically shot after the first inning or so and he averaged under 92mph on the fastball yet again. This worries me, as the normal loss of velocity as the game wears on is much much less than the massive drop-off Sale experienced. Let's assume for a bit that's not related to injury/excessive fatigue and consider how he looks as a pitcher with a fastball that sits 90-92. That's still useful, right? As long as he's got an off-speed pitch or two, right?
Uh, well, the thing is according to PitchFx he threw 19 sliders and got 0 whiffs. None. If you click through to the link, you can also see the pitch's average movement. At this point, it's we might as well call it a curveball. Any pitch that averages 6 inches of vertical drop usually ends up with that designation.
For reference, that's 3 times the drop he averaged last season. Sale's first two starts featured a different slider than he threw last season, but they still had legit slider action. Since then it's been curvier and curvier. Whether he can tell or not, he's not throwing the same pitch and it's become very obvious to hitters. I don't think it's too far out there to suggest that curves are much easier to recognize than sliders. Or that the success of a slider is dependent on disguise.
The one real plus from the Royals start was that his change-up finally got a few whiffs. As a guy who previously considered that his bread and butter pitch, it's strange that he's struggled with it so much. If it turns out this whole thing is a process to produce three legitimate pitches, I think the Sox can live with that. We might like to think otherwise, but there's no really good reason not to sacrifice 2012 in exchange for subsequent season performance.
That's fine and I hope we get there. The fact is the pitcher that showed up on Saturday had two perhaps three below average pitches combined with good command. That's a far cry from what Sale showed he can do earlier this season, not to mention all of last. Though that's still probably more valuable than his performance as a closer would net.
Anyway, let's go back to the Coop/Ventura v. Kenny Williams tiff. Since it appears that at no point did anybody want Sale shut down, maybe Coop thought the pen would be a good place to work out his slider kinks? Perhaps? Consider a few facts: in Sale's lone relief appearance, the slider of 2011 re-appeared, only to vanish on Saturday. According to Kyle Boddy, it doesn't look like Sale's mechanics have changed much, at least on the fastball. To me, that suggests that there isn't a major injury. Similarly, fatigue can change mechanics but they don't seem to have done so. Take all that and add it in combination with the expression on Sale's face in his relief start and his conversation with the umpire on Saturday.
Chris Sale has a lot on his mind. It's probably getting to him. Something about pitching in relief triggered some muscle memory. As pissed as he was, he was still more comfortable mentally. And for whatever reason, the pressure accompanying the starting gig has him fiddling and thinking. A lot. So the fastball velocity goes way up and way down, the slider changes from start to start and things look awry.
We saw what Sale's floor looked like on Saturday. And if the Sox can find someone to play Crash Davis to his Ebby Calvin Laloosh, we might just find out what his ceiling looks like somewhere down the road. Until then, Sale may be responsible for a free steak or two.