Well that was better, no? It's not as if Chris Sale threw all that much harder against the Angels than in previous starts. But it did seem to be something of a difference maker nonetheless. And, yeah, the Angels are shuffling a bit at the moment, but that's a talented squad with real hitters that will eventually get their act together. Outside of Pujols' bomb, Sale kept them in their rut while looking far more like the pitcher we hope he can be.
Perhaps most importantly, he seemed to have a much clearer idea not only of what to do with his fastball but on top of that managed to actually do it. Since the season began, he's shown a substantial variance in the velocity of his fastball, dropping all the way to 88 mph at times and peaking at 95 or so. It looked as though he was trying to throw two separate pitches, but managed to succeed only sometimes. Often, he'd go with his best fastball early only to putter out as he got deeper into games.
Against the Angels, he seemed more judicious. Indeed, his out pitch in this particular outing was the harder fastball. In two strike counts, Sale brought the gas and the end result was a whiff rate in the vicinity of 30% for all fastballs thrown. This is all the more impressive given who the Angels sent to the plate. As mentioned, I think there's plenty of talent on that team. But they also started a lineup consisting entirely of hitters who had the platoon advantage against Sale. That his best fastball would be so effective against them is a feather in his cap.
Moreover, he had what was likely his best change-up of the season ready to attack the all-RHB lineup. Sale's change has been iffy from the start, though this was far less noticeable when his slider was wiping out the opposition. As that hasn't been the case of late, compensating with a viable change-up would certainly go a long way. It still did not register as a legitimate plus offering in my eyes, but it was solid.
In fact, I don't think this slider-gets-worse-change-gets-better trend is an accident. My best guess is that neither of his offspeed offerings are really great on their own but are instead very dependent on the usage and velocity of his fastball. Yes, this is true of all pitchers, but I submit that it is particularly true in Sale's case.
The slider seems to be most effective when Sale can threaten to throw his best fastball in any count. The movement on the pitch isn't ideal, but when he's throwing his hardest it's just difficult enough to pick up out of his hand that it's a serious strikeout pitch.
Without his best velocity available in any count of any at bat, the slider becomes more of an early count show-me pitch that he needs to throw for a strike. If he can do that, he can go lesser fastball/slider early in the count and switch it up to a best fastball/change-up combination to get the whiff.
If that's true, moving to a curveball rather than a slider wouldn't be the worst thing for a guy who throws from that arm slot. Scioscia's starting 9 is further evidence that when managers see him on the mound, their first move is to clear LHB from the lineup card. That makes a true slider less relevant to Sale's success and a curve is traditionally a pitch with a much smaller platoon split. If the lanky lefty could pick a 77-79 mph curve with 5-6 inches of drop rather than a slurvy slider at 78-80 with 3-4, he might be well advised to do so.
Slider or curve, I think that's a fairly plausible hypothesis regarding the importance of his fastball velocity. There's a lot of season left and the actual testing of said hyp. is still to be done, granted, but the Angels start was encouraging. He looked like the kind of number 2 pitcher the Sox always seem to have in abundance. They're vulnerable, sure, but they've got a plus pitch or two, good command and no fear. Not too shabby for a 23 year old who's yet to reach his two year anniversary of being drafted.
...That really sounds like it should be the end of the post doesn't it? I couldn't think of a better way to wedge in the following but was still convinced I needed to mention it. The following: I really, really wish Chris Sale would hit the weight room in earnest. Or, if he did that, take in enough calories to actually add some meat to those bones. If a kid who looked like he does came into a college football or basketball program, they'd add 20 lbs to his frame in a year and another 10 or 20 over the next. Baseball really needs to get over its fear of proper weight training.