Last Friday, Chris Sale delivered the worst start of his major league career. Certainly it was disheartening to watch, but if there's a silver lining, it's that it sets up a nice comparison with everything else he's done so far in 2012. In my mind, it really gets after what makes an ace an ace. Or Sale an ace, anyway.
Notably, I don't think it was a matter of stuff. Just looking at the data really doesn't get you too far. For instance, his velocity was right on par with his season averages. Yeah, he debuted a slider with different movement than usual, but it's hardly the first time he's done that this year. And on top of all that, his change-up was undeniably good.
This should not be all that surprising, of course, as that's precisely what I've documented in my posts over the last four weeks. As you'll no doubt recall, I went hunting for correlations between Sale's whiff rate on his slider and key variables one might suspect were responsible for its success or lack thereof. I'll spare you a repeat of the unpretty graphs, but Sale's slider whiffs were apparently unaffected by the velocity at which he threw it nor the movement he imparted on the ball. On top of that, I found very weak correlation between the speed of the pitch and the corresponding movement. In sum, all were things I expected to find some supporting evidence for and came up completely empty.
It's possible sample size issues explains some of the inability to find correlation, certainly. But given how rapidly whiffs stabilize, it's not exactly the most robust explanation for the data. It seems to me that the thing to do is to take what I found at face value and figure out how to fit it to some narrative.
So but which narrative? Let's begin by stating that the lack of correlation between velocity, movement and whiffs does not at all suggest that Sale could throw any kind of lollipop roller of a breaking ball he pleases if he aims to strike batters out. Rather, the best guess is that Sale is bundling his breaking balls with a combination of velocity, movement, timing and location that results in frequent batter bafflement.
This is where the start against the Dodgers comes in. If we are willing to buy that Sale's slider was still within useful bounds of velocity and movement, we can see just how important location and timing are to Mr. Bones' success. Further bolstering the natural experiment, Sale threw the vast majority of his sliders after he got ahead of the batter. He elected to throw his slider in just one 2- or 3-ball count all game. That is, on top of movement and velocity, we can also hold timing constant to some degree and focus primarily on the importance of location in the success of the pitch. And that location looked like this:
He missed badly away to righties with his slider as many times against the Dodgers as he had in his five previous starts combined. And, if you follow the narrative I favor, these bad missed made batters less inclined to swing overall. When Sale did manage to find the zone, the location was bad enough that they were less likely to whiff if Dodger hitters did decide to swing. The poor outcome is apparent in the numbers: of the 30 sliders he threw on the evening, just two ended in whiffs. Typically, he'd get 5-6 on that number of sliders. In the counts he threw them in, that's something like 2-4 outs deferred.
And of course, that analysis is limited to the results from actually throwing the pitch. It doesn't say anything about his reduced opportunity to use what's normally a plus pitch in less favorable counts. It also ignores the struggles he had with location generally, which means those deferred outs are all the more likely to lead to walks and extra base hits than normal. I'd liken it to having to pitch around an error per inning.
Fortunately, I don't see the problem persisting. As I mentioned on twitter and in the comment thread, he looked to me like he was overthrowing and in the process threw his mechanics out of whack. Jim guessed that he was over-excited for his matchup against Kershaw and I think that's a fairly likely culprit. Chris has definitely acted the part of an intense, high strung emotional pitcher so far this season. He wants to compete and win and he tries to step up his game when it matters most. Hence, hi response to giving up a couple base hits early on some bad fastballs was to throw as hard as possible and dominate the opposition.
Not an ideal response, certainly, but I empathize with the approach and I like what it suggests about his future. Most interestingly, I think it suggests that Don Cooper is the guy responsible for putting that slower 88-91 mph fastball in his arsenal. A guy lacking confidence in certain parts of his game plan is going to stick with the stuff he thinks he's best at and has ben doing the longest. Until Coop was able to cool him off, that was the big heater at the expense of the slow one.
Obvs, I'd like to think this will mean he'll drop the pitch as he gets stronger and the Sox drop the helicopter parents schtick. A man can dream.