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Velocity matters for Chris Sale

Cawse for concern?
Cawse for concern?

On Sunday, the White Sox finally had time to officially address their surprising and need-addressing acquisition of Francisco Liriano, including the ramifications downstream.

Liriano will be plugged into the rotation immediately, making his first start on Tuesday against his former team. Of greater importance? He'll be taking Chris Sale's spot in the rotation for at least one turn, and for a reason many of us could see coming after his last start.

Sale called it "a little dead-arm period," while Robin Ventura chose "probably fatigue and being tired." Either way, it's an acknowledgment that Sale, even though he pitched beyond his years in Friday's victory over Texas, wasn't right, and going further in the wrong direction.

And you shall know it by his velocity. FanGraphs' chart tells you what you need to know:


Look at that. Sale's velocity has trended downward over his past several starts, and the gloss-overs didn't really hold up. He wasn't saving the heat for later innings like Justin Verlander or Freddy Garcia in 2006*. Nor is he like Hector Santiago, who is more effective when he isn't maxing out his fastball. Sale is an elite pitcher when he can reach back and hit 96. He's shown he's still effective when that turns into 91. That's nice to see in one respect, because he looks like he knows how to approach a lineup, but it's clear that it's not by choice. He reached back for his best fastball on Friday, and he couldn't find it.

(*And eventually, Garcia couldn't resuscitate his velocity during games, and he eventually had shoulder surgery that nearly forced him into retirement.)

It made sense for the White Sox to downplay the drop in Sale's velocity, and they certainly did. Sale said it was a conscious decision three starts prior, and after his outing against Texas, Ventura spun it as Sale learning how to pitch. Then Liriano enters the picture and they change their tunes, because they have the option.

At any rate, the defense is understandable. Velocity drops are usually associated with injury, but Sale's unprecedented workload clouds the picture considerably. Fatigue is the obvious answer, so it doesn't serve the Sox well to react in a manner that would suggest something were fundamentally or structurally wrong.

Then again, overreaction from the outside is something the Sox don't have to worry about.

Our Colin has followed Sale's progression this year closer than anybody outside the White Sox organization. Early on in The Chris Sale Project, he watched Sale alternate between two different fastballs at 87 and 91 mph, and that raised a flag:

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. If my math is right, 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.

Some of us laughed at him, but three days after Colin wrote that, the Sox said they were calling off the starter transition and moving him into the bullpen due to a tender elbow. Fortunately, the move didn't stick, and Sale returned to the rotation. As messy as that bullpen interlude was, it could be looked at as a teachable moment.

It doesn't look like enough people picked up on the lesson. As Sale's velocity sagged and opponents were able to string together hits against him, Colin took to Twitter to ask if anybody had inquired about Sale's issues. It turned into Velocity Awareness Month. Had the Sox forged ahead with Sale on schedule, his next step might have been ribbons (brown isn't taken).

I mean, look at this:

Or this:

Oh, but now Sale's velocity is very much an issue, isn't it?

In their defense, the Sox didn't have anything to say with regards to Sale's velocity when asked about it, and Sale himself said he "could care less" [sic] about his radar gun readings. But, much like issues regarding service time, this is an area where the Sox are going to avoid acknowledging it until they're forced to act. The addition of Liriano allows Sale to miss a start or two, so now they can talk more openly about combating fatigue. If the Sox had no credible sixth starter, they would probably be tempted to keep their heads down and hope they could steal another turn.

I understand that the media around the Sox can't be openly dismissive or confrontational (sample sportswriter tweet: "They're not paying attention to velocity, and I'm not paying attention to Marriott Points!"). But man, even a smidge more skepticism is warranted, especially during a season where the Sox have uncharacteristically struggled managing injuries. It's like every trip from the training room to the lineup has a connection at O'Hare, and that was before John Danks surprised and irked Kenny Williams by suggesting surgery might be necessary to fix his obstinate shoulder.

Sale's had two noteworthy velocity drops this season. Both have forced the Sox to pull him from the rotation temporarily. Maybe those closest to the subject at hand won't be so eager to disregard the next one.