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Speculating over struggles of Chris Sale, Carlos Rodon

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White Sox ace gets burned on fastball against Tampa Bay, while rookie's fate might hinge on the catcher

Chris Sale threw his lowest percentage of fastballs of the season in the White Sox' loss to the Rays on Tuesday night. The Brooks data may change slightly today upon revision, but the initial read says Sale threw fastballs for only 43 of 107 pitches (40.2 percent). His previous low: 43.5 percent against the Cubs on July 11.

But that start was a good one, so fastball count doesn't explain his struggles on Tuesday alone. It was actually the smart call, since his changeup was a terrific pitch (27 of 34 for strikes 10 whiffs), and his slider was a lot better than it was in Boston the start before (six whiffs in 30 pitches, no hits recorded).

The Rays recorded five of their six hits on fastballs, including both homers, which came on 96-plus mph heat to right-handed hitters that Tyler Flowers wanted more inside than they ended up. The other big blow was the single to Kevin Kiermaier, which came in the same location on a 2-0 fastball. I've circled them all:

Sale chart vs. Rays

That's five of the seven runs right there.

The uncharacteristic clumping of bad outings leads to wondering whether the Condor is 100 percent. He says he is:

"I feel fine; my arm feels good, my body feels good, I feel loose," Sale said. "It's just not showing up. I don't know what it is. If I knew what it was I'd definitely try to figure it out. Just bad. I'm just not making pitches when I need to make pitches. I'm not keeping the ball in the yard. It seems like I'm just throwing it over the fence for them, really. Like I said, it really stinks."

He still averaged a shade under 95, so there isn't the usual velocity concern of previous seasons. It just isn't sizzling the way it did at various points of his 10-strikeout streak. Combine the slight dip in jump with subpar command (his first start with more than one walk since June 14), and that has the makings of a dog-days slump. I think I'd be more concerned if his slider looked as bad as it did against the Red Sox, since lefties shouldn't be able to hit it like they were.

At any rate, he'll get an extra day of rest before his next start. If in-season fatigue is the root of the problem, perhaps that will give him a second wind.

Carlos Rodon

Since Flowers caught Sale on Tuesday night, I'm assuming Geovany Soto will get the assignment for Rodon (day game after a night game). Rodon's limited history says that's a disadvantageous combination, as the catcher splits are rather remarkable in this regard:

Catcher G IP ERA PA R H 2B 3B HR BB K BA OBP SLG HBP GDP
Flowers 11 59 3.20 254 23 56 9 2 3 30 61 .259 .351 .361 2 10
Soto 6 21 9.43 112 22 30 6 2 3 18 26 .333 .450 .544 2 0

The sample size makes it difficult to get a real confident comparison, especially since Soto only caught Rodon early and late over these 17 games (Flowers caught him every time from mid-May to mid-July), so you're talking about differences in development, fatigue, and other facets independent of Rodon's natural erraticism. That said, it doesn't hurt to poke at the data, if only to watch what happens today with whomever is catching.

Trying to find some differences, the last column screams ground-ball rate. Sure enough:

  • Ground-ball rate: Flowers: 39.3%; Soto 31.0%

But it doesn't have anything to do with sinkers, at least in terms of quantity. When looking at the pitch splits, it's the changeup usage that jumps out between the two:

  • Four-seamers: Flowers 31.7%; Soto 31.3%
  • Sinkers: Soto 30.4%; Flowers 28.3%
  • Sliders: Soto: 33.5%; Flowers 29.9%
  • Changeups: Flowers 10.1%; Soto 4.8%

The other notable discrepancy I found while going through game logs in Baseball Savant: Flowers tends to start batters off with sliders more than Soto does (nearly twice as often, at least as of late).

But maybe it could be a matter of targets and receiving. During Rodon's last start against the Yankees last Friday, Hawk Harrelson repeatedly harped on a 1-2 pitch to Brendan Ryan that Rodon didn't get, preceding a Ryan single and other harrowing events during a five-run second.

Carlos Rodon Ryan

Maybe Flowers doesn't get that call either, but the low strike is kinda his thing. The quieter mitt may be a bigger deal when a pitcher misses targets the way Rodon does.

At any rate, if today's start adds to this trend for either catcher, perhaps it makes sense to use the off day to break up Sale and Rodon so Flowers can catch both of them.