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Following up: Chris Sale hits new low ... with changeups

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Plus: Chris Beck's short night highlights opportunity for Carson Fulmer

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If the Braves had a choice, they probably wouldn’t have started three lefties against Chris Sale.

If the Braves had to do Friday night over again, they wouldn’t change a thing.

Atlanta, which entered the game with just 47 homers over 86 games, hit three over five innings against the American League’s Cy Young front-runner, including two rare home runs by left-handed hitters. Freddie Freeman took him deep in the first inning, and Nick Markakis did the same in the fourth.

Colin wrote about Sale’s pitch selection — notably the avoidance of his changeup this season — and the number of lefties Sale faced on Friday exacerbated his recent tendencies. Brooks counted his pitches:

  • 49 fastballs
  • 32 sliders
  • 7 changeups

If that total holds after revisions, it’ll stand as the fewest changeups thrown by Sale in any start of normal length.

Regarding this particular aspect of his start, most notable to me was one battle with Tyler Flowers.

Not the one where Flowers hit the two-run homer.

Nor the one where Flowers hit the RBI double.

No, it was the one in between, when Sale plunked Flowers with a slider on the eighth pitch of their battle. Here’s the map:

After getting burned by easing up on his fastball the first time — Flowers reversed a 92 mph 1-0 pitch with an exit velocity of 116 mph -- Sale didn’t mess around with less. His four fastballs averaged 97 mph. Flowers fouled off one of them with two strikes, and he laid off two others.

Having seen Flowers for years, we know that the high fastball is one of his weaknesses. Yet there he was, teeing off on Sale’s ordinary heaters, then fouling off his best location and velocity. That shouldn’t happen under most circumstances, regardless of Flowers’ history catching Sale.

It’s one thing to ditch the changeup to lefties, because most lefty pitchers remove that pitch from the equation to same-sided hitters. It’s only notable because Sale used to mix it in (he's reduced his offspeed usage to left-handed hitters from 18 percent in 2015 to 2 percent this year). But when Sale doesn’t throw one changeup to a right-handed hitter over three plate appearances, especially a right-handed hitter who seems to be seeing him well, that’s what causes the concerns Colin covered.

Friday’s start was the underbelly of Sale’s new approach. He basically started Friday night as a two-pitch pitcher, with hitters able to make binary decisions (IS IT SPINNING? Y/N). If hitters then decide to eliminate the breaking ball, Sale risks getting burned when he dials down his heat. You never saw Matt Thornton try to get by with 92.

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It was uncomfortable watching the Braves treat Chris Sale like Chris Beck, so it was almost comforting when Chris Beck looked like Chris Beck. He started the sixth and gave up a double, double and single to the three batters he faced.

While we could calibrate our expectations, it was bad news for Beck, whose ERA (8.10) and line (6.2 IP, 12 H, 7 BB, 5 K) are those of a pitcher who doesn’t yet bring anything to the table. True, he hasn’t given up a homer, but neither has Michael Ynoa, who also has a superior strikeout-to-walk ratio on his side.

When Robin Ventura pulled Beck after three batters, it reinforced the notion that Carson Fulmer would fit well in this bullpen. The problem with Beck and Ynoa in the same bullpen — besides the obvious -- is that neither of them provide innings, whether due to talent or their injury histories. "Hey, keep the game close over two or three innings" is a guy the Sox don’t have, and that’d be a fine way to break in a rookie who can miss bats, even if not all that efficiently.

Baseball America updated its top 100 prospects list, and its write-up about Fulmer suggests any attempt to keep him in the Birmingham rotation will ultimately be fighting his fate:

Scouts are getting more and more convinced now that his future role is as a high-energy late-inning reliever.

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By the way, the head-to-head results from Friday:

  • Tyler Flowers: 2-for-4, HR, 2B, HBP, 1 R, 3 RBI, double steal allowed; now hitting .254/.345/.428.
  • Dioner Navarro: 0-for-5, 2 K, wild pitch allowed; now hitting .216/.277/.380.

Whether it’s Jim Thome hitting a walk-off against Thornton or Daniel Hudson throwing a complete game against Edwin Jackson, the White Sox seem to get their nose rubbed in their first-guessable decision-making.