Why Chris Sale’s late-season swoon might make him better next year
At about 6:15 p.m. ET, the Baseball Writers Association of America will announce the winner of the American League Cy Young Award.
Spoiler alert: It probably won’t be Chris Sale.
Imagine that. Three months ago, it bordered on unfathomable that anyone other than Sale would take home the prestigious pitching honor. More than halfway through his first season with the Boston Red Sox after a blockbuster trade last December, the 28-year-old ace lefty was dominating as much as Pedro Martinez at his peak, striking out batters with historic frequency and putting up so many zeroes that line scores looked like LeBron James‘ paycheck.
Consider Sale’s numbers through July 26, when he blanked the Seattle Mariners for seven innings:
• 148⅓ innings pitched (most in the majors)
• 211 strikeouts (most in the majors)
• 12.8 strikeouts per nine innings (most in the majors)
• 2.37 earned-run average (best in the American League)
• 0.88 walks/hits per innings pitched (best in the AL)
Indeed, the Cy Young seemed like a fait accompli. Given Sale’s performance relative to his fellow pitchers and his importance to Boston’s march to a second consecutive division title, there were suggestions that he could even be considered league MVP, which has been awarded to an AL pitcher only once in the past 24 years (Justin Verlander in 2011).
Then Sale’s slider suddenly flattened out, and his fastball got straighter. After allowing 11 home runs through his first 21 starts, he gave up 13 in his last 11 starts — and three in Game 1 of the division series against the Houston Astros.
Sale’s ERA in August and September was 4.09, tied for 54th among 97 pitchers with at least 50 innings. He didn’t get any better in October. In his first career postseason series, Sale went 0-2 with an 8.38 ERA in the ALDS against the eventual World Series champions.
What caused Sale to fall from Cy Young lock to likely runner-up to Cleveland Indians ace Corey Kluber? What happened to prompt another stretch-run fade, the likes of which have plagued Sale since he became a starter in 2012?
Uncovering the answer and finding a solution are two of the Red Sox’s more pressing offseason projects.
BY ALL ACCOUNTS, Sale stayed healthy throughout the season.
But that doesn’t mean he didn’t get tired.
Sale didn’t miss a start for the Red Sox. He led big league pitchers in regular-season innings (214 ⅔) and threw 3,428 pitches, second to only Verlander (3,531). Considering that Boston supported Sale with fewer than four runs in 13 of his 32 starts, many of those pitches were thrown in high-stress situations within closely contested games.
As the pitches and innings piled up, Sale’s arm slot appeared to drop, according to multiple talent evaluators. Because so much of Sale’s success depends on his unorthodox delivery, even the slightest dip can affect the depth and action on his pitches, especially his slider.
That has been a trend throughout Sale’s career. Since he became a full-time starter for the Chicago White Sox in 2012, Sale has posted a 2.70 ERA, held opponents to a .206 average and given up 0.78 homers per nine innings in 99 starts before the All-Star break. In 81 second-half starts, his ERA has risen to 3.41, opponents have batted .244 against him, and he has allowed 1.15 homers per nine innings.
The Red Sox were aware of Sale’s track record of wearing down. But they also were locked in a close race with the New York Yankees for the AL East title. There wasn’t much time to give their ace a breather, especially with fellow lefty David Price sidelined for most of the summer with a recurrence of a spring-training elbow injury.
Deposed manager John Farrell, fired last month after the Red Sox got bounced from the playoffs in the first round for the second consecutive year, took heat late in the season for riding Sale too hard. In particular, he was criticized for leaving the 28-year-old lefty in for the eighth inning of an eight-run game Sept. 20 in Baltimore to record his 300th strikeout of the season.
But Sale’s workload wasn’t dissimilar to that of his previous five seasons, in which he averaged 203 innings and 3,155 pitches per year in Chicago. Farrell never extended Sale beyond 118 pitches; with the White Sox, Sale threw at least 119 pitches 18 times. Although the Red Sox arranged the rotation to make sure Sale made three starts in four weeks against the Yankees, they also gave him at least one extra day of rest before seven of his 14 starts after the All-Star break.
Could they have done more to keep Sale fresh? It’s a conversation team officials were having even before Sale’s playoff dud against the Astros.
“This is where it’s a great debate because you need every start to get to the point of entering the postseason,” Farrell said last month. “Do you provide a longer break at some point during the regular season if you’re afforded a place in the standings to do that? All great in concept, these conversations.”
In reality, it’s a lot more difficult. But even if the Red Sox don’t run away with the AL East next season, there might be something they can do to keep Sale from emptying the tank before Labor Day.
DON COOPER CALLS it the “hybrid” approach.
Two years ago, the White Sox were as vexed as ever by Sale’s second-half struggles. He was coming off a 2015 season in which his ERA climbed from 2.72 in 17 starts before the All-Star break to 4.33 in 14 starts after it. Likewise, opponents went from hitting .206 against him in the first half to .266 in the second, while his home run rate soared from 0.75 per nine innings to 1.31.
Cooper had an idea. When Sale arrived in spring training in 2016, the White Sox’s longtime pitching coach spoke to Sale about leaning more heavily on his two-seam fastball rather than his four-seamer. Cooper preached prioritizing location and command over power. The idea: Don’t worry so much about strikeouts, and focus on getting outs as quickly as possible in order to pitch deeper into games and, ultimately, save bullets for later in the season.
“He was coming out of his shoes on every pitch [in 2015], striking out the world, and he’d wind up going six innings. We needed to lengthen that out to seven and eight,” Cooper said a few months ago. “In his back pocket, he has 95, , . But to flip a sinker in there at 90-91 and get ground balls quick, there’s a lot of value in that, too. We called it the ‘hybrid.’
“It was kind of a risk. If it doesn’t work, people are going to say, ‘What are you messing with this guy for?’ I thought it was the way to go because to be able to sustain 95 and above for 32, 33 starts and the playoffs, that’s not easy.”
Sale bought in — hook, line and lots of sinkers — to Cooper’s plan. He averaged 9.3 strikeouts per nine innings, down from 11.8 in 2015 and well below his career average of 10.5. But he set career highs in innings pitched (226.2) and complete games (6). Most importantly, his ERA dipped from 3.38 before the All-Star break to 3.28 after it, while his home run rate dropped from 1.22 per nine innings to 0.89.
“Some things you try out, and it’s trial and error,” Sale said recently. “No two days are the same. No two years are the same. You find some things that work, you find some things that don’t work, and you try to adjust accordingly.”
For whatever reason, Sale reverted to his strikeout-obsessed ways in his first season with the Red Sox. It wasn’t so much an overindulgence in his four-seamer. If anything, his slider and changeup usage spiked. But Sale threw everything harder. His four-seamer averaged 95.1 mph, closer to its 2015 level (95.6) than 2016 (93.6), while his sinker (93.2), changeup (87.1) and slider (80.2) came in hotter than they had in almost any season since 2012.
The result: Sale generated more swing-and-misses than ever. He struck out 308 batters, the most by an AL pitcher since Martinez fanned a Red Sox-record 313 in 1999, and he led the majors with 12.9 strikeouts per nine innings, a career high.
“He’s in a new environment, new place,” Cooper said. “Wants to show everybody what he can do.”
Sale proved his point. He dominated for three-quarters of a season and likely will have a runner-up Cy Young finish to show for it. There’s hardly any shame in that. Any pitcher would give his throwing arm to have the year Sale just did.
But now, as Sale begins his second year with the Red Sox, new manager Alex Cora and pitching coach Dana LeVangie would be wise to convince him that there’s a better way. By sacrificing strikeouts for early-in-the-count groundouts in May, he might record more outs in September and October.
And, well, that’s what Sale insists he came to Boston to do.