By Jack Belanger
It was just one game, but it was good to see Chris Sale look like an ace again. We saw a glimpse of success against the Tigers, but that good sentiment was ruined after a bad start against Tampa Bay. Against the Minnesota Twins, Sale threw a season-high 11 strikeouts and allowed a season-low zero home runs. He made it through the sixth inning for the first time all season. Even after the win the question remains: Has Chris Sale turned the tide? Or is this performance another tease?
If you look take a deep look, there are some encouraging signs that this change is sustainable.
First off, I’m not making the case that he is returning to Cy Young levels quite yet, but Sale still is an above-average pitcher. The bad start against Tampa can be explained by the fact the Rays are just that good this year that they’re going to beat up on any pitcher. They are hitting .288 as a team with 42 home runs in 19 games. Minnesota isn’t a great offensive team, but they are better than Detroit.
It appeared Sale’s fastball was sharper watching the game and the numbers back it up. His average fastball velocity was 94.4 mph, the highest it’s been this year. While he may not get his fastball back to where it used to sit, he needs to keep it above 94 to be effective and set up his secondary pitches.
Sale also relied more on his slider, which is typically is go-to pitch. He threw the slider a season high 38.3%. His slider was more effective against the Twins than it has been all year. According to FanGraphs, his slider was worth 3.44 runs above average per 100 pitches. (For explanation on pitch value, this link here breaks it down.)
Finally, Sale’s contact rate was a season-low 55%, which means he’s missing more bats. An interesting comparison that shows how tough Tampa is this year: the Rays made contact on 80% of pitches they swung outside the zone, meanwhile the Twins made contact just over 40% on swings outside the zone. In his each of his last two starts he threw a first-pitch strike to over 70% of batters.
A key for Sale going forward will be to keep the ball in the ballpark. His improved effectiveness of his pitches should give Red Sox fans hope he has turned a corner. He’s lined up to get his second start against the Baltimore Orioles next week. If Sale can string a few good starts in a row, fans can begin to feel more confident that their ace has returned.
(All stats courtesy of FanGraphs.com)