Chris Sale has thrown precisely 68 pitches since July 27, a span covering 45 days. That is average of 1.5 pitches per day, which should give you an idea as to just how much the work Sale and the Red Sox have to do to get him ready for October 5.
Here’s some perspective for you: last season, David Price went from July 22 to September 2 without pitching in a game, a span covering 62 days. Sale this year has made one start in those 45 days, though there are obviously other variables involved. Price had a serious elbow injury. With Sale, it remains unclear just worrisome his shoulder problems are.
That said, as Sale returns to the mound in Toronto tonight for an abbreviated two-inning stint, here are some things to watch, starting with the obvious:
Before you get too geeked up about this, let’s make something clear: If Sale comes out and does what he did in his last start at Baltimore – throw 99 mph after coming off the disabled list – that doesn’t feel especially smart. That decision, after all, landed him right back on the disabled list, something the Red Sox can’t afford now that the regular season is dwindling.
At the start of this season, according to brooksbaseball.net, Sale’s average fastball velocity was a notch above 94 mph. In his one August start, the number was a tick above 98. Sale might be able to pitch at that number in October, but the more prudent approach might be to hover around 95-96 mph until he needs the extra juice.
Ultimately, we don’t need to see Sale’s peak velocity tonight, In fact, it’s really the opposite. An usually low velocity would be a little alarming – let’s say 93 mph or lower – but the greater focus should be on the next two elements.
2. Fastball Command and Control
Here’s a stat for you: since 2012, when Sale became a starter, there are only four pitchers in baseball who have started at least 200 games and walked an average of fewer than two batters per nine innings – Bartolo Colon, Rick Porcello, Sale and Mike Leake. Sale easily has the most strikeouts, which should tell you that he is the rarest blend of power, control and reliability.
And so, as much as Sale’s velocity matters – and of course it does – of greater concern may be his ability to get his feel and rhythm back. But don’t just watch for strikes. Watch for his ability to hit the target and deliver the ball to where his catcher is set up. In October, it will make all the difference in the world.
3. His Slider
Admittedly, this one requires much more of the eyeball test. Unless you can get up close to your screen with a protractor and lasers, you’re going to have a hard time noticing whether Sale’s slider is breaking as much – and as crisply – as it did in midseason. And make no mistake, this is ultimately the pitch that separates Sale from the pack and makes him elite.
Sale’s slider is his out pitch, his strikeout pitch. Without it, he becomes something far closer to ordinary.
So how to gage Sale’s slider tonight? Generally speaking, by watching how little time it spends in the strike zone. Save for the backdoor slider that ends up on the outside corner to right-handed hitters, most of Sale’s sliders should dart down and in on right-handed batters, ultimately ending up out of the strike zone. The whole point of the pitch is that it looks like a strike, then disappears.
As usual, the hitters will tell you how effective Sale’s slider is. If they’re chasing, he’s on. If they’re laying off or making good contacts – the latter usually means the ball is hanging in the strike zone too long – he’s not.
All things considered, there may be nothing more important to watch as Sale returns to the mound.
Their chances in October may depend on that pitch.