By Tony Massarotti, 98.5 The Sports Hub
So Chris Sale is out of the hospital, which is obviously good. But there is still the question of which Chris Sale shows up the next time the Red Sox send him to the mound in this American League Championship Series.
On Saturday, making his third appearance of the postseason, Sale threw just 86 pitches in four innings of the Red Sox’ eventual 7-2 defeat. Virtually all of the damage was done in the second inning after Sale retired the first two batters. Over the next four, Sale allowed issued two walks, hit a batter and allowed a two-run single to George Springer, the latter of which was the ball that zipped past third baseman Eduardo Nunez.
But before you solely blame Nunez, don’t leave Sale off the hook. He missed a succession of chances to get out of the inning, getting two strikes on three out of four Houston batters. He just couldn’t deliver an out pitch. In the process, Sale’s approach also seemed terribly out of character, raising the question of whether the Red Sox are being too cautious against the Houston lineup.
How uncharacteristically bad was Sale? Take a look:
1. After a pair of relatively close misses to Carlos Correa that resulted in a walk – Sale tried to drop a slider on the outside corner both times – Sale misfires with this slider away to catcher Martin Maldonado, the No. 8 hitter in the Houston lineup. (Note catcher Sandy Leon lunging to his right.) What is odd about this succession is that Sale doesn’t try to throw his slider in, which is one of his best, most aggressive pitches.
The obvious question: why? Did Sale know he didn’t have his best slider, or is the Red Sox’ game plan against the Astros too passive? (The Sox have thus far walked a whopping 15 batters in the ALCS by pitching conservatively.)
2. This is where Sale’s shoulder problems come in. After falling behind Maldonado 2-0 –remember those passive sliders – Sale evens the count at 2-2. He then uncorks his best fastball of the night, a 96-mph laser that strikes the light-hitting Maldonado and puts runners at first and second.
According to BrooksBaseball.net, which charts the location, velocity and movement of every pitch, Sale averaged just 92.2 mph on his fastball. So what happens when he tries to gas it up to 96? He loses command and drills a guy who should be able to get out in his sleep.
Here’s the location of that last pitch to Maldonado, which was a classic overthrow yank job, a la Craig Kimbrel:
3. Oh, but we’re just getting started.
The next batter, Josh Reddick, is a lefty. Sale should eat this guy up. But again, the Red Sox are staying away, which is fine if Sale has his typical fastball velocity and command. (He doesn’t.) Here, he tries to go hard, down and away to Reddick and yanks the fastball again because, with a weakened shoulder, he has to muscle up to get customary velocity.
Here you go:
So you know what happened? Reddick walked on five pitches. Now Sale has gone from two outs with the bases empty – facing the No. 7-9 hitters of the Houston lineup – to having the bases loaded with George Springer at the plate.
Which brings us to …
4. The heart of the velocity problem.
Again, Sale gets ahead, dropping in a slider for called strike and then a fastball for another. The count is 0-2 when he tries to elevate in the strike zone and get Springer to chase. Springer fouls off the first fastball (92.5 mph, according to MLB.com) and then takes the next one (93.1 mph) for a ball. Then comes another foul, this one on a 93.9-mph fastball.
Why are we telling you all this? Because for all that is made of the Astros’ ability to make contact, Springer struck out 122 times this year, second on the team to only Marwin Gonzalez (126). If Sale had his customary 96-98 mph on his fastball, he probably gets it by Springer. But when he’s at 92-94, the pitch gets fouled off.
With the count 1-2, Springer then lays off another fastball to even the count at 2-2. Sale then goes back to that slider – passively, away – and misfires again. Springer isn’t even tempted to offer at this pitch:
5. Now, with a 3-2 count and the bases loaded, Sale is in a bind.
To this point in the inning, Sale has been unable to throw his slider away for a strike and he seemingly has had no confidence or desire to throw the slider in. (Is this part of the Boston game plan? Are the Red Sox too afraid of the Astros?) When he’s thrown his fastball with additional velocity, he’s lost command and yanked the pitch into the right-handed batter’s box.
So what does Sale do? He takes a little off the fastball and throws a 93-mph meatball to Springer, who rips it past Eduardo Nunez at third for a two-run single. Could Nunez have made the play? Sure. But Sale (and the Red Sox coaching staff?) doesn’t have anyone to blame but himself.
Here’s the pitch that Springer hammered. Look at where Leon’s glove is positioned to receive the ball – waist high, right down the middle. The Red Sox are lucky this pitch stayed in the ballpark or wasn’t at least driven for extra bases:
So what’s the ultimate takeaway here? There are several.
First, Sale obviously isn’t himself and has to muscle up to get velocity, which often results in a loss of control or command. Second, why didn’t he throw his slider down and in? It’s a trademark pitch for him. The Red Sox seem to be asking Sale to pitch passively, which might be taking Sale out of his comfort zone and asking him to do something he’s either not comfortable doing or doesn’t believe in.
Assuming Sale is healthy, he will presumably pitch in Game 5 on Thursday. If you’re looking for early indicators, pay attention to where he’s throwing that slider. If he’s still trying to finesse it on the outside corner to right-handed batters, the Red Sox are digging in their heels on their game plan, seemingly to the detriment of their ace.
But if he comes in – aggressively – well, he might just be back to being the old Chris Sale again.