Mazz: The Chris Sale conundrum ... can he dial it down and still be dominant?

Mar 28, 2019; Seattle, WA, USA; Boston Red Sox starting pitcher Chris Sale (41) walks back to the mound after surrendering a two-run home run to Seattle Mariners shortstop Tim Beckham (background) during the third inning at T-Mobile Park. Mandatory Credit: Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

By Tony Massarotti, 98.5 The Sports Hub

The last time Chris Sale had a performance this bad – at least in the regular season? That would be Aug. 24, 2017, when he allowed seven runs (six earned) in three innings of a 13-6 loss to the Cleveland Indians, a more typical clunker during what was Sale’s seemingly annual late-summer fade.

But this?

This was Opening Day.

So we’ll let you decide whether you want to panic yet.

Me? No. I’m not panicking ... yet. But there are a few things to talk about here, from Sale to the Red Sox in general, and they’re not negative or apocalyptic or even unreasonable. They just have to do with reality.

First, Sale hasn’t been the same for some time now, dating back to before the All-Star break last season. Yesterday’s 2019 opener looked like his first postseason performance of a year ago in some ways – which is to say that Sale lacked both velocity and command, the kind of daily double that will destroy any pitcher. The Red Sox certainly wouldn’t have sent him out there if Sale had any legitimate physical issues – we think – but the outing does raise a different kind of question.

Specifically: can Sale pitch at something less than 100 percent exertion, which is to ask: can he effectively pace himself? There seems to be a popular theory out there that Sale can continue to excel as he gets older, when his velocity dwindles. Pedro Martinez did it, they say, and Sale is a pitcher as a much as he is a thrower.

Well, yes and no. Pedro did a fair amount of it in the National League, where there is no designated hitter. And while he was good, he wasn’t great. His peak days came when he was throwing consistently in the mid-to-high 90s.

In April of last year, Sale’s fastball averaged roughly 94 mph. (Yesterday, his fastball averaged 92.9 mph according to BrooksBaseball.net.)

Lest anyone forget, Sale eased his way into last season, too, and was 5-3 with a 3.00 ERA after a June 1 loss to the Astros. The team was 7-6 in his starts and he was basically averaging 94-95 mph on his fastball. It was then as if Sale threw his hands up and said Screw this, then started airing it out.

Know what happened next? He went 6-1 with a 0.75 ERA while averaging about 97.5 mph on his fastball in June and July, striking out 97 batters in 60 innings, an average of 14.6 batters per nine innings.

And then his shoulder flared up.

Does everyone get the point now? When Sale is airing it out, he’s at his very best – and not just because of the velocity. His slider is much sharper, too. The Sale we saw yesterday in Seattle looked like a guy who was holding back and trying to pace himself – again, we’re assuming health here – and the result wasn’t remotely close to good enough. And then, when he hit peak form, he didn't hold up physically.

Does this mean Sale is going to be this bad going forward?

Of course not.

But what it does mean is that Sale has spent his entire career pitching one way – all out – and what the Red Sox have been trying to teach him for more than a year now isn’t as simple as throttling back.

Especially if Chris Sale, more than anyone, doesn’t believe it works.

You can hear Tony Massarotti weekdays from 2-6 p.m. EST on the Felger & Massarotti program. Follow him on Twitter @TonyMassarotti.