Obviously, this isn’t Chris Sale’s usual fastball. The lefthander, who last summer spent two months throwing his four-seam fastball an average of 97 miles per hour, instead sat at a career-low 89.0 m.p.h. (according to BaseballSavant.com) on Tuesday night — down from 92.3 in his first start of the year. He’s thrown 49 four-seamers this season without a single swing and miss.
Pitching coach Dana LeVangie told reporters in Oakland that the lack of velocity isn’t cause for alarm, suggesting that it was part of a controlled build of arm strength.
“You guys want him to pitch the whole year, or do you want him to go out and throw 100 right now and not be there for his team? He’s building,” LeVangie said.
“He had a long last year. He’s building up to be the guy he wants to be. He started last year similar. We’re getting to that point, but just not right now.”
In many ways, Sale looked on Tuesday like a pitcher who was trying to pitch under control — and who perhaps was dialing back his velocity until he found the delivery where he could show command with less than 100 percent effort level. LeVangie sometimes speaks in car analogies, describing peak, rocket-fueled, high-90s-to-triple-digit-throwing Sale as a Ferrari. On Tuesday, he looked like a Prius, identifying the most fuel efficient delivery he could while emphasizing the ability to carve the strike zone.
A hint at what Sale was doing comes from his extension. When he’s reaching for velocity, he’s driving down the hill of the mound with a tremendous arm whip. On the followthrough of his delivery, his left leg — the one he uses to drive off the rubber — will come flying past his landing leg almost to the bottom of the mound. That’s the Sale who works at 97-100 m.p.h.
On Tuesday, Sale’s delivery was controlled. His left leg often landed adjacent to his right leg, much farther up the mound. He wasn’t reaching for extra extension, not roaring down the slope of the mound.
The data backed up the visual evidence. Sale’s average extension (meaning how far in front of the rubber he released the ball) averaged 5.91 feet on Tuesday, tied for the second-shortest extension in any start he’s made since the beginning of 2018. (In his start last April 26 against the Blue Jays, he averaged 5.89 feet of extension, while featuring one of his lowest average four-seam velocities — 93.4 m.p.h. — of the season.)
This is significant, as extension for Sale has shown some correlation to the velocity on his four-seam fastball (an r-squared value of 0.37) and an even stronger relationship to the swing-and-miss rate on his fastball (an r-squared value of 0.48).
Sale’s most recent outing is the one that’s sitting on the 0 percent swing-and-miss line at the bottom of the graphic, the one that’s furthest to the left. His Opening Day start likewise sits on the 0 percent line, immediately to the right of Tuesday’s dot.)
The question then becomes: Why isn’t Sale extending on his pitches, particularly his four-seamer?
Obviously, there’s at least some design behind it. When Sale was with the White Sox in 2016, he and pitching coach Don Cooper resolved to have him pitch at a lower effort level in order to improve his season-ending durability. Last year, LeVangie and the Sox asked Sale to do the same, with a more controlled buildup — which Sale observed from Opening Day through mid-June, at which point he busted out the Ferrari . . . and ended up needing to take it to the shop in mid-August, after two months of registering the highest velocities of his career.
Sale’s velocity is certainly below where it was a year ago at this time — or, for that matter, at any other time in his career. But it’s at least possible that, given that he ran out of gas last summer, he’s being even more conservative with the gas pedal. Or, perhaps after his delayed entry into spring training games, he’s still searching for his mechanics and could only repeat them and command with this low effort level. (Sticking in third gear?) Or, that he’s dealing with a relatively normal dead-arm period.
There are more dire possibilities as well, even though both the Red Sox and Sale insist that the lefthander is healthy. (President of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski told colleague Dan Shaughnessy that the Red Sox were very comfortable with all of the pitcher’s medical information before signing him to a five-year extension which takes effect in 2020.)
One National League scout watched with some fascination as LeVangie, one day after Sale’s poor Opening Day start in Seattle, had an animated conversation with team trainers in which the pitching coach was very obviously pantomiming different parts of the lefthander’s delivery. But it’s impossible to say whether that conversation was focused on a health concern or simply a discussion about the mechanical issues that resulted in poor command.
The drop in Sale’s velocity and the transformation of his fastball from a swing-and-miss offering to one that he’s trying to get hitters to chase above the strike zone comes with a few knowns at this point:
■ His velocity is down, and went down further in his second start from Opening Day.
■ He’s not getting swings and misses.
■ His vertical release point (sometimes a tell for a pitcher who’s fighting through shoulder discomfort) is normal — if anything, on the slightly high end for him, though that may be a function of the fact that he’s not driving down the slope of the mound as aggressively.
■ His command, which was poor in his first start, was significantly improved in his second, suggesting that he’d identified some way of better controlling his delivery. He was extremely effective working at diminished velocity, suggesting that if he wants to pitch with a more controlled effort level, he can do so while still being elite, so long as he features pinpoint deployment of his slider and changeup.
■ He spent time on the disabled list with shoulder concerns last season.
■ The Red Sox and Sale say that his shoulder is fine.
Sale’s extension on his pitches seems to be at the root of why he looks like a different pitcher than at virtually any other point in his career. The question thus becomes whether that is a development by design or whether it is a concession to some physical limitation. Both causes are plausible, suggesting that an answer will come only if Sale eventually — whether this month or even later in the summer — leaves the Prius in the garage in favor of a less practical, more thrilling ride.