Well. That’s not the Chris Sale we’re accustomed to seeing.
The Boston Red Sox ace was awful Thursday, as he was shelled by the Seattle Mariners in a forgettable 2019 debut at T-Mobile Park.
Seattle battered Sale for seven runs on six hits in just three innings of work as Boston dropped its season opener 12-4. Sale allowed three home runs and recorded just one strikeout in the second and third innings — where all the damage was done — after striking out the side in the first inning.
The lack of strikeouts was due in large to one potentially concerning stat: As The Boston Globe’s Alex Speier points out, Sale didn’t get a single swing and miss on his fastball in his three innings of work.
As Speier also notes: “Sale did not elicit a single swing-and-miss on his fastball, the first time in 61 Red Sox starts (regular season or playoffs) that he’d failed to get a swing-and-miss on a four-seamer.”
Now, it’s important not to overreact to one start, but it’s also worth noting Sale’s velocity was down Thursday. Sale’s four best fastballs all came in the first inning, where he topped out at 94 mph on a couple of pitches. In the second and third innings, however, Sale was living at 91 or 92 mph and hit 93 mph on just five pitches in those two frames.
This isn’t totally unusual for Sale, though. He’s a notoriously slow starter when it comes to the fastball velocity. After averaging 94.3 mph on his fastball in his first start last season, Sale didn’t feature an average fastball velocity higher than 93.9 until late April.
The natural inclination is to wonder whether Sale’s plan — at least early this season — is to pitch more to contact, which is something he did in his final season with the Chicago White Sox. Sale made an effort to limit his velocity in order to keep his arm fresh deeper into the season. Given Sale’s second-half issues in Boston — including a nagging shoulder issue last season — it’s not the worst idea in the world.
But if Sale plans on pitching to contact more in 2019, he’s going to need to be much better than he was against the Mariners.
“Just couldn’t keep the ball in the ballpark and command was pretty bad,” Sale bluntly acknowledged after Thursday’s stinker.
Sale also got just nine innings of spring training work, so there’s another potential culprit. Red Sox manager Alex Cora downplayed that factor, but it’s something to keep in mind as Sale’s season progresses.
Regardless, it’s obvious something needs to change in Sale’s next start at Oakland. Either there needs to be more swing and miss, or the lanky left-hander must command and control his stuff in much better fashion.
Given Sale’s track record, this certainly feels like a short-term issue — at least the Red Sox better hope so, or else their hopes of repeating as World Series champions in 2019 will go up in smoke.