Chris Sale’s dominance comes from his diverse repertoire of pitches, several of which can be described as elite. In 2015, Sale’s fastball was second-best in whiff-rate, with 29 percent of swings not making any contact. Among pitchers who threw at least 200 four-seamers, this ranked second behind only Rich Hill. It’s unsurprising that Sale posted his highest fWAR of his career at 6.2 wins.
The early part of 2016 appeared concerning as Sale’s fastball velocity dropped about two miles per hour according to both FanGraphs and Brooks Baseball. In May, Sale provided an explanation, essentially telling reporters the drop in speed was by design in order to maximize pitch efficiency to go deeper into games. Sale remained effective in 2016, but his strikeout rate plummeted from 32.1 percent to 25.7 percent.
Although his generated BABIP was .280, this is more likely attributable to luck than limiting hard contact. In the interview linked above, Sale makes mention of location and limiting hard contact via offspeed pitches:
I've noticed being able to throw strikes down in the zone where last year my fastball was just getting crushed. You can throw 96, but if it's up, they are going to hit it. I'm starting to realize it's more location than it is speed and velocity.
However, despite his 2016 .279 BABIP being quite a bit lower than the .323 he posted 2015, Sale’s 2016 was nearly identical to 2014. In addition, his home run rate increased to the highest level of his career (1.09 per nine innings). With fewer strikeouts, more home runs, and a similar walk rate to 2015, Sale’s fielding independent pitching went up by nearly .75 runs.
The interesting aspect is Sale did not limit the use of his fastball; in fact he offered up four-seamers more than ever before, throwing them over 45 percent of the time. In 2014 and 2015, he threw his four-seamer 40 percent of the time, relying more heavily on the deceptive changeup. With the diminished speed of his four-seamer, the difference between his fastball and changeup decreased, so he used it less frequently.
There are two scenarios to consider. One is that the 28-year-old Sale is forced to live with diminished velocity, it’s a part of getting older, and it’s plausible the “it was my plan all along” is just a ruse. If this is the case, Sale demonstrated he can remain a dominant starter by changing the way in which he pitches, but the strikeout numbers he posted in 2015 are probably behind him.
The second scenario is that he actually did dial the fastball back as part of a plan to save bullets in his arm. He still saw a ton of success while limiting maximum effort, but not as much as he did when relying more heavily on his all-out fastball.
Alex Speier of the Boston Globe shed some potential light on the subject, as Sale’s fastball apparently hovered where it sat prior to the alleged 2016 experiment.
Sale's been sitting mid-90s an awful lot this spring. There's been little to suggest that last year's decreased velo was start of a pattern.— Alex Speier (@alexspeier) March 26, 2017
If the goal was to go deeper into games, the plan showed marginal success, which hardly made sacrificing strikeouts worth the effort. In 2016, Sale faced on average, fewer than one additional batter per start compared to 2015.
Despite a chilly night in the mid-to-high 30s on Wednesday, Sale averaged 96.4 MPH on his fastball, and even topped out at 98 MPH. There’s a potential caveat as Dave Cameron explains here; the season just started, we’re viewing velocity numbers via a new system. Nonetheless, the apparent increase from both last year and the years before would suggest that this is not just a quirk of measurement.
Only time will tell how Sale’s velocity compares to last season. If 2016 was an experiment, the results clearly indicate Sale is best when he lets it fly. There will be plenty of time to adjust to getting older as he continues his career, there’s no reason to adjust earlier than necessary. The Red Sox traded away two very good players for Sale; they’re hoping the excellent numbers from Wednesday night are real and sustainable.
Steven Martano is an Editor at Beyond the Box Score, a Contributing Prospect Writer for the Colorado Rockies at Purple Row, and a contributing writer for The Hardball Times. You can follow him on Twitter at @SMartano