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Chris Sale needs a change

His fastball and slider are still fantastic, but his third pitch gets him in trouble.

Boston Red Sox v New York Yankees - Game One Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Chris Sale is a glory to behold. With limbs flying and sliders diving, it’s remarkable that any batter can ever make contact with a ball that comes out of such a unique delivery with such movement.

Take a moment to bask in the majesty of this vicious, viscous slider:

It’s no wonder they call him “The Condor.” Given how closely he resembles Hall of Famer Randy Johnson, perhaps they should call him “The (Slightly Less) Big Unit.” Maybe not; that doesn’t have a good ring to it, but take a look for yourself:

The similarities are clear. However, Sale hasn’t been having a Randy Johnson-like season this year. In fact, he’s not having a Chris Sale-like season either. His 4.68 ERA is more than a full run higher than his previous worst 3.41 in 2015. His 22 home runs allowed in 132 23 innings are uncharacteristically high.

His peripherals show that he’s not completely broken. He leads the AL with 13.1 K/9, and his 34.6 percent strikeout rate trails only Gerrit Cole and Max Scherzer league-wide. Clearly, something still works if he still induces so many strikeouts. His 59 DRA- and 3.10 SIERA are both sublime, so maybe he’s just been unlucky on batted balls.

Sale’s four seam/slider combination is lethal, and they account for 74.3 percent of his total pitches. He also features a changeup and a sinker, which are considerably less lethal. The sinker has pretty much always been a below average pitch for him. He used to throw it more than any other pitch, but since joining the Red Sox in 2017, it’s become his fourth offering. Not coincidentally, he became even more dominant at the same time.

The changeup is an entirely different story. In 2018, it was a useful third offering against right-handed hitters (he rarely throws it to lefties). The pitch generated a 38.5 percent whiff rate, .275 wOBA, and .259 xwOBA, and only one batter homered off the pitch all season.

In 2019, the changeup has been far less effective. The whiff rate has dropped to a still-good 34.3 percent, but batters have smashed the pitch for a .350 wOBA and .375 xwOBA. The .532 slugging percentage against looks even uglier. He’s already surrendered five home runs on changeups this year. As a result, righties are slugging .430 against him overall, whereas last year they slugged just .308.

Here’s how Sale’s changeup has, uh, changed since last season:

Chris Sale’s Changing Changeup

2018 2019
2018 2019
Velocity 87.2 85.2
Spin Rate 2041 1963
Horiz. Movement (in.) 19.3 18.6
Vert. Movement (in.) 0.3 -0.5

He’s lost two ticks on the radar gun. Given that velocity and spin rate are connected, it’s no surprise that the RPM has declined concurrently. With less spin comes less movement as well.

It’s worth noting that the pitch is certainly salvageable. He still generates lots of swings-and-misses. It’s doing its job more often than not, but it’s important to remember that the above figures are averages. Most likely, batters are doing damage on the bad changeups, not the good ones. With less average velocity, spin, and movement, he’s either throwing more clunkers, or the clunkers themselves are worse than last year. In other words, he’s probably throwing a higher percentage of changes with less than 1,700 RPM than he did in 2018.

Sale throws it 17.4 percent of the time against right-handed hitters, and the sinker 7.9 percent. Both have been substantially worse than his elite fastball/slider combo. Most starting pitchers can’t survive with only two pitches, but Sale isn’t most pitchers. Perhaps he should ween off the two lesser offerings, or at least scale back until hitters stop smashing them.

Alternatively, he could just... not do that. He’s really not broken, according to the advanced metrics. As long as his wipeout slider compares with Randy Johnson’s “Mr. Snappy,” the changeup doesn’t matter too much. Maybe he should consider making it matter even less by throwing it more scarcely.

Daniel R. Epstein is an elementary special education teacher and president of the Somerset County Education Association. Tweets @depstein1983.