Previously tonight on the Twitter feed @TheBackwardsK, I mentioned that this year Chris Sale is using his slider half as much as he did last year, and I intimated that could be the causal effect to his diminished strikeout rate and also his out of character, underwhelming overall performance. Let’s take a look at Sale’s pitch usage over the years since 2012 when he became a full-time starting pitcher in the Majors (2015 stats include his May 6 start versus the Tigers).
2012: Fastball 60.1%, slider 26.2%, changeup 13.7%
2013: Fastball 51.4%, slider 29.6%, changeup 19.0%
2014: Fastball 52.9%, slider 18.4%, changeup 28.6%
2015: Fastball 60.6%, slider 10.0%, changeup 29.4%
So judging by the numbers, it is apparent that beginning last year, Sale replaced the slider as his primary offspeed offering with a changeup. The thought process in doing so is probably mostly to limit the injury risk to his arm so that he may have a long and successful career, as throwing sliders and other breaking pitches is more harmful to a pitcher’s arm. However, Sale is also quoted as saying that using the changeup more helps him to maintain consistent mechanics when he does pitch every fifth day. Sale would not be the first pitcher to move away from a slider in an effort to preserve the future health of his arm, and with Sale’s violent delivery it is actually probably a wise idea to have begun to use the changeup more instead. And as an added bonus last year, the reversal in his offspeed arsenal led to amazing results as he produced career bests nearly all across the board, and his strikeout rate jumped up by a lot to 10.76 K/9.
So tonight versus the Tigers, Sale did use his slider just a tad more than he had in his previous 2015 starts, but still it was not much difference at all. Sale left the game after 5.1 IP, giving up 5 ER on 7 H and 5 BB while striking out 6. It was a very rough outing, albeit against a good offense, but Sale has hardly looked sharp over his last few starts now. I believe that the reason for the lackluster performance is the fact that he is using his slider even less this season. The velocity on his pitches is in line with recent years and I don’t think that there is an issue with flip flopping the changeup with the slider for his primary offspeed pitch, as his changeup is a plus pitch and he excelled in doing so last year. However, I believe that the problem is that he is now throwing his fastball even more in lieu of his slider. The changeup usage so far is nearly identical to last year, but it’s the fastball usage that is up while the slider usage is down a lot. And the result is that he now is the sad owner of a 5.93 ERA and 1.61 WHIP with out of the norm strikeout and walk rates at 8.58 K/9 and 3.29 BB/9.
Up next on the schedule for Sale is a start at Milwaukee next week. This is going to give him a good opportunity to bounce back as the Brewers against left-handed pitching have the 4th worst strikeout rate, the 3rd worst ISO, and absolute worst wOBA. However, there is some caution with that as the Brewers are a right-handed dominant lineup and some of those numbers came with 2 weeks of Carlos Gomez being on the shelf. Nonetheless, on paper, it is a solid spot for Sale and if he does not turn in some better results in that start, then it might be a serious problem. Although, the easy fix for him could just be to use his slider more and his fastball less.