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Victor Oladipo, Pacers

The curious case of Red Sox ace Chris Sale’s early season struggles

Boston Red Sox ace Chris Sale commanded headlines for all the right reasons over the past few months. From a profanity-laced dugout tirade that propelled the Red Sox to a win in Game 4 of the World Series to getting the final out in Game 5 and subsequently signing a five-year extension with the club, there was plenty for Sale to cheer about heading into the 2019 season.

And yet, Sale has been met with nothing but early adversity. He was tagged for six hits–including three home runs–and seven-earned runs against the Seattle Mariners on Opening Day. And although he managed to be effective in his second start against the Oakland Athletics (six innings, one hit ,and one run), Sale was far more invested in throwing his changeup and asserting the off-speed repertoire throughout the game.

The most notable element with respect to Sale’s recent outings has been the utter lack of velocity. Sale averaged 92.3 mph on his fastball in the opener against Seattle, but that number dropped to 89.0 against the Athletics. Additionally, Sale has failed to register even a single whiff on any of the 59 fastballs he has thrown this season:

Given, two starts is an extremely small sample size, but Sale’s spin rates are down across the board, opposing hitters are barreling up the ball at a higher rate, and his hard hit percentage against has also risen tremendously.

However, those numbers do not tell the full story. Sale has still shown dominance with his off-speed stuff, and his effectiveness with the changeup against Oakland bodes well for his evolution as a pitcher.

Sale has thrown his changeup about 30 percent of the time this season, and hitters are averaging just .167 against that pitch and whiffing at a similar rate to 2018. The slider, though not quite as lethal in the early-goings, has still been Sale’s most prominent out pitch.

That said, the decrease in velocity should be worrisome for Red Sox fans. According to MLB Statcast, opponents are hitting .625 with three homers off of Sale’s fastball, which is indicative of how much flatter it is appearing this season.

Typically, Sale’s fastball averages around 95 mph, and his ability to throw to all spots in the strike zone and establish the pitch early in counts has been critical to his success throughout his career.

Coming into this season, Sale held the highest K/9 in MLB history, among all qualifiers. This year, Sale has been just as erratic as he has lacked dominance. Thus far, Sale has nearly as many walks (four) as strikeouts (five).

Of course, it is quite possible that Sale is merely working through the kinks. Plenty of pitchers have a hard time reaching their peak velocity until the summer months, and that may turn out to be the case with Sale this season.

Alternatively, Sale’s recent battles with shoulder soreness may be taking their toll on the imposing left-hander. He really should not be seeing such a steep decline in velocity at 30 years old, in the middle of his baseball prime.

Time will tell whether or not Sale is merely settling into his groove, but Red Sox fans certainly were not expecting one of the most overpowering pitchers in MLB history to suddenly look so hittable.