By James Fegan
It was all on display Monday night.
Anyone searching for why Chris Sale was the runaway pick to win the AL Cy Young in 2016 by the Baseball Prospectus staff, and also why he’s coming off a bizarre 2015 that produced the worst ERA of his career as a starter, was provided a neat little snapshot of both realities during his season-opener in Oakland.
With eight punchouts over seven innings, Sale got a decent early start on defending his crown as baseball’s strikeout king, but had to take out part of his postgame media session to answer questions about a nightmare 34-pitch third inning where he walked a batter, alternated between nearly throwing a couple screaming fastballs over catcher Dioner Navarro‘s head, and splitting the plate on a heater that Jed Lowrie laced for a two-run single, as part of a three-run rally that pulled a reeling A’s team off the mat.
It shouldn’t happen.
Sale struggling doesn’t look natural, perhaps because it comes while he’s still throwing upwards of 97 mph, and the movement he generates is so intense that his wildness makes opposing hitters looks less comfortable, rather than more. Conversely, while Sale’s lightning stuff never dissipates, and his mistakes come from lapses of command, it only gets worse the higher he turns up the intensity.
The uptick in Sale’s raw velocity over the last two years have drowned out a lot of the doubts about his strength and durability that dogged him when he first joined the starting rotation, but when the radar guns flash in the 97-99 mph range while Sale’s on the mound, there’s as much of chance that he’s overthrowing and coming out of his shoes as there is that he’s blowing away the competition.
Monday night continued the theme. Sale has two offspeed pitches that can bowl hitters over and a fastball with so much natural movement on it that Brooks Baseball’s Pitch F/X system says he throws almost nothing but two-seamers, but still looked like he was pounding his head and trying to throw it through the glove just to work through a weak A’s lineup.
Yet after an ugly third, Sale quickly slid into the 93-96 mph range, suddenly found comfort with his slider both as a putaway pitch and more importantly to get ahead in the count, and wound up throwing as many pitches over his final three innings as he threw in a nightmarish third inning. In his next day boxscore, Sale’s third inning reads more charitably as a couple bloop hits stacked around a solid single and a walk.
So great is Sale’s talent that the lapses in his performance get resolved in time to deliver a seven-inning, three-run night, and it can seem silly to nitpick. He’s an intense, emotional pitcher who burns to be great, and the desire to blow away hitters with his prodigal heat comes from that same reservoir he draws from to build his unparalleled skill. But the difference between Sale being a regular All-Star who provides the best highlights during the 20 seconds the Sox crawl across SportsCenter every night, and being the runaway Cy Young who drags his team beyond its middle-of-the-road projections, is becoming as refined and consistent as he is electric.
Can he make the leap? Depends on which part of the game you caught; both possibilities were there.