NEW YORK — For Chris Sale and the Red Sox, Tuesday night’s series opener at Yankee Stadium (GameTracker) brought both good news and bad news. The good news is Sale had, rather easily, his best velocity of the season, averaging 95.5 mph with his fastball and topping out at 97.5 mph. He hadn’t thrown a pitch that hard since August 12, 2018, the start before going on the then-disabled list with a shoulder issue..

The bad news? Just about everything else. Sale was roughed up for the fourth time in as many starts this season, surrendering four runs in five innings to a Yankees lineup that has five regulars on the injured list. Tuesday’s outing actually lowered Sale’s season ERA from 9.00 to 8.50.

Sale handled the Yankees quite well the first time through the lineup, retiring eight of nine batters faced with three strikeouts. With his velocity ticking up, it looked like the old Chris Sale had returned. Instead, things started to fall apart once the lineup turned over and the Yankees got another look at Sale. The numbers:

  • First time through lineup: 1 for 9 (.111) with one double and three strikeouts
  • Thereafter: 6 for 13 (.462) with one double, one homer, one walk, and three strikeouts

That is not a one-start blip either. It is part of a trend. Opponents hit .208/.296/.458 against Sale the first time through the lineup in his first three starts this season, and .393/.412/.588 thereafter. Once hitters get a look at him, Sale’s become awfully hittable this year.

While velocity is getting all the headlines — that is understandable given how easy it is to measure and compare to the league average and previous seasons — Sale’s issues this year have been two-fold. Velocity is definitely part of it. Hitters have that much more time to react. The other part is command, or lack thereof. Sale was over the plate way too much Tuesday.

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Chris Sale left way too many pitches out over the plate Tuesday. Baseball Savant

Sale can get away with those mistakes at 97-99 mph. At 90-92 mph, or even 94-96 mph, there’s less margin for error. Sliders and changeups were left out over the plate in addition to fastballs, and hanging offspeed pitches are essentially batting practice fastballs. Look at the changeup Clint Frazier hit for a home run:

That pitch was screaming “HIT ME!” Every pitcher is going to make mistakes, even the great ones. The great ones just make fewer mistakes than everyone else. The 2019 version of Chris Sale is making far more mistakes than any previous version. Reduced velocity with wavering command is a recipe for trouble and an ERA near 9.00 four starts into the new season.

Sale’s velocity Tuesday night is little more than a silver lining on a bad night in a season that so far has been full of them for the Red Sox. The velocity means Sale is that much closer to being himself. The command is still lacking though, and the comfortable at-bats tell us hitters are not overwhelmed in the box. The dominating Chris Sale remains stuck in 2018 somewhere.

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