The Old Testament book of Proverbs says a wife of good character is worth far more than rubies. That’s true, of course. In baseball, though, an ace is worth far more than rubies.
Few things are more empowering to a baseball fan than the ace. Knowing your team has one of those rare beasts breeds confidence unlike anything short of having a great quarterback in football. If the first card you play in a playoff series is Roy Halladay or Randy Johnson or Sandy Koufax, suddenly you’re in control. You set the tone. You start with an advantage. Maybe your opponent can match you, but often not.
I wrote a little about this feeling on BronxPinstripes this week. CC Sabathia‘s arrival certainly gave New York Yankees fans that confidence upon his arrival in 2009. When the Philadelphia Phillies started Cliff Lee in the World Series, the Bombers could match with Sabathia. It means something. It’s hard to quantify and drop in a nifty chart, but it’s part of the experience of rooting for a team. If the other team has a Hulk, we want a Hulk too.
The Boston Red Sox knew they had acquired that guy back in 2016. Chris Sale was flat-out awesome with the Chicago White Sox and has continued to basically be that or better in Boston, culminating in his dominant performance to close out the Fall Classic last October. Sure, the tail end of the 2018 regular season wasn’t great — velocity down, etc — but he’s Chris Sale. He’ll be fine. The offseason rest was coming at a great time.
And for all the excitement a hurler in full-bloom can generate, when a couple cracks emerge in the facade, the feeling flips in the blink of an eye. The problem with pitchers is they break. We try and we try to learn why they break and work and work to prevent it, but nothing has made a serious dent. It’s really hard on the arm — all of it, from shoulder to wrist — to do what pitchers do. These guys are modern marvels, throwing harder than ever with dazzling breaking balls. How could it last?
Sale might be the most dazzling of them all. When he’s on, Sale is borderline unbelievable. He throws hard and spins ridiculous sliders from a crazy release point. He’s untouchable. His career K/9 and strikeout-to-walk ratios are the best ever. Ever.
Sale hasn’t been anywhere close to that dude so far in 2019. He’s not throwing as hard (2018: 95.2 MPH, 2019: 92.3 MPH) and not generating the same spin on his fastball (2018: 2357 RPM, 2019: 2279 RPM). Across the board, he’s not missing as many bats …
.. while giving up a lot more hard contact:
That red line is his four-seamer. Yikes. The xwOBA (read it like an on-base percentage) off his four-seamer last season was a mild .264. This year? .444. That paints a pretty obvious picture. So, what’s the deal? Is Sale hurt? He’s said no, and we have to take him at his word, but players aren’t always forthcoming. Tommy Kahnle wasn’t honest with the Yankees last year, for example. It happens. It’d be a normal human thing in the wake of a huge contract extension to white-knuckle your way through an injury in an effort to validate the cash. I get it.
So, is it mechanical? If you play around with the horizontal and vertical release point charts over at BrooksBaseball, you’ll see a difference. I don’t know enough to tell you that’s the problem, or even that the difference is enough to mean something. But the calendar has turned to May and Sale’s struggles continue. Any lead is worth pursuing.
Sale is in his age-31 season. This is right about the time we’d expect most pitchers to begin a decline, but Sale isn’t most pitchers. He’s tremendous. Tremendous pitchers don’t always follow that path; Max Scherzer is even older and hasn’t dipped. But, given Sale’s unconventional mechanics and how he tailed off toward the end of last season, maybe he has started to enter a new phase of his career. That happens, and if the lower velocity is his new normal, he’ll figure it out. He doesn’t just suck all of a sudden.
I’ll hedge and say Sale is somewhere in the middle of who he once was and who he will be. He very well could be past the days where he’s arguably the best per-inning starter in the world. Therein lies the rub, though; a declining Sale should still be quite valuable. That’s hardly a comfort to Red Sox fans who just want their fire-breathing dragon back to defend the crown.
In the era of analytics, we are obsessed with learning and locking onto the most valuable players and tactics. And hey, I’m on board with that. But even I’ll admit that the tangible part of the fan experience is critical too, and having someone like Chris Sale toe the rubber for your squad is a damn thrill. Even as a fan of his team’s greatest rival, I hope it’s not over. I don’t think it is. I remain optimistic that at some point this season — perhaps soon — he’ll put together a run.