The Red Sox slow-played their starters this spring and now questions are starting to arise.

By Tom Verducci
April 15, 2019

It will be fascinating to see what kind of stuff Boston lefthander Chris Sale brings to the mound at Yankee Stadium Tuesday, now that he is three starts into the regular season and pitching in the high-adrenaline environment he craves.

This much we know, at least according to one All-Star hitter: “He can’t pitch at 91-92.”

Sale simply hasn’t been the same since he went on the IL with shoulder inflammation July 31, 2018. In the 10 games before the injury, he averaged 97.1 mph with his four-seam fastball. In his 10 games since then (including the postseason) he has averaged 93.2 mph.

Batting average against his fastball before: .151.

Batting average against his fastball since: .333.

What’s going on? An opposing coach noticed how Boston elected to slow-play their starters in spring training after they worked the seventh month last season (a full postseason). “They simply haven’t thrown enough to build up arm strength,” the coach said. Boston is compromising April to bet on October.

Sale made only two starts in spring training games, covering just nine innings. (Scrimmages on back fields don’t count.) That’s easily his lowest workload in any of his seven springs since becoming a big league starter. He averaged 20 1/3 innings in the previous six springs.

Power pitchers often need time to build arm strength. But even if you compare Sale’s fastball now to what it was last April, you find that it’s down 2 mph (to 91.1) and almost 100 rpms. He has decreased his fastball usage by one-third, while hitters are batting .462 against it.

Let the All-Star hitter explain what a diminished fastball means for Sale:

“When he’s throwing 97 you have to gear up for 97. And that makes you vulnerable to being out front on his breaking ball. But when he’s throwing 91, 92, it’s a whole different game. You know he can’t beat you with the fastball. So you can stay back and let the ball travel. Now you’re going to be on time against the breaking ball. If you don’t have to honor the 97, it’s a whole different at-bat. That’s why I say he can’t pitch at 91-92.”

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