The two most important numbers for Chris Sale are directly related, in that if one is high, the other is probably low. The most successful version of Sale—the one that is a perennial Cy Young candidate and earned him a World Series ring and a $150 million contract extension—has a fastball that hums along at 95 mph and an ERA that subsequently sits south of 3.00.
The 2019 version of Sale, though, carried into Tuesday’s tilt with the Yankees both a bloated 9.00 ERA in 13 innings across three starts and a four-seamer that sputtered along at a pedestrian-for-him 91.1.
It’s seemingly not possible for Sale to be, well, Chris Sale if his velocity is that low. As SI’s Tom Verducci noted in a Monday column on the lefty’s struggles, a fastball that flies in at 94–95 mph (and touches 97–100, as it did last season) makes Sale’s whip of a slider that much harder to hit. But when he’s barely cracking 93, hitters can sit on that pitch, knowing that they can handle it, and more or less ignore the rest of his offerings. Unsurprisingly, then, Sale has so far resembled a late-career Jamie Moyer instead of his usual brilliant self—a trend that’s contributed plenty to Boston’s awful start to its championship defense.
Any return to form for the Red Sox requires a lot of things that have gone staggeringly wrong to snap back into shape. Sale isn’t the only issue—the rest of the rotation, David Price aside, has been equally awful, and the offense hasn’t produced—but as he goes, so likely go the team’s division and playoff chances. So it was that this first meeting between Boston and New York, which is always a fraught and nervy affair, carried with it the extra weight of Sale’s performance. Another bad start full of wheezing fastballs and loud contact would deepen his team’s early April gloom. But a vintage night in the Bronx would go a long way toward reducing any potential panic.
It started promisingly. Sale blazed through the first two innings, pumping his fastball in at 94–96 mph and getting plenty of whiffs with his slider. Working quickly with regular catcher Sandy Leon—back from Triple A at the expense of Blake Swihart after being sent down to the start to the season—he looked like the Chris Sale of old.
Yet the good times didn’t last. The first stumble came in the third inning, on a double by Brett Gardner and an RBI single by DJ LeMahieu, who took a 97.5-mph fastball and ripped it into rightfield at 100 on the dot. A walk to Aaron Judge followed, then a line drive up the middle by Luke Voit—96.2 mph in, 109 mph out—to push home another run.
Things got worse in the fourth. Clint Frazier led off the frame by pushing a high changeup just over the outstretched reach of Mookie Betts and off the top of the rightfield wall for a solo homer. Two batters later, an Austin Romine single and a Mike Tauchman double brought in a fourth run. The fifth was less eventful, save a combo of errors on a Judge stolen base that put him on third with one out, but Sale pitched out of that jam with a flyout and a groundout to end the frame and his night.
The results were ultimately mixed. Though Sale’s velocity was the best it’s been all season, as he averaged 95.5 mph with his four-seamer and got as high as 97.5, the pitch was mostly ineffective. Of the 33 he threw, he drew only one swing and miss, and he struggled badly to locate it. Those put in play, meanwhile, were hit hard. The slider was better and used more often, but his command with that offering came and went as well. Equally concerning is that Sale failed to dominate a lackluster and injury-reduced Yankees lineup that looked like something you’d see in a spring training split-squad game.
Sale, for his part, was decidedly unhappy with his start. “I’m not gonna sugar-coat it, I flat-out stink right now,” he told reporters afterward. “I don’t know what it is... I gotta find a way to pitch better. This is flat-out embarrassing.”
Still, it represents progress, even if the Red Sox didn’t follow suit. Against another scuffling lefty in James Paxton, Boston barely made a dent, as the tall Canadian easily breezed through eight scoreless frames, allowing just two hits and a walk and striking out 12. Nor could the bullpen contain that weakened Yankees batting order. Erasmo Ramirez, freshly called up from Triple A, immediately put the game out of reach in relief of Sale in the sixth by allowing a three-run homer to the light-hitting Tauchman. The final result: Yankees 8, Red Sox 0.
All in all, even with Sale looking better, it was more of the same from a Red Sox team that is now 6–12 and, to paraphrase Yogi Berra, is making it look late early. The numbers for Sale may finally be trending in the right direction, but for Boston, a nightmarish and frustrating tumble continues apace.