Chris Sale’s 158 innings in 2018 marked his lowest total in his seven seasons as a major league starting pitcher. He had pitched more than 200 innings in four of his previous six seasons.
But two disabled list stints because of shoulder inflammation limited him to 29 innings during the second half of 2018.
Pitching coach Dana LeVangie and manager Alex Cora took a rather conservative approach with Sale last spring training. He didn’t make his first Grapefruit League start until March 9. The staff used a conservative approach because Sale wore down during the second half of 2017 when he posted a 4.09 ERA in 11 starts during August and September after recording a 2.37 ERA in his first 21 starts.
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“You learn a lot from those situations, too,” Sale said during Red Sox Winter Weekend about his 2018 injury-plagued season half. “Obviously try to take something from that. And from the frustration try to find some kind of peace of mind and learn from it because every experience is a learning experience if you make it one.”
Sale and the Red Sox both say the ace is healthy heading into 2019. He must learn from what happened last year and make adjustments to put himself in the best position to stay consistent for an entire six-month regular season. It’s incredibly important for him to show his durability as he enters the final year of his contract. He’s eligible for free agency next offseason.
Sale didn’t elaborate about what he learned, except for saying it made him more patient. He presumably examined his performance thoroughly and learned what he can do to become a more durable pitcher.
It appears the Red Sox think Sale’s incredible spike in velocity during June and July might have led to his shoulder inflammation.
Sale maxed out at 97.2 mph during April. His highest average four-seam velocity in any start during the first month was 94.1 mph. He took the velocity to another level in June and July though.
He made nine starts from June 8-July 27 before landing on the disabled list for the first time. His fastball never averaged lower than 96.3 mph in any of those nine starts. He maxed out 100 mph or higher in four of those starts and 99.1 mph or harder in seven starts.
“I’ve thought about it a lot,” LeVangie said. “I’m not sure that I can say I would have changed anything. Build up to the season, how he was pitching up to that point. I mean, God, he was the best pitcher in the world. I think we can all look back and say at that point the number of starts where was ungodly, maybe the velocity was to the highest point for a length of time … he might not have been used to. But again, it’s hard to say, ‘Chris, dial it down’ knowing that it’s working. he’s getting people out. We’re winning baseball games. He’s the best pitcher in the world.”
Sale’s 100.5 mph four-seamer to strike out Seattle’s Mike Zunino on June 24 was the hardest pitch he ever threw as a major league starting pitcher.
“We’re talking about: is there an ideal velocity we can work around, stay at and add to when we want to instead of going up to the (velocity of the) 102nd pitch of the game on the first pitch of the game,” LeVangie said. “But again, you guys all know, guys win and lose baseball games in the first inning. If you’re not prepared to go out and get people out right away, you might be losing the game 1-0, 2-0 because no teams are waiting around.”
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Accounting for such a significant jump in velocity from April to June is difficult. Maybe it was because of the conservative approach during spring training.
LeVangie, Cora and trainer Brad Pearson began mapping out spring training plans for all their pitchers in late November. The plan for Sale will be similar to last year’s.
“Those guys (Sale, David Price, Nathan Eovaldi, Rick Porcello) won’t be involved in game up until, off the top of my head, somewhere in the second week of March or somewhere further,” LeVangie said. “But that means they’re doing their progressions with bullpens and maybe a backfield type thing. We want to try to do this right.”
Doing it right my be finding an ideal average four-seam fastball velocity. It’s not about topping out at 99-100 mph. It’s about pitching well deep into the regular season, then October