Chris Sale is throwing hard again, and the results have been historically good

Jeff PassanMLB columnist

These are crazy times, full of the unknown, particularly for those who want to understand the connection that gave 2017 its most puzzling beast.

Charlie Morton’s fastball didn’t exactly come out of nowhere. The signs, as much as there can be signs for a guy who once sat in the low 90s to start darting his fastball at 99 mph, were there. Morton is 6-foot-5 and 220 pounds. His Tommy John surgery gave him a fresh elbow. Before he blew out his hamstring last April, he was mixing in a few 95s and 96s. This, though? A sinker sitting 96 and a four-seam fastball resting at 97? Only a nut job would’ve predicted that.

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Such is the business of trying to understand fastball velocity. It may not be the single most important piece of quantitative analysis about a pitcher, but it certainly offers the most bang for its buck. Velocity correlates strongly with effectiveness, and while exceptions exist in both directions – hard throwers that stink and soft tossers that shove – a monster fastball remains the sine qua non for an aspiring ace.

Morton is not there yet. His velocity jump is impressive, as is his strikeout rate, and for a Houston Astros team that entered the season needing better starting pitching to complement its bats, gloves and bullpen, its major league-best record is a manifestation of such. And yet in the grand scheme, it takes not a fastball with dueling 9s on the radar gun to evince dominance but merely the run-of-the-mill 95-mph goon that …

1. Chris Sale sics on hitters who don’t know what in the name of all that is holy to do with it. It’s hard enough facing Sale, what with his release point so far to the left it might as well be antifa, his slider biting like oak mites and his changeup poison for righties but sprinkled in liberally among lefties this season, too.

In 65 2/3 innings, Red Sox starter Chris Sale has 95 strikeouts and 13 walks. (Getty Images)
In 65 2/3 innings, Red Sox starter Chris Sale has 95 strikeouts and 13 walks. (Getty Images)

Until last season, Sale’s fastball had been his bread, butter and main course. His rationale for throwing it with less velocity – he wanted to control it better and go deeper into games – didn’t make a ton of sense. Outside of Clayton Kershaw and Madison Bumgarner, perhaps no ace controlled or commanded his fastball better than Sale. He was indeed more efficient. Sale set a career high for innings pitched while throwing the same number of pitches per game.

This season, Sale vowed to again unleash the Kraken. His four- and two-seam fastballs last May averaged 93.18 mph. This May: 95.21 mph. Certainly that’s not the only reason he has struck out at least 10 in his last eight starts or that he’s putting up the sorts of numbers baseball hasn’t seen since a certain someone who pitched in Boston a decade and a half ago. But as …

2. Charlie Morton will attest, a villainous fastball does wonders for a pitcher. Sale leads baseball in strikeouts. Brooks Baseball, the provider of all the data in this column and an indispensible resource, shows Jacob deGrom is up nearly 1.8 mph this May over last May, and he leads in the NL in punchies. Eddie Butler got a big league rotation spot back with the Cubs because of the additional 2 mph that appeared on his heater. As his opt-out dawns, Masahiro Tanaka can’t hate gaining a mile and a half year-over-year on his fastballs.

The instances with Morton and others, like Pirates starter Chad Kuhl, are even more fascinating. Morton had a grunge-music fastball, living at 91 or 92, and suddenly he’s hammering 99s and providing a delightful complement to Dallas Keuchel and Lance McCullers Jr., a pair of delightful power pitchers in their own right. Kuhl regularly flirted with 95 last season as a rookie with Pittsburgh, but his last start – comfortably there and topping out at 99 – was either one hell of an anomaly or perhaps the start of something very interesting.

This is the portion of the proceedings where it’s worth noting that, no, velocity does not equal success, and you need only ask …

3. Zack Greinke to explain. Were he to do so, it would be equal parts instructive, scientific and derisive, as Greinke sees the game in a different way than anyone and does not suffer fools gladly.

How he has managed to turn into the type of pitcher he is with the stuff he has is short of miraculous but nevertheless incredibly impressive. With nearly 2 mph less on his average fastball today than last May, Greinke somehow is coaxing hitters into treating him like he’s the best power pitcher in the world.

Here, in short, is 2017 Zack Greinke: He doesn’t throw the ball in the strike zone. (His 40.3 percent of pitches there is eighth lowest of 91 qualified starters.) He still manages to generate a tremendous amount of swings on those bad pitches. (His 35.7 percent outside-swing percentage is the highest in all of baseball.) And when they do swing at those pitches, they miss a lot. (His 56.7 percent contact rate on outside-the-zone pitches is 16th of 91.)

The moral of the story: When the only pitchers with highest swinging-strike rates than you are Sale, Danny Salazar, deGrom, Max Scherzer and Michael Pineda, all of whom bring mid- to high-90s petrol, and you’re doing it at 90.46 mph, well, you shouldn’t suffer fools gladly, because they should rightfully be in awe of you.

After his miserable 2016 season with the Diamondbacks, it would’ve been easy to forget Greinke, just like …

4. Alex Wood was the lost man in the Dodgers’ rotation after a 2016 in which he alternated between hurt and really hurt. Wood’s peripherals were about in line with the rest of his career. So, unfortunately, was his left elbow’s propensity to schedule a lunch date in an operating room.

If he were to qualify for the ERA title, Alex Wood would lead the National League. (Getty Images)
If he were to qualify for the ERA title, Alex Wood would lead the National League. (Getty Images)

Healthy, reinvigorated and throwing 2 mph harder than last year and 3 mph ahead of where he sat when the Atlanta Braves dealt him to Los Angeles for uber-bust Hector Olivera, Wood has been the Dodgers’ best pitcher not named Kershaw. With a catawampus-bordering-on-ugly delivery, Wood is no aesthete’s dream. He’s more a pragmatic pitcher, striking out four times the number of hitters he walks and allowing just one home run in 43 innings this season.

Were he to qualify for the ERA title, Wood would lead the National League, nearly a full run ahead of another surprise mover and shaker whose fastball happens to be up more than 1 mph over last May, Michael Wacha. Of course, most of that gain came from April, when he was throwing harder than he has in May, which is odd, seeing as most pitchers follow the path of …

5. Matt Harvey and slowly build velocity as the year goes on. In April this season, Harvey, coming off surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome, registered an average of 94.6 mph on both of his fastballs. A month later, Harvey is above to 95.5 mph, which actually is an improvement over where he was last season before surgery.

With Harvey, of course, it’s all relative, because he’s still young enough for the baseball world to remember when he dotted 98-mph fastballs on the corner so effortlessly. Harvey’s brilliance then is his burden now. Even if he’s throwing 96 on the regular, it isn’t what he was, and not only does he need to find effectiveness in that, Harvey seeks satisfaction as well.

New York can be an unrelenting place to rebuild oneself, and at this point, unless the Mets believe he is such a headache that he no longer belongs there – which would be awfully rich coming from an ownership group that for a half-decade acted a lot less like major league owners than Harvey ever did a major league pitcher – he’ll stick around. And if he can rebuild himself in the fashion …

6. CC Sabathia did after his trip to rehab, all the better. Sabathia is 36 these days, and if that seems young, it’s because he’s been around longer than every starter except Bartolo Colon and Bronson Arroyo, the former of whom pitches at under 6-foot and over 300 pounds and the latter of whom once attempted to pull off cornrows, which may be even bolder than Colon. Point is, Sabathia is in some unique company.

So maybe it’s not all that surprising when the leaderboard of year-over-year velocity gainers shows Colorado’s Tyler Chatwood first at more than 2.5 mph ahead of last May and Sabathia second at 2.22 mph. The dip in Sabathia’s fastball had been precipitous and pronounced, and his days as a Cy Young contender vanished.

Back throwing nearly 92 hasn’t made Sabathia some world beater. His ERA is below league average. If the Yankees make a trade for a starting pitcher, he’s almost certainly the odd man out. Even these days, his spot isn’t secure. The 1.2-mph gain from April to May alone this year, though, is encouraging, and it certainly beats …

7. Drew Pomeranz losing more than 1.2 mph on his fastball since the season’s first month. With the Red Sox staggering around .500 and David Price still on the mend, the anger has trained itself on Pomeranz, not just because of how he’s performing but what he represents.

Fans today are smart. They are smart because they are informed, and they are informed because the Internet caters to every little niche of a sport, and the niche that has blown up the most in the last decades, even more than statistical analysis, is prospecting. Just like the NFL and NBA drafts generate enormous interest, the idea that the next big thing in baseball is whiling away his days in some dusty A-ball town fascinates the masses.

Because this hype starts to early and whirls into a vortex so quickly – and, yes, because young stars are the remarkably valuable, and that cannot be overstated – teams are evermore loath to deal such players. So when the Red Sox last season acquired Pomeranz, there was temporary excitement in Boston until the entirety of the deal was announced: Pomeranz straight up for Anderson Espinoza.

Espinoza was 18 years old. He barely stood 6-foot. Coming into the season, he had pitched exactly one game above rookie ball. He threw 100 mph, though, and there was a shot he could develop into an ace, the prospect writers said, and that was enough to ruin Pomeranz’s name if he were anything short of, say, Chris Sale. He was. So for now, he is mud, even though Espinoza hasn’t thrown a pitch this season because of a bad elbow.

This is life as a big leaguer. Good days come and go. Velocity waxes and wanes. And you can only hope you don’t turn into …

8. Kyle Hendricks and have to subsist on an 86-mph fastball. Hendricks finished third in NL Cy Young voting last season, fetching a pair of first-place votes after his 2.13 ERA led the league. That Hendricks ran his sinker to 88, 89, sometimes 90, which is not good for a right-handed pitcher – or any pitcher for that matter – these days but combined with plus-plus command, with which Hendricks throws it, played more than fine.

These days, the command is gone and the velocity down. The effectiveness is certainly less than last year as well, and perhaps one need only look at Cubs starters’ fastballs to see why.

Hendricks’ is off 1.82 mph from last May. John Lackey’s is down 1.28 mph and Jon Lester’s 1.25. And …

9. Jake Arrieta’s is the worst of the bunch at 1.94 mph less than last May with an average of 92.78 mph – which is about an average fastball in the big leagues these days period.

Carrying a diminished fastball and 4.80 ERA isn’t exactly the way Arrieta wants to walk into free agency for the first time, and Sunday’s six-inning, no-earned-run start was a good step in the right direction, even if it did take 111 pitches. The question for Arrieta, and the Cubs for that matter, is to what they attribute these across-the-board dips.

Two possible explanations leap to the forefront. First is a data error. The camera-and-radar system that captures these numbers is remarkably sophisticated – and it can be somewhat buggy. Strike zones vary from park to park. Could velocity readings, too? Probably not, or they would show up the same with relief pitchers, and the evidence doesn’t clearly back that idea up.

No. 2: The run to the World Series championship took a lot out of the Cubs’ rotation. Arrieta, in particular, had been taxed during his Cy Young-winning 2015 campaign. By last September, Arrieta was sitting 93 mph or so, and this year is more of the same – enough to give teams considerable pause when looking into investing the nine-figure deal he’ll surely seek.

The likelihood Arrieta will get it makes …

10. Chris Sale’s contract all the more a gift worth the price of Yoan Moncada and Michael Kopech, the two main prospects Boston surrendered to get him. Sale costs $12 million this year and has a pair of club options for $12.5 million and $15 million. Less than $40 million for three years of the best pitcher in the American League.

That’s what Sale is. He doesn’t have a Cy Young Award that says so, but his place as king is difficult to debate these days. In 65 2/3 innings, he has 95 strikeouts and 13 walks. His 7.31 K-to-BB ratio is inconceivable for someone striking out 13 hitters per nine innings. The last time someone did something like that – the only time someone did something like that – was in 1999, when Pedro Martinez had a better ratio with 13.2 strikeouts per nine.

It was arguably his finest season. The other candidate is 2000, in which batters hit .167/.213/.259 against Martinez. This year, through nine starts, hitters are slashing .172/.220/.260 vs. Chris Sale.

He is that good, and the re-emergence of his fastball almost feels unfair. He’s not Noah Syndergaard, averaging 99.44 mph on his four-seam fastball. He isn’t even the hardest thrower in the AL. That’s the Yankees’ Luis Severino, who has bumped up his fastball to 97.84 mph this May.

Sale is the total package of velocity, movement, control, command and an intangible best described as redassery. Sale is the guy who will stare at someone he doesn’t like, blow a fastball by him, keep staring, keep staring, keep staring, stare until the guy submits and then move on to the next person he need conquer.

His next call is to Miami, as Sale tries to hold off Keuchel and start his second consecutive All-Star Game. More important than that is October, where Sale so desperately wants to play, to show the world what Chicago first and Boston now has learned: As good as 92 from the left can be, nobody wants a piece of 95 from the skinny southpaw because they know the truth: They can’t handle it.

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