Even if they saw this coming, Wednesday night was a sight to behold for Boston Red Sox fans.
Sale was more or less unhittable. He allowed just four baserunners on three hits and a walk and struck out seven, making plenty of Pirates batters look foolish in the process.
Before we get ahead of ourselves, it was just one start. The lanky left-hander benefited from a 40-degree April night in Boston that’s every hitter’s worst nightmare — Pittsburgh starter Jameson Taillon, a fine pitcher but certainly no Sale, basically matched his counterpart with seven scoreless innings of his own. Sale inevitably will have his ups and downs over the course of a 162-game season, and we’re not quite ready to anoint him the next Pedro Martinez.
But the 28-year-old essentially offered a blueprint Wednesday as to why he’s one of the toughest pitchers in baseball to face.
Sale has three main pitches in his arsenal: a mid-90s fastball, a mid-80s changeup and a devastating slider. When he’s locating all three effectively, well, good luck.
Take Sale’s first strikeout on the second batter of the game, right-handed center fielder Starling Marte. Sale establishes command of the plate on his first pitch, a 96-mph fastball inside for a ball. He then gets Marte to chase on a low changeup and foul off his next two fastballs down and in. After baiting Marte with a fastball away, Sale has the Pirates slugger right where he wants him. Time for the out pitch: the slider.
I for one am excited to have this camera angle on Chris Sale GIFs all season long. Here's his first K of the year with his signature Slider pic.twitter.com/80EsgbQ1BB
— Pitcher List (@ThePitcherList) April 5, 2017
The filthiness of Sale’s slider is well-documented, but the beauty of the pitch also comes in how he sets it up. Sale pounds Marte low and inside early in the count, giving him literally nothing in the strike zone to hit. That allows him to get to a two-strike count and unleash his slider, which accounted for four of his seven K’s on Wednesday night.
Sale’s slider is almost equally ruthless against lefties and righties, diving down and away from the former and sweeping low across the plate on the latter.
An out pitch of that quality also allows Sale to get creative. In a second-inning matchup with Josh Harrison, Sale got ahead in the count 1-2 and tried his slider, which Harrison fouled off. Then, rather than go back to the slider or stay low in the zone, Sale elevated a 96-mph heater way above the strike zone on his fifth pitch. Harrison didn’t stand a chance.
You’ll notice a theme here: When Sale is on, his pitches rarely catch a large portion of the strike zone. The veteran hurler did allow some harder contact later in the game, but his “mistakes” were few and far between.
Here’s a look at all seven of Sale’s strikeouts, which we’d advise Pirates fans not to watch:
Sale’s slider is the headliner, but even when it doesn’t produce a strikeout, it puts hitters off-balance and leaves them vulnerable for his dynamic fastball or sneaky changeup. Sale also works very quickly, giving hitters little time to wonder which lethal pitch is coming next.
“He was nasty,” Red Sox catcher Sandy Leon noted after the game, via MassLive.com. “It’s really fun to catch him. He was mixing every pitch, he was getting ahead in the count.”
Sale has built a reputation as a strikeout machine — his 514 strikeouts since 2015 are the second-most in the majors behind Max Scherzer — and he lived up to the reputation and then some Wednesday, showing Red Sox fans why president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski went to such great lengths to acquire him this winter.
Thumbnail photo via Bob DeChiara/USA TODAY Sports Images