When Chris Sale got home last year after pitching in the playoffs for the first time in his career, he made a beeline to Florida Gulf Coast University for his annual end-of-season debriefing with his college coach.
And this time, the ace lefty had a specific issue to discuss.
For three-quarters of his first season with the Boston Red Sox, Sale looked so dominant he inspired comparisons to peak-level Pedro Martinez in Randy Johnson’s body. He struck out 10 or more batters in 16 of his first 24 starts, including eight in a row, and completed at least seven innings 18 times over that span. He reached the 200-strikeout mark faster than any American League pitcher in a single season, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, and started the All-Star Game.
But over the final six weeks of the season, Sale slammed into the proverbial wall. He gave up 14 home runs in 51 innings, including three in five innings against the Houston Astros in Game 1 of the division series. He completed seven innings in only three of his last nine starts. He lost to the New York Yankees twice and the Cleveland Indians once and got routed by the Astros in his postseason debut.
And if it had been the first time in his career he had stumbled down the stretch of a season, Sale could have tempered his disappointment by chalking it up as a one-off. But it was the continuation of a trend that has plagued him for years. In six seasons as a starting pitcher, he has allowed 65 homers in 798 innings and posted a 2.67 ERA from Opening Day through the end of July. After Aug. 1, he has given up 64 homers in 431 innings and posted a 3.65 ERA.
Clearly, something needed to change. But what? And how?
“It was looking at what I’ve done in the past and seeing the result,” Sale said, “and saying, ‘All right, [I’ve been] doing the same thing over and over and getting the same result. Let’s try to do something different to try to get a different result.’”
Three weeks since pitchers and catchers reported to camp, the difference is plain. Sale has not yet pitched in a game, his work limited to bullpen sessions and live batting practice. His first start will come Sunday in a minor league scrimmage on a back field at the Fenway South complex, and it’s possible he won’t start a Grapefruit League game until March 14 against the Minnesota Twins.
The point: Less, at least for Sale, could be more.
“Kind of like a plane takes off,” Sale said, making an upward motion with his hand. “Kind of that gradual buildup instead of a heavy workload up front, and kind of maintaining that. It’s kind of weird doing something different than I’ve ever done. But I have faith and trust in everyone here and in myself to see this process through and make sure we’re on the positive side of things.”
In looking back at last season, in particular, in that annual chat with Florida Gulf Coast coach Dave Tollett, Sale reached a few candid conclusions. He recalled throwing 97 mph in his first spring training start, an utterly unnecessary thing to do at such an early juncture and an indication that he was probably “too amped up, too ready to go.”
If that was Sale’s mentality in spring training, imagine the intensity he brought into the season, from his very first start on a chilly Wednesday night in April at Fenway Park against the Pittsburgh Pirates. And then the Red Sox scored a total of 10 runs in Sale’s first five starts and any fleeting notion of saving bullets for later in the season went completely out the window.
“I’m here in a new city, with a team new, and I felt like I had to prove myself again,” Sale said, explaining his approach last year. “I think that kind of came back to bite me in the end.”
Dana LeVangie agreed. A prominent voice in Boston’s pre-series scouting meetings and a presence around the pitching staff in his role as bullpen coach, LeVangie witnessed how hard Sale pushed himself. So, when LeVangie got promoted to pitching coach in November after new manager Alex Cora was hired, he outlined a proposal for how the 28-year-old might lighten his load in spring training.
Daily workouts, in the weight room with strength coach Kiyoshi Momose and on a mound with LeVangie, would now have a concentrated purpose and would require less idle time at the ballpark. Sale, who lives within a short drive of Fenway South, could arrive early, get his work done and leave by lunchtime.
“He’s sending us texts the night before: ‘Hey, this is the time, right here,’ so you know exactly, this is what the plan is, this is what we’re going with,” Sale said. “I was on the 15th hole yesterday and I knew exactly where I was going to be today. That makes it easier. There’s no guessing game — meeting, meeting, and this is the time to go.”
While Sale has embraced LeVangie’s efficiency, Cora hasn’t drawn much attention to Sale’s throwing sessions, not even always feeling compelled to watch them firsthand. Everyone, it seems, has put their trust in LeVangie’s belief that Sale doesn’t need five or six Grapefruit League starts to be ready for the season.
Sale’s spring training experiences have been varied. In 2012, his first season as a starter with the Chicago White Sox, he threw 28 innings in six exhibition games, both career highs. He cut back his workload in each of the next two springs, then missed all of spring training in 2015 with a broken foot. After working 16 2/3 innings in three Cactus League starts in 2016, he bumped it up to 21 innings over five starts last year with the Red Sox.
Over the past six seasons, Sale has averaged 30 starts in 205 innings. He has been on the disabled list only once. The point is, there isn’t a magic formula.
When the season starts, the Red Sox would be wise to make other adjustments with Sale, too. Two years ago, longtime White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper encouraged Sale to focus less on high velocity for the purposes of swings and misses and instead prioritize weak contact early in the count. The result: Although Sale’s strikeout total dipped to 233 from 274 in 2016, he was able to pitch deeper into games, working 226 2/3 innings and notching six complete games, both career-highs.
Last year, Sale reverted back to his strikeout-obsessed ways, likely another byproduct of wanting to impress a new fan base in a new city.
“He was coming out of his shoes on every pitch [in 2016], striking out the world, and that’s hard to maintain throughout the course of a season,” Cooper said. “He’s got the ability to sink it at 90-91 and get ground balls quick. That way you go longer in the game and longer in the season, all that stuff.”
Sale agrees he can be more efficient — “I think more than anything it’s just eliminating waste pitches,” he said — but for now, he’s paying more attention to his preparation for the season than his strategy within it.
Hey, whatever helps Sale pitch more effectively in September, October and –to hear him tell it — beyond.
“We’re looking at Nov. 3 or whatever it is,” Sale said, referring to a potential World Series Game 7, which is technically slated to fall on Oct. 31, barring rainouts, but close enough. “We haven’t said one time, ‘September or October.’ Every time we use only November. That’s the goal. That’s the start, middle and end. We’re not playing for the next [start]. We’re playing for the whole thing. I think for me, personally, I like where we’re heading with that.”