Mason: The curious case of Chris Sale's velocity

The Red Sox are 8-14 in Chris Sale's starts this season (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

BOSTON — It looked like Chris Sale was building towards something. 

Armed with a refocused gameplan and looking as nasty as he'd been in 2019, Sale's fastball had some extra bite last week. At Tropicana Field, his four-seamer averaged more than 95 mph for just the second time this season, the other being an April outlier when the ace was amped at Yankee Stadium. 

The Red Sox often talk about the importance of a slow build with Sale, and after the All-Star break, it looked like the lefty was finally ascending up towards the top of Velocity Mountain. 

Then Sunday night happened. 

Sale's fastball averaged just 93.2 mph against the Yankees,  a middling number for him, and though both New York homers came on offspeed pitches, they didn't hit anything harder than Sale's four-seamer. 

The lefty was tagged for six earned runs and fell to 5-10 on the season. 

In a month where Sale's velocity was expected to rise, it's actually fallen a tick. Sale's fastball has averaged 93.9 mph in July, according to Brooks Baseball, slightly below May and June — and that's with starts against the Yanks and Dodgers to get the juices flowing, and an All-Star break to rejuvenate.

"There’s always 95-96 mph," Alex Cora said. "It’s just not 99 mph every pitch. Last year a lot of people were talking about why 99 mph every pitch? It’s going to cost him in August. Now people are talking about why not 97 mph every pitch when he’s getting hit? It’s one of those that everybody has a different view but I do feel that he can pitch at whatever velocity he wants to."

It's always a fine line with Sale.

The Sox want him to be at his strongest when for October, but the season of opportunity is now. A sweep of the Yankees would have brought them back into the divisional race with authority. Instead, New York got to Boston's best pitcher and quelled a weekend's worth of momentum. 

Sale has lived like this in the low 90s before — and lived well — but the fact remains that he's currently saddled with a 4.26 ERA, by far the worst mark of his career. 

"He did that in Chicago for a couple of years," pitching coach Dana LeVangie said. "He'd pitch comfortably 91-94 and when he wanted to get swings and misses or induce bat, maybe he dials it up. Last year at a certain point he said, 'That's it!' 

"He lived at his highest velo and it's hard to say," LeVangie paused. "He was the best pitcher in the world. It's a tough thing to balance when you're the best pitcher in the world doing things a certain way. It's tough.

"I think in moments in the game, situations at times dictate what he might do," he added. "Runner in scoring position he might add just to make the stuff better. More controlled but he has the ability to add when he wants to." 

Sale has flashed 98 mph, but those radar gun readings have been few and far between.

Four months into the of the most disappointing year of his career, is there a "that's it" moment coming? 

"I think Chris Sale is unique," LeVangie said. He has the ability to pitch whatever way he wants to. I'm not saying everyone can do that, but he has the ability to both." 

Currently 8-14 when Sale starts, the Red Sox are in a dogfight for a Wild Card spot. If he's got a full tank, as Cora and LeVangie both say, it's time for their ace to hit the gas. 

Chris Mason is a Red Sox beat writer for the Gloucester Daily Times and CNHI Sports Boston. Email him at cmason@northofboston.com, and follow him on Twitter at @ByChrisMason

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