Vintage Sale: Lefty's wicked slider key to seven scoreless

May 15th, 2024

ATLANTA -- To get a better sense of how impressive has been this year, it seemed prudent to ask to compare Sale’s current slider to the one that he faced back in 2018.

“It might be a little better right now,” Olson said. “I’m not in there facing it, but seeing replays of the pitches, it looks like it is sweeping completely across the plate. It’s tough to pull the trigger when it’s in the zone and it’s tough to lay off when it’s off that glove-side edge. He’s been really sharp.”

Sale added to the splendor of his comeback season while guiding the Braves to a 7-0 win over the Cubs on Tuesday night at Truist Park. The left-hander has worked 13 consecutive scoreless innings and he has limited opponents to two earned runs over his past four starts (25 innings). He has 41 strikeouts and three walks over his past five starts (32 innings).

That’s pretty impressive, right?

“I just want to win games,” Sale said. “If I walked six tonight and we won the game, that’s all that matters. The shiny numbers are cool. But there’s a left column and a right column and at the end of the day, you just want to keep tapping that left column as much as possible.”

Sale has earned a win in each of his past five starts and the Braves have tapped the left (win) column in six of the eight games he has started this year. It’s safe to say he has silenced all those who doubted what he might be capable of providing after dealing with injuries each of the past five seasons.

“I’m very impressed with how efficient he is,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “His stuff is so good.”

Sale tallied nine strikeouts and allowed just two hits over seven innings against the Cubs. He benefited from Michael Harris II’s fourth homer of the year and first since April 19. But the offensive hero was Olson, who doubled in a run in the first inning and then added a three-run homer off Cubs starter Jameson Taillon in the fourth.

The reigning 2023 MLB home run champion seems to be rounding into form, tallying two of his five homers within the past five games. This was the third time he has tallied a pair of extra-base hits this year and first time since April 5.

“He’s been hitting the ball hard and he’s been getting his walks,” Sale said. “The numbers might not always show it. But when you’re hitting the ball hard and taking your walks, you’re right there. For him to be there tonight was huge.”

Along with earning a nice confidence boost, Olson also seemed to provide an accurate assessment of Sale’s slider.

Sale fell short of his bid to induce 20-plus swings-and-misses in a third straight start. But he did tally 15 whiffs. The Cubs whiffed eight times on 18 swings against the slider.

Sale’s slider had a +8 run value entering Tuesday’s start. Shota Imanaga’s four-seam fastball (12), Tyler Glasnow’s four-seamer (9), Corbin Burnes’ cutter (9) Carlos Rodón’s four-seamer (9), and Luis Castillo’s four-seamer were the only pitches with a higher run value.

To get a feel for how this year’s slider compares to previous years, you can look at the run value per 100 pitches.

When Sale notched a career-high 308 strikeouts in 2017, his slider had a 1.2 RV/100. The nasty breaking ball had a 2.0 RV/100 the following year. And entering Tuesday, the pitch had produced a 2.7 RV/100.

So, yeah, Olson might have been right.

Sale has made the slider his primary pitch this year, using it 43.3 percent of the time as opposed to 37.9 percent usage of his four-seamer. Braves catchers Travis d’Arnaud and Chadwick Tromp have continued to lean on this breaking ball, which seems to have benefited from the pitcher’s first healthy offseason since helping the Red Sox win the 2018 World Series.

It also looks like the slider could be getting on hitters faster than it might have before his injury woes began with the 2019 elbow discomfort that led to Tommy John surgery the next year. From 2017-19, his extension on his slider was 5.4-5.6 ft. It’s been 6.2 ft. this year.

“The number one thing for me is health,” Sale said. “I had to get strong again.”