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Sale's devastating slider a difference-maker

MLB.com @castrovince

Chris Sale's first strikeout as a member of the Red Sox came on a pitch that, well ... just watch it:

Chris Sale's first strikeout as a member of the Red Sox came on a pitch that, well ... just watch it:

Gif: Sale slider.

That's Sale's slider. To a right-handed batter like Starling Marte (who has, unfortunately, since made news for something other than being Sale's first Boston strikeout victim), the pitch basically begins in the Atlantic Ocean and winds up in the Pacific Ocean. To a left-handed batter, it feels as if the pitch is two feet behind the back, only to end up in the strike zone.

When Sale struck out Marte, Red Sox pitching coach Carl Willis turned to a couple other guys in the dugout and joked, "Hey, why don't you guys throw that pitch?"

"They don't exactly have that one," Willis said later.

And that's kind of the essence of what makes Sale so special to the Red Sox, for whom he'll make his fifth start Thursday night against the Yankees.

Obviously, Sale would add immense value to any rotation, especially when he's pitching like he has so far -- a 0.91 ERA with 42 strikeouts and a 0.71 WHIP in 29 2/3 innings.

But to Boston, in particular, Sale has brought an element that really didn't exist last year.

Statcast™ recorded 15,181 swinging strikes on sliders last season. The Red Sox were responsible for just 209 of them -- the fewest of any club in baseball by at least 95. The slider has been Sale's putaway pitch in 19 of his strikeouts so far -- a number that is already 16.4 percent of Boston's entire season total (116) with that pitch in 2016, and we're not even out of April yet.

What makes Sale's slider so different?

"Most sliders have a much shorter break, where it looks like a fastball, and that's how they get the swing-and-miss," said Tigers catcher Alex Avila, who caught Sale in Chicago last year. "His is a big, sweeping slider that can literally break from one side of the batter's box to the other."

The Randy Johnson comparisons have always been apt here. Pure wingspan creates an unusually deceptive effect.

"It's a wide arm angle from a tall guy," said Avila, "and the ball is coming out almost side-arm."

So Sale has a unique weapon, and he's utilizing it more than ever in his new home. With the White Sox last season, Sale experimented with increased four-seam fastball usage (his 45.3-percent rate with that pitch was the highest in his career as a starter) in an effort to be more efficient, and he came through with a career-high 226 2/3 innings.

It's obviously a small sample so far, but Sale's four-seam usage has dropped to 34.7 percent, and it's the slider, at 30.4, that is at a career high -- a jump of five points from 2016 and nearly 11 from '15.

"He can change speeds with it, throw it to both sides, backdoor it and it breaks across the entire plate," Willis said. "With the shape of it, you have another option of how to attack a hitter."

Considering how little value the slider provided the Red Sox last season, Sale was an especially important addition. And the division they reside in only adds to his allure. Last season, the five American League East clubs all finished in the top 12 among baseball's 30 teams in slugging percentage vs. the slider (Boston topped the list, at .434).

Sale has already begun his attempt to neutralize those numbers. When he faced the Rays on April 15 and the Blue Jays last Thursday, the slider ended 12 total at-bats. Twice it was struck for a single, once it was grounded to first and the other nine times it registered a K (seven swinging, two looking).

In other words, good luck on Thursday, Yanks.

Anthony Castrovince has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2004. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince.

Boston Red Sox, Chris Sale