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Why Chris Sale's late-season swoon might make him better next year

From ESPN - November 15, 2017

At about 6:15 p.m. ET, the Baseball Writers Association of America will announce the winner of the American League Cy Young Award.

Spoiler alert: It probably wo not be Chris Sale.

Imagine that. Three months ago, it bordered on unfathomable that anyone other than Sale would take home the prestigious pitching honor. More than halfway through his first season with the Boston Red Sox after a blockbuster trade last December, the 28-year-old ace lefty was dominating as much as Pedro Martinez at his peak, striking out batters with historic frequency and putting up so many zeroes that line scores looked like LeBron James' paycheck.

Consider Sale's numbers through July 26, when he blanked the Seattle Mariners for seven innings:

148 innings pitched (most in the majors)

211 strikeouts (most in the majors)

12.8 strikeouts per nine innings (most in the majors)

2.37 earned-run average (best in the American League)

0.88 walks/hits per innings pitched (best in the AL)

Indeed, the Cy Young seemed like a fait accompli. Given Sale's performance relative to his fellow pitchers and his importance to Boston's march to a second consecutive division title, there were suggestions that he could even be considered league MVP, which has been awarded to an AL pitcher only once in the past 24 years (Justin Verlander in 2011).

Then Sale's slider suddenly flattened out, and his fastball got straighter. After allowing 11 home runs through his first 21 starts, he gave up 13 in his last 11 starts -- and three in Game 1 of the division series against the Houston Astros.

Sale's ERA in August and September was 4.09, tied for 54th among 97 pitchers with at least 50 innings. He did not get any better in October. In his first career postseason series, Sale went 0-2 with an 8.38 ERA in the ALDS against the eventual World Series champions.

What caused Sale to fall from Cy Young lock to likely runner-up to Cleveland Indians ace Corey Kluber? What happened to prompt another stretch-run fade, the likes of which have plagued Sale since he became a starter in 2012?

Uncovering the answer and finding a solution are two of the Red Sox's more pressing offseason projects.

BY ALL ACCOUNTS, Sale stayed healthy throughout the season.

But that does not mean he did not get tired.

Sale did not miss a start for the Red Sox. He led big league pitchers in regular-season innings (214 ) and threw 3,428 pitches, second to only Verlander (3,531). Considering that Boston supported Sale with fewer than four runs in 13 of his 32 starts, many of those pitches were thrown in high-stress situations within closely contested games.

As the pitches and innings piled up, Sale's arm slot appeared to drop, according to multiple talent evaluators. Because so much of Sale's success depends on his unorthodox delivery, even the slightest dip can affect the depth and action on his pitches, especially his slider.

That has been a trend throughout Sale's career. Since he became a full-time starter for the Chicago White Sox in 2012, Sale has posted a 2.70 ERA, held opponents to a .206 average and given up 0.78 homers per nine innings in 99 starts before the All-Star break. In 81 second-half starts, his ERA has risen to 3.41, opponents have batted .244 against him, and he has allowed 1.15 homers per nine innings.

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