Chris Sale's return to the rotation on Saturday night went pretty poorly.
His inability to command his off-speed stuff in his only bullpen appearance carried over into a disastrous 42-pitch 1st inning, which limited his efforts to right himself to five innings.
The final line--5 IP, 7 H, 3 ER, 2 BB, 3 K, 103 pitches--effectively conveyed the absence of any 'wow factor'. When he wasn't working around a half-dozen baserunners like he was in the opening frame, Sale didn't drastically improve his efficiency. He only induced six swinging strikes--none with his slider--and couldn't put away at-bats with ease.
But Sale didn't spend a week's vacation in the bullpen because Cooper and Ventura secretly suspect he's terrible. It was a health issue for Sale, and that's been the only real concern for him all along.
Monitoring the progress of that is tricky, and how Sale's arm recovers in the next couple of days may say more than how he felt in the immediate aftermath. For his part, he was actively discouraging concern.
"Felt great, arm felt great, body felt good, the mind was right, just didn't put it all together," he said.
The other thing to do is monitor his velocity, which slipped noticeably in his last few outings before the furor over his elbow started. Sale threw a fastball as slow as 88 mph on Saturday, which is terrifying, but also topped out at 95 mph, which is less so.
The different speeds also didn't follow a linear progression, either. He didn't throw 95 in the 1st inning, then slowly wear down to 88, he oscillated back and forth all night, with an average that sat around 91-92 mph.
Sale was up to something. He threw 74 fastballs in all, out of the 103 pitches he threw in total. That's way up from his normal usage rate. Moreover, Pitch FX read 66--nearly all--of them as two-seam fastballs.
Pitch FX normally reads the majority of Sale's fastballs as two-seamers, as he has a natural tailing action on his fastballs, and he'll need that going forward.
After the announcement of his return to the rotation, Sale made a small mention of using his slider less, which is worrisome, both because it indicated that he indeed recognized that his elbow could use less stress, and because his slider was his most effective pitch for the last two years.
Sure enough, Sale threw it only 19 times on Saturday (down from the usual ~30%), and not to much positive effect. It induced no swings-and-misses, and resembled more of a slurvy strike-grabbing offering than the pitch that dominated the Mariners with for 11 strikeouts last month.
If Sale's going to be using his best tool less, he needs to compensate somehow. We should expect to see more of the straight change-up he threw quite well, but only 10 times on Saturday. There should also be more attempts to manipulate and add movement to his fastball, which he was clearly doing last night.
It wasn't a rousing success, but it the first step of a new stage in his development. Because Don Cooper's involved, speculation about Sale adding a cutter (he mentioned it recently) will persist all the way up until he does.
Either way, now that Sale's back in the rotation, there's progress to track again.