Chris Sale is great enough that he gets the benefit of the doubt. When he emerged from the minors absent the changeup that got him drafted in the first round, there was a plenty good reason to hide it away for a while (hint: a wipeout slider). When his velocity waned at the end of 2012, his first year as a starter, his slider usage ramped to 30% of his pitches in the final month. It didn't work very well, but you knew why. He has maximum accountability for his day-to-day performance, such that health preservation efforts to reign his aggression can seem like punching the tide.
30% was the peak of Sale's slider usage as a starter as he raged against the dying of the light of the 2012 season. So far through 2015, it's under 10%, and it went up during Thursday's debacle. John Danks' dead and gone cutter is more frequently used that so far this year. The results so far are obviously skewed by last night's career-worst clunker during the middle of odd schedule delays, but the optics have not been good. Sale's been whipping his fastball in the high-90's all of April, spiking his whiff rates with his primary offering, but the deeper he goes into counts, his seemingly self-imposed restrictions make his escapes harder, if not just doomed. Once the strike zone moved around on him a bit in the first inning Thursday, pounding the zone with fastballs--even 70-grade ones--didn't wasn't such a hot plan against hitters already keyholing him.
Sale turned his slider into his third option last season, to absolutely phenomenal, career-best results. The changeup is devastating enough to be a putaway pitch, and he still had a slider when he needed to grab a strike on righties, or behead a lefty. The switch in approach was perceived to be a path to longer stretches of arm health; a perpetual concern.
When he's pumping 97 mph like he's been, there's no denying that Sale looks healthy, but his tamping down of slider usage seems like it's going beyond just reserving for when he needs it. Typical target of abuse Joe Mauer burned him for two hits, and his disastrous third, capped by a Brian Dozier three-run bomb showed a number of Twins sitting fastball on him the second time through the order.
It's obviously something that can be adjusted start-by-start, and just plain-old better fastball command might have made this plan look a lot better Thursday night AND there's a bias that Sale's slider is one of the most fun pitches in baseball, but the early returns on Sale's slider becoming a ghost--reduced to occasional hauntings--make it seem like an overreach. Giving up nine runs to the Twins is bad, it should make you consider some tweaks. Going out on a limb here...