Are the Red Sox ‘Managing’ Chris Sale?

With another fascinating analytical piece, Russell Eassom

After no decisions in his first two games Chris Sale picked up his first win of 2018 receiving run support in a grand fashion. The team provided 14 runs against the Yankees with a Betts grand slam the icing on the cake. In his first four games Sale has given up just 3 earned runs, 31 players have been strike out victims while just 5 have been walked and only 1 has hit a home run.  His season to date stats are 1.23 ERA, 0.955 WHIP, 6.20 K/BB and 1.60 FIP (Fielder Independent Pitching) which are very good by any standards, but there are a couple causes for concern if you are a Red Sox fan but especially if you own him in a fantasy league.

What looks concerning is his innings pitched total, number of batters faced and number of pitches thrown stats.  In his four games so far he has thrown 92, 93, 87 and 88 pitches to 22, 18, 26 and 19 batters over 6, 5, 6 and 5 innings respectively. These are pretty standard figures for starting pitcher in the MLB these days (2017 avg – 90 Pitches, 21.3 BF, 5.5 IP) but they are not for the AL Cy Young 2017 runner up, in 2017 he averaged 107 pitches to getting through an average of 26.6 batters in 6.7 innings.

To put these numbers into further context, this is the first time in his career as a starter the he has gone 4 consecutive starts, in the same season, throwing less than 100 pitches. It is the lowest number of batters he has faced in 4 consecutive starts since he left injured early against Cleveland in May 2014 and only the 3rd time he hasn’t pitched in the 7th innings for 3 or more consecutive starts since that game against Cleveland.

To date he has not gone as far in games as would have been expected with his pitch count suggesting that he could have gone another inning in each of these games but there are mitigating circumstances for two of the three of the games. Sale took a line drive to his left hip in his final appearance of spring training, x-rays were negative and he started on opening day less than a week later. So for game one it makes some sense that the Red Sox would pull after 90 pitches when they were four runs up. His last but one start they were 13 runs ahead of the Yankees coming into the 7th so it also makes some sense to give some bullpen men a chance to get innings under their belt while they rest Sale as the game is virtually won. Against Baltimore he pitched through sleet and biting winds, with even his impassive face cracking an occasional grimace.

So why would Boston try and limit Sale and put pressure on the bullpen? As said before Sale took a line drive and the Red Sox may be wanting to ease him into this season without putting too much stress on that.  Also if you were to look at Sale’s performances last season you can see that his numbers tailed off in July and August and he had a poor outing in the post season giving 7 runs in his start against Houston.  This might suggest that keeping some more in the tank for the later part of the season may be sensible

On top of all of this Alex Cora is integrating a new plan for the all the Red Sox starters and not just Sale. Not a single pitcher has thrown more than 94 pitches in their 10 games so far, joint lowest in the league. The Red Sox starters have the best ERA, 1.68, and FIP, 2.42 and but the xFIP (Expected Fielder Independent Pitching, 3.18, is 7th best).  This difference between xFIP and FIP is due to the large number of flyballs that been hit against the Boston starters that haven’t gone for home runs, much below the average ratio, the current cold weather has helped them on a few occasions so far.

So how good are these relievers then? 3.89 ERA (16th), 3.38 FIP (11th) would suggest they are pretty average but they have been deployed in high leverage scenarios, 2nd on the aLI (Average Leverage Index) which is used to determine how hard a scenario a relief pitch is put into.  So good in tough spots, but nothing to write home about. Right now they don’t have to be amazing, as their bats are swinging well while the rest of the league struggles in the cold.

This plan seems to be working for now as they are 17-2, having swept the AL’s ‘second best’ team, the Angels, in Anaheim this week. We are in a fairly small sample size and if their flyball to home run ration reverts to norm and the bats cool slightly, then it will be worth revisiting to see if they should be letting the starters pitch longer.

So Red Sox fans, you don’t have much to worry about right now but things are not as rosy as 17-2 would make it seem. Fantasy owners, there are some causes for concern that Cora has a plan to limit Boston’s starting pitchers and the answer, for Sale, will come in the next couple of starts (@ Oak & @ Tor) if Sale doesn’t go over 100 pitches for any of these games then he might not be a lock to be a top 5 pitcher come the end of the season.

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