Boston Red Sox: Is Chris Sale still an ace?

I’ll hold my hands up right off the bat – Chris Sale has been one of my favourite pitchers in the game of baseball for a number of years.

Things about him have always fascinated me, whether it be the sidearm delivery, look or mentality, it’s all culminated in a desire for me to see him succeed. The fact that he came to Red Sox via trade to start the 2017 season, and then proceeded to strikeout over 300 batters only made that passion stronger, but his health has consistently let him down. So the question is, can Sale rediscover his best form and once again sit with the top pitchers in the game?

It’s no doubt been a tough few years for Chris health-wise, so much so that the player once lauded as one of the best pitchers in baseball for a five-year stretch has seemingly fallen off the radar in the public perception and conversation. This is not without merit, of course, three years is a long time in baseball, and that’s how long it has been since Sale truly looked like himself.

In the summer of 2018, as Chris was preparing to take the mound as the American League All-Star starter for the third consecutive year, few would have predicted the dramatic downturn his career was about to take.

There were the health issues the rest of the way down the stretch in a historic Red Sox World Series-winning team, regular season struggles (by his standards) in 2019 before being shut down later on in that season, failed rehab of a partially torn UCL in his throwing arm, Tommy John surgery in 2020 and then missing three quarters of 2021. He ultimately returned healthy yet inconsistent, leading to some rough starts at the end of the season.

As I said, not ideal, but there have been a few bright spots along the way. He did spin a couple of gems in 2019, including that 17-strikeout game vs the Rockies and the 13-strikeout masterclass vs the Angels in his penultimate start that season. Oh, and who can forget the last three outs of the 2018 World Series?

That Manny Machado strikeout to clinch will never ever get old. So whilst things may not be perfect heading into 2022, there is still reason for some optimism.

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Digging into the numbers from this past season, Baseball Reference has Sale owning a 3.16 ERA in nine regular-season starts, a FIP of 3.69 and 11 strikeouts per nine (albeit in only 42⅔ innings pitched). His 2021 WHIP of 1.33 was the highest of his career, but bearing in mind this was a season in which he was returning from surgery, it probably looked worse than it actually was.

Looking ahead to 2022, the left-hander is projected to only pitch 81 innings, so if he can stay healthy, which is still a big IF at this stage, he has a strong chance to outperform that, along with the 4.11 ERA B-Ref has thrown on him. Fangraphs have him projected at a lofty 157 innings and a 3.57 ERA, and personally, if you’re getting close to 160 innings with an ERA in the mid three’s off the back of a nine-start season and Tommy John, then I don’t care who you were before that, you’re going to be ecstatic.

The real key, as far as I am concerned, to Sale’s upcoming success (or lack of) is his change-up. Sale owns one of the best sliders in baseball, and his four seam – although currently at reduced velocity – is good enough when it’s on to play. The change-up, on the other hand, was quite frankly destroyed this past season to the tune of a .615 slugging percentage, and that simply cannot fly if this season is going to be successful.

It’s not easy coming back from Tommy John for any pitcher, let alone a 32-year-old who has never known an extended break from the game in the 10+ years he’s been playing. Whilst there will likely be an innings limit to protect him, there’s a certain level of expectation that comes with a $30 million price tag. The fact that the Sox likely have him for the next three seasons (plus a potential fourth in the form of a vesting option if he does not opt-out after 2022, which at this point looks very unlikely) does add an interesting wrinkle here. You have to imagine that Chief Baseball Officer Chaim Bloom and the front office have to balance performance and output to positively affect the future value of those remaining years, which may or may not limit his usage and value in the short term.

With a (lockout dependant) full spring training under his belt, the hope for the franchise is surely that the upcoming season will see not only a healthy season from the 32-year-old but a productive one too. With the underwhelming rotation additions so far, losing Eduardo Rodriguez to the Tigers, and Nathan Eovaldi having an injury-plagued track record of his own, in my opinion, the Red Sox will not only be hoping for that outcome but at this point are counting on it.

Photo by John Tlumacki

Richard Banks is one of the growing team of writers at Bat Flips and Nerds. Follow him on Twitter @GloveIsLife

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