Chris Sale Has Hit Another Bump in the Road

While the heavily-favored Yankees deal with the loss of Luis Severino, the Red Sox have a rotation problem of their own, albeit on a significantly smaller scale. On Thursday, interim manager Ron Roenicke told reporters that Chris Sale will begin the year on the injured list. While his delay is related to a bout of pneumonia rather than the elbow injury that curtailed his 2019 season, it’s yet another reminder of the concerns that surround the going-on-31-year-old lefty.

Last year, Sale made just 25 starts, the final one on August 13. He was then shut down due to what was termed elbow inflammation, and while he paid a visit to Dr. James Andrews for a second opinion, he avoided surgery, though he did receive a platelet-rich plasma injection. The headlines at the time were to the tune of “avoids Tommy John surgery,” but there’s never been any indication that Sale’s complaint or his PRP injection were related to his ulnar collateral ligament. His elbow is now said to be fine; he’s been throwing bullpen sessions and is scheduled to throw an extended batting practice session this weekend. However, he’s behind the schedule of his rotation-mates due to back-to-back cases of the flu and pneumonia that he contracted earlier this month. Here’s what Roenicke said, via ESPN:

“With the sickness, it cost him two weeks’ time, and that two weeks is what we’d like to give him to make sure that he’s right,” Roenicke said. “He’s worked hard on getting his arm right, and we didn’t think four starts in spring training was fair to him.

…”Nothing at all with the arm. He’s doing really good with that,” Roenicke said. “We’re really happy with that.”

The delay means that with a backdated stint on the 15-day injured list — remember, for pitchers, the minimum stay has reverted to its pre-2017 level — the earliest that Sale could be activated would be April 7, when the Red Sox host the Rays. His absence leaves Eduardo Rodriguez as the team’s likely Opening Day starter, but as it is, who else joins the rotation besides Nathan Eovaldi and Martín Pérez is an open question, with Chris Mazza a leading contender for the fifth spot but now an additional vacancy, albeit a short-term one.

Missing a couple of starts normally wouldn’t be such a big deal, but even after trading Mookie Betts, the Red Sox do scan as contenders, with a 48.2% chance of making the playoffs by our reckoning. More unsettlingly, Sale is coming off a career-worst year that was bracketed by dreadful numbers at either end:

Chris Sale’s Uneven 2019 Season
Period IP ERA FIP HR/9 K% BB%
March-April 30.0 6.30 5.31 2.10 24.1% 7.5%
May-June 71.1 2.78 1.98 0.76 40.8% 4.9%
July-August 46.0 5.67 4.32 2.15 35.9% 6.7%
Total 148.1 4.4.0 3.39 1.47 35.6% 6.0%

Admittedly, the calendar makes for rather arbitrary endpoints, but I could have produced even more extreme splits by grouping only his first four starts (8.50 ERA, 6.44 FIP) and then his next 12 (2.44 ERA, 2.11 FIP) or something. If you prefer rolling averages, there’s this:

Sale’s three-inning, seven-run Opening Day start skewed his early-season numbers to the extent that the scale is a bit harder to make out, but the valley in the middle shows his rolling ERA going as low as 2.29, with his FIP as low as 1.83. However you slice it, the point is that he pitched like a perennial Cy Young contender for the middle part of his season, and a palooka at either end, and the bottom line was career worsts in ERA and home run rate — both more than double his 2018 marks — as well as his highest walk rate since 2012. That said, his strikeout rate still ranked second in the majors among pitchers with at least 140 innings, his 29.6% K-BB% fourth, and his 75 FIP- 14th. His 3.6 WAR, despite being his lowest mark since 2011, was more than respectable; 15 teams, including the AL East-winning Yankees, lacked a single starter that valuable.

Still, underlying Sale’s so-so performance are some unsettling signs. Via Statcast, he had the majors’ largest year-to-year drop in average four-seam fastball velocity among pitchers who threw at least 250 four-seamers in both 2018 and ’19:

Largest Fastball Velocity Drops, 2018-19
Pitcher Team FF 2018 FF 2019 Dif
Chris Sale Red Sox 95.2 93.4 -1.8
Charlie Morton Rays 96.1 94.7 -1.4
Robbie Ray Diamondbacks 93.6 92.3 -1.3
Ross Stripling Dodgers 91.7 90.5 -1.2
Caleb Smith Marlins 92.7 91.5 -1.2
Dereck Rodríguez Giants 91.6 90.6 -1.0
Cole Hamels Cubs 92.3 91.4 -0.9
Zach Eflin Phillies 94.6 93.7 -0.9
Joe Musgrove Pirates 93.5 92.7 -0.8
Danny Duffy Royals 93.0 92.3 -0.7
Brad Keller Royals 94.3 93.6 -0.7
Stephen Strasburg Nationals 94.5 93.8 -0.7
Jordan Zimmermann Tigers 91.1 90.4 -0.7
Steven Brault Pirates 92.6 92.0 -0.6
Iván Nova White Sox 93.0 92.4 -0.6
Chris Archer Pirates 94.6 94.0 -0.6
SOURCE: Baseball Savant
Minimum 250 four-seam fastballs thrown in both 2018 and ’19.

Sale’s drop is well ahead of the second-ranked Morton, to say nothing of the rest of the field, though it’s worth noting that his velocity has come and gone before. Via Pitch Info, he dropped from 95.6 mph in 2015 to 93.6 in ’16, then rebounded with seasons of 94.9 and 95.7 — and all of those velocities carried him to seasons worth at least 5.0 WAR; he doesn’t need to max out to be effective. Publicly, the Red Sox downplayed concerns about his lower velocity, so maybe his drop had less to do with physical issues than conscious decisions, but it’s something to keep an eye on.

Beyond the lost fastball velocity, Sale showed the second-highest year-to-year increase in exit velocity:

Largest Exit Velocity Increases, 2018-19
Pitcher Team EV 2018 EV 2019 Dif
David Hess Orioles 87.9 91.5 3.6
Chris Sale Red Sox 84.7 88.1 3.4
Mike Montgomery Cubs/Royals 86.7 89.7 3.0
Kyle Freeland Rockies 85.9 88.9 3.0
Andrew Heaney Angels 86.8 89.6 2.8
Aníbal Sánchez Nationals 83.7 86.5 2.8
Aaron Nola Phillies 85.9 88.5 2.6
Miles Mikolas Cardinals 85.4 87.8 2.4
Eric Lauer Padres 86.8 89.1 2.3
José Ureña Marlins 87.9 90.1 2.2
Wade LeBlanc Mariners 86.9 89.1 2.2
SOURCE: Baseball Savant
Minimum 300 batted ball events in both 2018 and ’19.

On a percentile basis, Sale’s average exit velocity dropped from the 96th percentile in 2018 to the 45th percentile in ’19, but as with the fastball velo, he’s traveled this road before. In 2016, the year of his previous velocity dip, his average exit velocity of 87.9 mph (up 2.2 mph from the year before) placed him in the 42nd percentile, and yet he remained among the league’s elite pitchers, and improved significantly the next year.

Not all exit velocity is created equal, of course, and for Sale the 2019 gains were not good. His groundball rate fell slightly (from 44.2% to 42.1%), and in a year of record home run rates, he paid the price for those extra fly balls; his 19.5% rate of home runs per fly ball ranked seventh among pitchers with at least 140 innings, and for all of the bats he missed, his xwOBA on contact was a career high .407, placing him in the 15th percentile among pitchers with at least 200 balls in play. Among that same group, his 66-point year-to-year gain was in a virtual tie for seventh:

Largest xwOBAcon Increases, 2018-19
Pitcher Team xwOBAcon 18 xwOBAcon 19 Dif
David Hess Orioles .356 .464 .108
Wei-Yin Chen Marlins .328 .414 .086
Dylan Covey Whie Sox .360 .441 .081
Mike Montgomery Cubs/Royals .356 .436 .080
Carlos Carrasco Indians .372 .443 .071
Kyle Freeland Rockies .337 .408 .071
Edwin Jackson Blue Jays/Tigers .379 .445 .066
Chris Sale Red Sox .341 .407 .066
Matthew Boyd Tigers .332 .395 .063
Vince Velasquez Phillies .351 .412 .061
SOURCE: Baseball Savant
Minimum 200 balls in play in both 2018 and ’19.

Perhaps this was all just a blip for Sale, where the combination of his cumulative workload, his shortened post-World Series offseason, and the 2019 rabbit ball turned his 2019 season into a downer, and after an extended break and enough time to ramp up, he’ll be fine. Still, his struggles stand out due to both his exceptional track record and the proximity of his five-year, $145 million extension. In 2017, his first season with the Red Sox, he became the first AL pitcher to notch 300 strikeouts in a season since the turn of the millennium (308, all told ) and led the majors in innings (214.1), FIP (2.45) and WAR (7.6), though he faded somewhat down the stretch and finished second to Corey Kluber in the AL Cy Young voting. It was the sixth consecutive season that Sale received Cy Young consideration as well as All-Star honors. He spent most of 2018 as the frontrunner for the award, starting the All-Star Game for the AL and carrying a 2.04 ERA and 2.08 FIP into late July, but shoulder inflammation limited him to just five starts and 17 total innings in August and September, and he lasted more than four innings in just one of his three postseason starts, though he helped the Red Sox win the World Series. He finished second in the AL in WAR (6.2) and would have ranked second in ERA (2.11) and first in FIP (1.98) had he not fallen four inning short of qualifying.

The Red Sox signed Sale to his big extension last March 22. The deal covers the 2020-24 seasons, with an opt-out after ’22, a club option for ’25, and various escalators and other bells and whistles; a total of $50 million in deferred money lowers its average annual value to $25.6 million, the 10th-highest among active pitchers. The deal already occupies a spot of notoriety. It was a part of Dave Dombrowski’s undoing as president of baseball operations; as Evan Drelich reported, the extension “required a push from Dombrowski to ownership in order to get done, a push that, The Athletic has learned, Dombrowski did not handle smoothly.” Between the extensions of Sale and Xander Bogaerts, and the somewhat surprising decision of J.D. Martinez not to opt out after the season — thus accounting for the three highest AAVs on the team’s payroll — the Red Sox felt hemmed in enough to trade Betts to the Dodgers earlier this month.

Maybe it will all work out for the Red Sox and Sale, but given his rough 2019 and his recent injury woes, it’s doubtful that the team would sign him to the same extension today. For now, the Sox just have to hold their collective breaths and hope that their hefty investment in the wiry lefty pays off, and that his 2020 season is worth the extra wait.





Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.

newest oldest most voted
dl80
Member
Member
dl80

Over/Under on innings: 95?

fatchawsandraws
Member
fatchawsandraws

under. big ol’ TJ mid June/ July

MikeS
Member
Member
MikeS

I think you may be right, but people have been predicting the explosion of Sale’s elbow since before he was drafted.

10 years, 232 starts, 1600 IP later….

D-Wiz
Member
Member
D-Wiz

Yeah, at this point I think it’s safe to say any kind of elbow injury is just due to regular pitcher injury risk rather than anything unique to Sale’s delivery… Which is really kind of wild given just how violent his delivery has always looked. He’s certainly one of a kind.

MikeS
Member
Member
MikeS

I mean, you could throw a dart at a board of pitchers and that guy might have TJS in the next twelve months.

Or you could pick a guy at random and predict every year that “this year is the year he misses a chunk of time with a significant arm injury” and there is a good chance you will be right sooner or later.

Sale has been pretty durable for a pitcher in this millineum. Not for a pitcher with his mechanics, just for a pitcher.

That said, he does seem to be going through the usual prelims before TJS.
“It’s just a dead arm period, he’s fine.”
“He’s going on the IL, but it’s just precautionary and he needs a little rest. He definitely doesn’t need TJS.”
“We don’t really know what’s wrong, but it isn’t serious. We’re going to skip a start and he’ll be fine.”
“No, really. He saw Dr Jobe and had an MRI. He doesn’t need TJS.”
“He”s having TJS next week. We anticipate a full recovery.”

nickdims
Member
nickdims

You also forgot PRP injections.

dl80
Member
Member
dl80

I’d agree. I think the absolute max is probably 150, given his health, the Red Sox’ contention chances, and his history.