The Case for Starting Chris Sale

Yesterday, the Red Sox offense finally woke up, rallying from an early deficit to score 10 unanswered runs, keeping their division series going for at least one more game. Thanks to the bats of Hanley Ramirez and Rafael Devers, David Price’s four brilliant innings of relief work weren’t wasted this time, and now the Sox live to fight another day.

That day is today, and with the season on the line again, John Farrell will hand the ball to Rick Porcello, saving Chris Sale for a potential Game 5 rematch with Justin Verlander. And the logic behind that decision is pretty straight forward.

The Red Sox have to win both of the next two games to move on to the ALCS. Chris Sale can only pitch in one of those two games. Since they have to win both, their odds of advancing don’t increase by simply changing the date of the game he pitches, and in fact, their odds might very well go down if they move him up. Sale has started on three days’ rest just once in his career, back in 2012, and he wasn’t very good in that outing. Pitchers generally perform worse on short rest, even the great ones. And over his last six starts, Sale has allowed 12 home runs, so his most recent performances have created a bit more concern than the Red Sox would like to have about their ace right now.

So, yeah, throwing Rick Porcello for a few innings on Monday and saving Sale until Wednesday makes plenty of sense. However, I think the way the series has played out has created a specific set of circumstances that could make Sale-on-short-rest the right call anyway.

The Weather

Any discussion about Game 4 strategy has to begin with the weather, because, well, this is the Weather Underground forecast for Fenway Park today, beginning at the scheduled time of first pitch.

It might not be raining when the game begins, but barring a significant change in the forecast, everyone should expect to get rained on at some point this afternoon. And the later the game goes, the more confident the meteorologists are that things will be falling out of the sky. There’s a pretty decent chance that Game 4 involves some kind of rain delay, or at least messy conditions while everyone tries to get this thing in the books before a delay is necessary.

And that means the team that gets an early lead could be at a pretty significant advantage. You really don’t want to be trying to come back from down a few runs on a wet field, when the chances of taking extra bases or getting a ball through the infield are less likely. So getting an early lead could be vital on Monday, and short rest or not, Sale is less likely to give up runs in the first few innings than Rick Porcello is.

Plus, if a significant delay comes and forces both starters out of the game, the cost of using Sale on short rest is somewhat diminished, since he wasn’t going to go deep in the game to begin with. And that reality leads us into the second significant factor.

The Bullpen Usage

Because of how the first three games have played out, Craig Kimbrel has thrown all of one inning in this series, getting used in the eighth inning of the team’s Game 2 loss. It’s the only inning he’s thrown since September 30th, so Kimbrel has now thrown 16 pitches in the last eight days. That means, with another off day on Tuesday, Kimbrel is pitching on Monday regardless of the situation, and if ever there were a time that he’ll be available to get six outs, it’s Game 4. This is the most rested Kimbrel has been all year. The Red Sox should head into Monday’s game planning on getting at least six outs from Kimbrel.

In all likelihood, Kimbrel would be available for multiple innings of work in a Game 5 situation on Wednesday, too, but if the Red Sox hold Sale for the Game 5 start, they’re actually going to get into a situation where they might have too many options available. David Price has been unbelievable out of the bullpen in his two outings thus far, but having thrown 57 pitches on Sunday and 38 pitches just two days before that, he shouldn’t be available on Monday.

But, by Wednesday, you can bet that Price will be John Farrell’s first option out of the pen, and likely be lined up for another multi-inning affair. But if he hold Sale for a Game 5 start, he’s now looking at getting nine innings from Sale-Price-Kimbrel in some fashion, meaning that either Sale won’t work deep in that game anyway, or one of the team’s two relief aces will end up with a bit of a reduced role in the winner-take-all contest.

Having the team’s three best arms share Game 5, with only Kimbrel pitching in Game 4, might be a bit inefficient. In reality, you probably want Price to be coming out of the pen to replace the weaker starter in the two games the team has to win, and Sale certainly doesn’t fit that description. If the Red Sox can get to a Game 5 on Wednesday with Sale available for another extended outing, John Farrell can afford to pull Eduardo Rodriguez or Drew Pomeranz or whoever makes that start as soon as he gets in any trouble at all.

Or, they could just forego the whole Price-as-a-reliever thing and give him the start in Game 5, knowing that it will be all-hands-on-deck anyway. Having Price available in Game 5 makes Sale less necessary in that game, especially if Kimbrel is around to get a bunch of outs in that one, too. Counting on 12 to 15 outs from Price and Kimbrel in the potential winner-take-all game doesn’t leave much room to benefit from having a fully rested Sale to start the game.

And that brings us to the final reason to consider pushing Sale up to Game 4.

The Platoon Advantage

Under the Rick Porcello plan, the Red Sox are going to start a right-handed pitcher, then spend most of the game throwing right-handed relievers after him. Kimbrel, as mentioned, will likely go multiple innings on Monday. Addison Reed and Carson Smith threw just seven and 13 pitches, respectively, on Sunday, so they’re obviously going to be available for work in Game 4. Eduardo Rodriguez is the only lefty the team would be likely to use on Monday, and given how he’s been used in this series, I’m not sure how much we should really expect to see him, especially if the team thinks they might not need a long guy available for post-delay baseball.

So, on Monday, the Red Sox might very well be throwing a bunch of right-handers at the Astros. Then, if that works, they’ll use the left-handed Price to relieve the left-handed Sale on Wednesday. Platoon advantages aren’t everything, but that seems less than ideal.

If, as Boston’s manager, you’re throwing a bunch of righties after whoever starts on Monday, then you’d probably rather start a lefty and let the righties face a lineup that was set based on an opposite-handed starting pitcher. It’s a small thing, but in the postseason, sometimes small things make big differences.

In general, when a club is down 2-1, it’s not worthwhile to push an ace to start Game 4 out of some kind of belief that only that game matters, since winning both games is necessary to advance. And I don’t think holding Sale back for Game 5 is some huge strategic blunder. But given the particulars in this situation, I think I probably would use Sale on Monday. It feels like the Red Sox have a better chance of winning both games if Sale pitches in one game and Price in the other than if they double down on their ace lefties in the same game.

If I’m John Farrell, I wouldn’t want to get eliminated with both Sale and Price watching from the bench.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

newest oldest most voted

Would they be even better using Kimbrel to start, see how many outs they can get, then go to Sale followed by Reed/whoever? Gets the most out of platoons going R L R and you’re assured to get the absolute most out of your best two pitchers. I’d imagine the main argument for Sale being first is the prep to “start” and players being use to certain roles etc.
It’s probably all moot as Farrell is a dinosaur and about to become extinct.

Les Vegetables
Les Vegetables

Farrell is neither smart enough nor brave enough to pull a move like that.

snoop god
snoop god

Literally zero managers would do this

Rahul Setty

The first inning is the most important one! #Bullpenning