Star-crossed Red Sox ace Chris Sale is the embodiment of the familiar refrain that if it weren’t for bad luck he would have no luck at all. Sale needs an injury exorcism or a Kyrie Irving-style saging of Fenway Park.
The hard-luck lefthander, already on the injured list after having surgery July 18 to repair a broken pinkie finger on his pitching hand from a shot off the bat of the Yankees’ Aaron Hicks, suffered yet another freak injury. He fractured his right wrist Saturday after taking a spill on his bicycle. Sale is done for the year, as the Sox announced he underwent surgery Monday.
This ends another lost season for Sale since he inked a five-year, $145 million contract extension in 2019, a deal that looks worse by the minute. He pitched 5⅔ innings in 2022 for the Illusion of Contention last-place Sox.
“You couldn’t make this up, right?” said under-siege chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom. “We need to dispatch some people to find whoever has the Chris Sale voodoo doll and recover it. It stinks. It’s really unfortunate. We’re relieved this wasn’t worse. It was a pretty rough spill and very glad that this wasn’t worse. It’s been such a run of bad luck for him, and, obviously, for us.”
You feel for Sale, but unluckiness can’t obscure the hard truth. At this point, it would be irresponsible for Bloom to build any baseball plan for the Sox that banks on a significant contribution from Sale. The sample size is now large enough to say Sale can’t be counted upon to play a major role.
The erstwhile ace, who has unwittingly become MLB’s Captain Crunch, is injury-prone and unreliable. Anything he provides the Sox over the final two seasons of his ill-fated contract — one that has paid him $30 million each of the last three seasons for a total of 14 starts and 57⅓ innings, including the postseason — should be viewed as a bonus, not a component factored into the Fenway Formula for success. Instead of bang for their buck, the Sox have gotten a guy who is perpetually banged up.
That’s a harsh reality, but it’s the reality. Sale will be 34 next season. His pipe-cleaner physique hasn’t changed much. It feels doubtful that he suddenly will be able to prevent things in his body from snapping and snap back to being the pitcher who threatened to win the Cy Young Award in 2017 and 2018.
The Sox should remain supportive of Sale, but they can’t delude themselves into relying upon him atop the rotation.
“This is just an incredibly bizarre run of events,” said Bloom. “He should be full go next spring, and we obviously need to think through what that means as far as planning out a full season with him not having carried out much of a workload the last few years.
“But other than that, there is no reason not to expect him to be back and be the Chris Sale that we know.”
There is every reason not to expect him to be that Sale. Injuries and age take their toll. Plus, in Sale’s last “healthy” season, he wasn’t an ace performer. In 2019, Sale made 25 starts. He was 6-11 with a 4.40 earned run average, even though he punched out 218 batters in 147⅓ innings. He needed Tommy John surgery the following March and missed the entire truncated 2020 season.
Sale has never been able to make it to October and postseason baseball in peak form, even in his heyday on the hill. Since he threw the final pitch of the 2018 World Series, he has pitched a total of 204⅔ innings, including playoffs.
The Bloom Sox must behave as though Sale’s best days are behind him. If you’re going to worship at the altar of analytics, predictive analysis, empirical evidence, and subjugating baseball’s human element, then even Sale can’t be spared.
No one feels worse about his injuries than Sale. He’ll be the first one to tell you that. Unfortunately, he has had ample opportunity to do so the past three years, as the inexplicable ailments have piled up. The lithe lefty is a stand-up guy, credit him for that. He never runs and hides from his Vegas residency on the IL.
However, no amount of self-deprecation or self-flagellation changes the situation. His contract looks like a massive unforced error by the Sox, who jumped the gun in March of ‘19 to make Sale the anti-Jon Lester.
They’re both lefthanded Sox aces, but they’re different pitchers with different builds. Lester was a workhorse. Sale is the high-maintenance convertible that you take out five times a year and swerve around any pothole for fear of damaging.
Sale is like that television set he tussled with during his rehab stint in Worcester — perpetually broken.
I take no pleasure in writing that sentence. Zero. I truly wish it were different, for his sake.
But in a Red Sox season full of make-believe — make-believe playoff contention, make-believe roster solutions, make-believe strategies that conflate indecision and ingenuity — someone has to tell it like it is.
You can try to rationalize or justify Sale’s absences.
He was feeling great in the prelude to spring training before he sustained a mysterious right rib cage stress fracture in February while working out on his own during the MLB lockout. He suffered a health setback unrelated to the injury that delayed his return. He returned July 12, looking promising in a 78-pitch outing against the Tampa Bay Rays.
But in his next start July 17, he took a screaming liner off his pitching pinkie.
Now we have this fluky bike accident after he returned home via automobile from Sox-supervised throwing work at Boston College. (Fenway was in concert mode.)
Instead of being back on the hill late this season, which the Sox expected, Sale struck something riding down a hill on his way to get lunch and is done.
Sale has bad luck, but Bloom would be unwise to reduce Sale’s injury absences solely to misfortune.
Instead of an ace in the hole, Sale looks like sunken cost.