FORT MYERS, Fla. — Scientific disciplines influencing baseball continue to multiply. Biomechanists, physicists, mathematicians, and sport scientists now routinely find employment in organizations.
Yet no baseball operations department has solved the riddle of time travel — an area of exploration that could have had remarkable benefits for the 2023 Red Sox. After all, a rotation with the 2017-18 versions of Chris Sale, Corey Kluber, and James Paxton would emerge immediately as one with World Series ambitions.
Over those two years — with Sale unleashing comets in his first two Red Sox campaigns, Kluber joining him as a perennial Cy Young front-runner (and winner in 2017), and Paxton at the peak of his Big Maple powers — the trio combined for a 90-34 record, 2.80 ERA, and 11.6 strikeouts and 1.9 walks per nine over 1,087 innings.
Sale imagined the Red Sox enjoying such peaks in the coming year.
“We’re just excited because we all know what we bring to the table,” said Sale. “And if we can maximize that, it’s going to be a lot of fun.”
But the “if” comes in bold caps. Those wondrous performances are distant.
Kluber made 24 starts from 2019-21, logging 116⅔ innings in that time. From 2020-22, Sale made 11 starts and pitched 48⅓ innings — roughly doubling the workload of Paxton (6 starts, 21⅔ innings) over that same period. The succession of injuries endured by all casts uncertainty both on the extent to which the Sox can rely on them and the level of attainable performance when they do pitch.
There are success stories of once-dominant thirtysomething pitchers regaining their form after multiyear mound absences. Last season, Justin Verlander returned to the Astros rotation after pitching just six innings over two seasons and won the AL Cy Young Award, going 18-4 with a 1.75 ERA in 28 starts.
Chris Carpenter, the NL Cy Young winner in 2005, missed nearly all of the 2007-08 seasons while recovering from multiple elbow surgeries and arm issues, but rebounded from 2009-11 with a brilliant three-year run for the Cardinals at ages 32-34. Adam Wainwright missed almost all of three seasons — 2011, 2015, and 2018 — but regained his masterful feel each time.
“Both [Carpenter and Wainwright] came back and were able to elevate themselves to elite status,” said Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak. “But there’s obviously risk in anything when you’re not actually performing. You have to accept some volatility.
“As you’re roster-constructing or thinking about your rotation, those are difficult bets to make if you’re assuming you’re going to get that 180 or 200 innings in return to play.”
There are recent instances of pitchers who reemerged from multiyear layoffs as valuable, if not elite. Johnny Cueto made just 25 starts from 2018-20 but has rebounded to average 136 innings with an ERA+ of 110 over the last two years.
Kluber himself now provides evidence of the possibility of emerging from a lengthy spell in pitching purgatory. He logged 164 innings over 31 starts last year for the Rays — albeit as a different kind of pitcher than he’d been in his Cleveland heyday.
While he featured remarkable command (a 3.0 percent walk rate), Kluber went 10-10 with a 4.34 ERA. After a succession of arm injuries — and a changed between-starts work schedule intended to keep him on the mound — Kluber’s trademark sinker averaged 88.9 miles per hour, down 3-4 ticks from his best years in Cleveland.
He was more of a stabilizing No. 4 starter than an ace. Still, there was immense satisfaction in what he accomplished for a full season.
“Sometimes you feel like life would be easier if you could throw 100 with a swing-and-miss breaking ball, but that’s not the case for many people,” reflected
Kluber. “It happens throughout the course of your career, whether it’s [changing] stuff, your swing’s a little slower, there’s always a kind of adjustment that goes on.
“I do enjoy it. It’s part of the game that keeps things interesting.”
There are no guarantees in that process. Paxton is not only trying to come back from his injury, but is doing so with an altered delivery forged over the last 18 months with help from a biomechanist. His hope is to employ a more efficient delivery that places less stress on his body and arm — an undertaking that could come with its own adaptation period.
That Kluber got to the point where he could focus on pitching rather than rehabbing positions him as an inspiration to his new teammates.
“Corey is a guy who has come out the other side and is now pitching every five days. That’s what Chris and I are trying to do this year,” said Paxton. “It’s really exciting to be able to stand next to these guys and go through it together.”
It would be little short of remarkable if all three can be healthy and productive for most of the season. Kluber turns 37 in April, Paxton is 34, and Sale turns 34 on Opening Day.
No team since the 2011 Yankees has had three starters age 34 and older pitch at least 120 innings in the same season. The 2003 Yankees were the last team with three pitchers in that demographic to handle 150-plus innings each.
That said, Sale and his mates remain uninterested in contemplating their limitations. For them, the opportunity to have a healthy spring and progress toward the start of the season is filled with a sense of possibility.
They have not been looking for the individual success stories of pitchers who came back — which would, in turn, require an acknowledgement of the many who did not. Nor have they been asking about workload limitations, particularly given that the Sox have no plans to affix formal innings limits on Sale or Paxton, but will instead take stock of their pitchers’ start-to-start health while letting them forge their own paths.
“What do they mean for me? You take this way home, I take this way, they could both work,” Sale said of his interest — or lack — in searching for pitchers who made it back from three years of limited action. “Not only that, early on in my career, I threw 70 innings out of the bullpen and then just under 200 the next year [as a starter]. So you talk about pitch count, workload, whatever, but it can be done.
“I feel strong. I can see it’s there. I’m just excited. I know that there’s a lot of questions. People have a lot of ‘what ifs.’ My main focus is working hard and playing hard. This thing’s been taken away from me for a while. Anybody that knows me knows it’s been tough.
“I can tell you what I want to do and what I plan on doing, but I’d rather just use that as motivation for myself. I’m just excited to have this opportunity.”
The Red Sox’ hopes for 2023 are in many ways tied to the extent to which the veteran trio can take advantage of their collective crack at a comeback.