Chris Sale is the focal point of the Red Sox’ spring training, the transformative addition who is meant to help propel the Red Sox towards sustained championship ambitions even in the absence of David Ortiz. That being the case, it’s instructive to recall just how challenging a responsibility that can be for a pitcher who relocates to Boston.
Curt Schilling, of course, managed to do the nearly impossible. The Red Sox traded for him after their 2003 heartbreak with the view that he (along with a new manager in Terry Francona and elite closer in Keith Foulke) could represent the addition who would allow them to finally ascend the summit.
Schilling did just that in a dominant 2004 campaign that merited a runner-up finish in Cy Young balloting, posting a 3.26 ERA that represented an improvement from his 3.33 career mark and an ERA+ (park-adjusted ERA compared to his league) of 148, a bump over his preceding standard of 133. With the benefit of 12 seasons of hindsight, his campaign stands out as even more remarkable as it seemed then.
Since that 2004 season, the Red Sox have added nine starting pitchers with at least 100 starts in the big leagues who went on to make at least 20 starts in their first season in Boston – most recently, David Price in 2016 and Rick Porcello as well as Wade Miley in 2015. The First Year In Boston (should we call it the FYIB metric?) dropoff from prior career standards is eye-opening.
Every one of the nine starters in question – Price, Porcello, Miley, Ryan Dempster, John Lackey, Brad Penny, Josh Beckett, Matt Clement, and David Wells – posted an ERA in their first season with the Red Sox that was higher than their pre-Boston career norm. On average, the group’s ERA was 0.75 runs higher in their first season with the Red Sox than they’d produced in their careers to that point; the rises ranged from 0.23 runs (Clement) to 1.55 runs (Penny).
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Some of the increase would be expected given the impact of pitching in Fenway Park and the smaller ballparks of the American League East. Nonetheless, on average, the group saw its ERA+ -- which accounts for park effects – fall by an average of 12 points.
It’s interesting to note that Price’s FYIB (sure, let’s do this) experience was very much in line with those standards – his ERA was 0.90 runs above his pre-Boston norm, while his ERA+ went from 126 (meaning 26 percent better than league average) to 114. In other words, Price essentially experienced a “standard” departure from the elite levels he’d established in his career, part of the reason why the Red Sox tend to consider his 3.99 ERA of 2016 a solid foundation for what they hope will be an even better second season.
“You get into an environment that you then become comfortable in, and likely to maybe settle into what your natural abilities are, maybe not try to do too much in certain cases. Boston is a known commodity to [Price] now after a full year,” said manager John Farrell. “I know a lot of criticism has come David’s way, but 17-game winner, 230 innings pitched, led the American League in strikeouts – it’s a strong year. It might not have met some of the external expectations surrounding the signing of David here, but like I said, I think year two is always important. You can say the same thing for Hanley [Ramirez]. The second year is a different environment for them, more of a known commodity, and they’re able to just maybe stay a little more focused at times and not be distracted by some of the other external things that may be out there.”
Of course, that hope for a stronger Second Year In Boston (SYIB? Too much…) underscores the fact that there will be an expected transition for Sale, who arrives in Boston with a career 3.00 ERA and 135 ERA+; a normal adjustment might see him with a 3.75 ERA and 123 ERA+.
Such marks would be excellent, but Sale hopes that he doesn’t have to lower the bar to account for his relocation from the AL Central to baseball’s most pitcher-unfriendly division.
“I expect a lot of myself. I have very high expectations for myself. I demand a lot from myself. I don’t think it’ll be anything different. I’ll be harder on myself than you guys will,” said Sale. “For me, [making the transition to Boston is] like a horse running a race. The horse has his blinders on and he runs until he’s told not to run or the race is over, whatever it is. That’s my goal this year, to just focus on baseball things. Anything outside of that, put the blinders up. A lot of distraction can go on throughout the season and in the clubhouse, whatever it is, and I’m going to do my best to kind of keep those separated and keep my focus on baseball-related things.”
Whether that permits Sale to move to his new organization without a performance dip remains to be seen – but certainly, in order to do so, he’d have to buck a fairly consistent trend.
Follow Alex Speier on Twitter at @alexspeier.