FORT MYERS, Fla. — Chris Sale commands attention.
As the lefthander prepares for his third season with the Red Sox, a sense of curiosity trails him. Amid a dominant 2018 season that evoked memories of the otherworldly peak of Pedro Martinez, Sale endured shoulder woes that first sidelined him and then, upon his return, reduced him.
Although the final memory of his 2018 campaign is of an utterly unhittable pitcher striking out the side in the ninth inning of Game 5 of the World Series, that breathtaking moment stood largely in contrast to the September and October work that preceded it.
So Sale’s buildup to 2019 merits amplified attention, particularly as he enters the final year of his contract. His spring activity will be viewed in the context of determining how healthy he is for 2019, and how healthy he will be beyond 2019.
The initial returns have been promising. Sale’s shoulder looked “pristine” in his last MRI, according to a major league source (it is not clear when that MRI was taken), and the tendinitis that he endured at the end of last year not been an issue. On Monday, he threw off a mound at JetBlue Park and made a favorable impression.
“Chris looks great,” said manager Alex Cora on Tuesday. “He has gained some weight. And he’s been throwing with no setbacks.”
By multiple accounts, the Red Sox have put an extension for Sale at the top of their long-term to-do list. But are such pitchers good bets?
Sale will turn 30 years old two days after the Red Sox open the regular season in Seattle. A few questions loom as the pitcher and team figure out whether the 2019 season will represent a midpoint or the last campaign of his Red Sox career.
■ How awesome is Sale? In his two years with the Red Sox, Sale has been a marvel of dominance, adding to a run that deserves recognition as one of the greatest of all time by a starting pitcher. He has been a top-six finisher in American League Cy Young voting in each of his seven seasons as a starting pitcher.
In nearly 1,500 career innings, Sale is 103-62 with a 2.89 ERA, the second-lowest ERA by an AL starting pitcher during the DH era, behind only Martinez (2.52). His ERA+ of 144 — meaning his ERA is 44 percent better than league average (adjusted for parks) — also ranks second during that time. His 10.9 strikeouts per nine innings is the highest punchout rate of all time, and his 5.3 strikeout-to-walk rate likewise is the best in baseball history.
He has been amazing, a pitcher who, through his 20s, is clearly on a Hall of Fame track.
■ But what about the future? If Patrick Corbin is getting six years from the Nationals, then Sale isn’t getting any less. It’s possible that, in order to reach an extension before the season, he might accept a six-year deal rather than the seven-year pacts conferred upon David Price and Clayton Kershaw.
So what do the early 30s look like for elite pitchers?
Several maintained their Hall of Fame tracks without showing much of a decline. Greg Maddux, Roy Halladay, and Bret Saberhagen all had better ERA+ scores from ages 30-35 than they did through their age-29 seasons. Martinez and Roger Clemens were both dominant, while Justin Verlander, Bert Blyleven, and Mike Mussina all posted ERAs that were at least 20 percent better than the league average.
Price has an ERA+ of 119 with Boston, down slightly from his 126 with Tampa Bay, Detroit, and Toronto.
■ And the individual risk? Still, past performance is no guarantee of the future. Through his age-29 season, Brandon Webb had a 143 ERA+. He pitched four innings at age 30, but a blown-out shoulder prevented him from ever pitching in a big league game thereafter.
Shoulder injuries limited Johan Santana to fewer than 500 innings in his 30s, leaving the Mets on the bad end of a six-year, $137.5 million deal. The trend lines are ominous for Felix Hernandez, who has seen his ERA go up in each of the last four seasons, mushrooming to 5.55 last year at age 32 from 2.14 in 2014.
Although there are these cautionary tales, the investment in such pitchers in their early 30s hasn’t been devastating.
These elite pitchers averaged about 150 innings per year from ages 30-35, down from about 175 once they transitioned to starting roles (defined by the first year in which they made at least 10 starts) through their age-29 seasons in the big leagues.
If Sale follows such a pattern, he would remain an incredibly valuable rotation asset since his baseline performance has been so good. He has averaged about 198 innings per year as a starter; if he’s at 160-180 innings from ages 30-35, along with an ERA in the low 3.00s (up from 2.91 in his career to date as a starter), then he’s still a rotation anchor.
■ Too many eggs in one basket? At a time when Price (four years remaining on his seven-year, $217 million deal) and Nathan Eovaldi (four years, $68 million) are signed to long-term deals, another long-term deal for Sale would represent a heavy investment in one area of the team.
But Red Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski hasn’t been afraid to invest enormous sums in his rotation. In Detroit, he tried (unsuccessfully) to extend Max Scherzer on a six-year, $144 million deal at a time when Justin Verlander’s five-year, $140 million extension was about to kick in, and when Anibal Sanchez (five years, $80 million) remained under contract.
Every time Sale touches the ball between now and his next contract, it will be an event that bears watching. Although there’s unquestionably major risk associated with his future, there’s also a demonstrated history of elite players remaining very good to elite, even as they progress from their 20s into their 30s.