Chris Sale is one of baseball’s best pitchers, but was it sound business for Red Sox to sign him long term?
OAKLAND, Calif. — The Red Sox locked up Xander Bogaerts and Chris Sale in the last two weeks, committing $265 million of John Henry’s money to a couple of players that would have been free agents at the end of this season. It’s a serious commitment that should warm the heart of Red Sox Nation.
I am a fan of the Bogaerts extension, but not so sure about Sale.
Sale delivered six solid innings of three-hit pitching in a frustrating 1-0 loss Tuesday. It was his longest outing since last July 27. The bad news is that he looked more like Jamie Moyer than Randy Johnson.
Sale threw changeups and sliders all night, striking out only one batter and topping out at 92 miles per hour. He surrendered a homer to Matt Chapman in the first. He threw 29 fastballs, averaging 89.3 miles per hour, the lowest of his career.
“The name of the game isn’t velocity,’’ he said after the loss. “It’s giving your team a chance to win.’’
True. But the Sox didn’t shell out $145 million for Jamie Moyer. They were investing what they hoped would be something closer to Randy Johnson.
All of this leaves me wondering if the Sox contract to Sale was a sound baseball decision, or perhaps overcompensation for past sins.
Did the Sox let their mistake on Jon Lester rush them into a mistake on Sale?
This is not strictly about Sale’s stinkbomb in the season opener, or his diminished velocity Tuesday. This is about committing $145 million to a pitcher who has thrown a total of 41⅓ innings since last July . . . a pitcher who spent most of the post-All-Star break on the injured list with shoulder inflammation last summer . . . a 30-year-old pitcher who is throwing 5 miles per hour slower than he was last summer.
Is Sale going to fully recover and resume pitching seven innings per start and regularly cracking 97-98 m.p.h. on the gun? Is he physically sound?
“Of course we would never sign anybody to a long-term deal like that unless we were completely sure that all the medical information was good,’’ Sox baseball boss Dave Dombrowski said last week in Seattle. “Doctors recommended, trainers recommended, MRIs were good, all those things. We were very thorough. You would never do anything like that. We had some of those tests last year, too. So we knew what was wrong. But all that was done again.’’
Why did the Sox rush to extend this pitcher before the start of the season instead of waiting to see if Sale returns to form?
“If you wait until the end of the year, then everybody has a chance to sign him,’’ said Dombrowski. “In today’s present market, he was willing to work with us to stay.’’
Former Cy Young-winning starter Rick Porcello didn’t get that kind of love and his contract is up at the end of the season.
In Florida in February, Henry (who also owns the Globe) made it clear that Sale was the priority, admitting the Sox “blew it” when Lester went into his free agent season in 2014.
When Nick Cafardo asked the owner if he was worried about Sale’s shoulder, Henry answered, “He’s healthy. He has minor issues. It ended up taking a bit of time because he needed rest at one point. But he hasn’t had any significant shoulder issues . . . I think Chris falls out of the norm because he is just such a . . . not just a great pitcher, but a great part of a team that just won a World Series. He had a great impact just being on the bench in the World Series. He is a special player so we would love to be able to sign him, and I think he would as well.’’
Sale made only two spring training starts against major league teams (part of the Red Sox’ plan to save bullets for October), then submitted his Opening Day stinkbomb, surrendering seven runs on six hits (three homers), two walks, and a hit batsman. He did not induce a swing and miss on any of his 30 fastballs.
Tuesday was much better, but it’s hard to feel great about one strikeout and 89 m.p.h. from Chris Sale.
“His velocity wasn’t there,’’ manager Alex Cora admitted after the game. “The way he did it was different, but he did a good job getting us six [innings].’’
Cora and Dombrowski each said they believe Sale’s slowdown is temporary and that the lefthander will again become the seven-inning, 99-mile-per-hour guy that dominated the American League. They say Sale will build his strength back up.
Sox fans love Sale. He’s tough, he never complains, he ended the World Series by striking out three Dodgers in the bottom of the ninth, and he was 29-12 with a 2.56 ERA in his first two seasons with the Red Sox. He allowed a .196 opponents’ batting average in 2017 and 2018.
But his career path indicates that he wears down during the season. His career September ERA is 3.78, easily his worst month. His lifetime September-October won-loss record (including postseason) is 12-18. In the final three months of the 2018 season (including the postseason), Sale pitched a total of 32⅓ innings, appearing in 10 games (eight starts). His 2018 workload (158 innings) was a career low.
According to BrooksBaseball.net, Sale was averaging 97 miles per hour on his fastball before he went on the shelf last summer. When Sale came back in September, he was throwing 93. In his first two starts this year, he’s topped out at 92. Tuesday, he averaged 89.3.
Any player who signs a long-term deal can get hurt. Xander Bogaerts’s durability and age (26) make him a good risk. Can we say the thing about Chris Sale?