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2017 Red Sox Review: Chris Sale

I swear I didn’t time this on purpose

Tampa Bay Rays v Boston Red Sox Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

Welcome to the Red Sox Review series. It’s a fairly standard feature in which we will review the year that was for every player who made a decently large impact on the Red Sox this year. How do I come up with that definition? Completely arbitrarily, of course! The list of players I’m using can be seen here, and if I am missing anyone please let me know in the comments. Anyway, for the players who are included we will look at the positives of their 2017, the negatives, review their One Big Question from the preseason and look ahead to what’s on the table for 2018. Today, we discuss Chris Sale.

The Positives

I don’t think it’ll be a controversial statement if I sit here and say that, on the whole, Chris Sale’s 2017 was overwhelmingly positive. In fact, if you were to let the final six weeks of the year let you believe it was neutral or negative, I would go so far as to say I disagree with you on this particular matter! He was one of the very best pitchers in baseball and finished second in the Cy Young voting, which shockingly was the highest finish of his career. All of his numbers on the year were impressive. He finished with a 2.90 ERA (36 percent better than league-average), a 2.45 FIP (43 percent better than league-average) and a 2.37 ERA (50 percent better than league-average). The man was incredible, and that is the case regardless of how you prefer to judge pitcher performance.

Boston Red Sox v Baltimore Orioles Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

Sale was good at just about every aspect of pitching, which should be obvious when you look just one paragraph up and see how well he performed in three different kinds of metrics. His control was great, and he mostly did a good job of inducing weak contact. However, it was his ability to rack up strikeouts that was particularly impressive and what made his starts so thrilling to watch. Boston’s ace struck out a whopping 308 batters in 2017 for just about 13 per nine innings. For the second time in his career, he induced whiffs on over 30 percent of swings and it was truly thrilling to turn on any of his starts and wonder how many strikeouts he was going to get on that night. It’s true that strikeouts are at an all-time high around the league, but Sale still takes it to another level.

His pitch mix is the big reason he is able to get so many strikeouts, and it was another positive from the season. We all knew about his fastball and slider coming into the year, but it’s hard to have a full appreciation of his pitches unless you watch him on a regular basis. Ostensibly, he’s a two or three pitch pitcher, but in reality he’s so much more than that. He does have that wicked slider, but it’s really two pitches. Sometimes, he throws the hard, sharp slider and other times he’ll slow it down a bit and loop it through the zone. He has similar variations on his fastball, as the pitch can range anywhere from the low-90s to the high-90s, and batters have no idea what’s coming at any point. They not only have to guess the pitch, but they have to guess on a variation of a pitch. It is truly unfair.

I could keep going on and on about Sale’s positives, but essentially everything he did was a positive.

Negatives

There were a couple of negatives with Sale’s season, and chances are you don’t need me to tell you what they are. But I’m going to anyway, because that’s how this works. The biggest issue for the Red Sox ace in 2017 was how he finished the year, and that finish ended up costing him a Cy Young award and made Boston’s run to the postseason that much more stressful. Over the final two months of the season — an 11-start stretch — Sale pitched to a rough 4.09 ERA in 66 innings. Granted, it’s not as if he was bad in all of those starts (he allowed one or zero runs in five of them) but it was more likely than ever that a team would get to him. It’s an issue that he’ll have to solve moving forward, and left a bit of a sour taste in our mouths for what was, overall, a legendary season.

That disappointment carried into the postseason as well. He did have one great appearance in Game Four when he came out of the bullpen and looked like his early-season self, but he also took the mound for a start in Game One and did not look good. The eventual champions hit Sale early and often, and the ace ended up allowing seven runs in five innings in his first career postseason start. This is the biggest reason the Red Sox need to find a way to get their ace some rest in 2018.

The Big Question

Can Chris Sale avoid Boston’s apparent first-year jinx?

Yes. I really don’t need to go on, do I?

Looking Ahead to 2018

Sale’s role for 2018 is not in question, and he is certainly not on a the trade block for this Red Sox team. Again, there are questions about how they’ll use him early on and how they’ll try to keep him fresh all year long, but he’s still the ace of this staff. There is little reason to expect anything other than elite pitching from the lanky lefty in 2018, or any other year for that matter, until he gives us a reason to think otherwise.