Welcome to Over The Monster’s One Big Question series. For the next 40 (week)days, we will be trying to answer one important question for each player on the Red Sox 40-man roster. The goal is to find one interesting portion of each player’s game to watch for, whether that be in spring training or the early regular season. We’ll be going straight down the list on the team’s roster page, meaning we’ll be going in alphabetical order through each position group, starting with the pitchers. Today, we’re highlighting Chris Sale.
The Question: Can Chris Sale avoid Boston’s apparent first-year jinx?
When the Red Sox traded for Chris Sale, it both came out of nowhere and felt like the inevitable culmination of years of speculation. Sale was one of a long line of players who were loosely connected to Boston in fan-driven trade talks, following in the footsteps of Giancarlo Stanton and Felix Hernandez, among others. In the aftermath of the deal, some wondered if it was really a necessary move. At that point, the Red Sox were already AL East favorites and had David Price and Rick Porcello to head their rotation. The answer, of course, is that it was necessary.
While they clearly gave up a lot — conservatively, two top-20 prospects in the game — Sale is an elite talent that undeniably makes any team in the league better. The lefty is easily a top five pitcher in the game, and the only two guys I’d definitively take over him are Clayton Kershaw and Max Scherzer. The goal is to win championships, and the upgrade that Sale represents over whichever pitcher ends up as the sixth starter is a massive one. As much as it may hurt to lose those prospects, elite talents cost steep prices.
Of course, the Red Sox traded for what Sale is going to do, not what he’s already done. I don’t need to tell you this isn’t the first time the Red Sox have acquired a big-time talent and that their track record hasn’t been great as of late. In fact, you needn’t look any further than the rest of their rotation. David Price was the Chris Sale move of last winter, coming in to head a broken rotation. His season wasn’t a disaster, but it certainly didn’t meet expectations. Rick Porcello was the big acquisition in the rotation the year before that. While his expectations weren’t as high as Price’s or Sale’s, his first season was definitely the biggest disaster. Even Drew Pomeranz came in with some big expectations given the player for which he was dealt, and his first half-season with the team was not great. Hell, it’s not even just pitchers. Hanley Ramirez, Pablo Sandoval and Carl Crawford were all big, recent acquisitions who flopped in their first years.
Usually with these big questions, I try to use the data available to find the answer or at least find aspects of the games to watch to help find the answer down the road. It’s not so easy with this question. The nature of this phenomenon is that the down year comes out of nowhere. Sure, there might be signs of slight decline on the horizon for some of these players, but we’re talking collapses, not slight declines. Still, there are a few nitpicky areas to look at in Sale’s case.
The first is his personality, which is obviously mostly speculative and all information is from second-hand sources at best. For the last few years, it’s become something of public knowledge that Sale is a bit...different. That’s not necessarily a bad thing (who among us, etc.), but it can bring it’s side effects. Most notable was last season and the jersey incident. As hilarious as that outburst was, it’s not what you want to see out of your star. Speaking more generally, you’ll hear about how Sale is quieter and not as media friendly as some other players. If he struggles, people will bring that up. Just remember, people also blamed Price’s personality, which is the polar opposite. Boston is a tough city to play in, but from the outside it’s almost impossible to tell whether or not that’s the issue.
Looking at more specifics, there are a couple of potentially dangerous warning signs in Sale’s stat line. To start with, his strikeout rate took a step back in 2016. Now, it was still well above-average at nearly 26 percent, but the lefty was coming off two straight years with rates over 30 percent. While that kind of decline is normally alarming, in this case it was done on purpose. Sale was worried about lasting longer in games, and was pitching to contact a little more. I’m never a fan of that strategy, but it’s hard to deny that it worked, as he threw a career-high 226-2/3 innings. It’s also worth noting that he got his rate back up to 27 percent in the second half. We’ll see if the Red Sox want to get him back to his old style, but there’s little reason at this point to believe he can’t get back to near-30 percent K-rates if he wants to. (I now realize this sounds a lot like the “Ichiro could hit 50 homers if he wanted to” line I’ve spent so much time mocking.)
There is also the matter of park effects. While Sale has always been a dominant strikeout and control artist, he’s merely been average in the art of preventing home runs. As we all know, that can be an issue for lefties at Fenway Park. Again, just look what happened to Price. The good news for Sale is that he’s already played in a home park that had large home run factors, particularly for right-handed hitters. In fact, Guaranteed Rate Field (when the hell did they start calling it this??) is much worse for pitchers. However, when you look at the rest of the divisional competition, the parks start to favor the AL Central. Their road parks have an average home run factor for right handed hitters of 97, compared to a factor of 102 for non-Fenway AL East parks. Combine that with the scarier right-handed power in the AL East, and it’s probably a slightly worse situation for Sale.
While the home runs might tick up a bit, it’s still not enough to really worry about an utter collapse. Of course, that’s the whole point of this Red Sox jinx. The collapses come out of nowhere. There’s no real answer to this question, because if there was it wouldn’t be a surprise. The Red Sox have had a weird, unexplainable issue with high-priced acquisitions of late, and they could really use Sale bucking that trend.