Things have been, by and large, good for the Red Sox in 2017. Despite the narrative seemingly being negative more often than positive over the course of the season, this is still a first-place team and many fans would kill to be in our position right now. That being said, this is clearly not a perfect team. The lineup takes weeks off at a time and the core of the group just hasn’t been able to get going at the same time. Obviously, time is running out for that to happen and it’s not as simple as just waiting for players to perform up to their talent level. The bullpen is outstanding in the back, but the bridge from the rotation to the eighth and ninth innings is murky, to put it kindly. There are also issues in the back of the rotation as the Red Sox are still seeking some semblance of consistency from Eduardo Rodriguez and Rick Porcello.
With all of this in mind, I would like to propose a motion to stop worrying about one aspect of this team: Its ace. A strange thing has happened over the last week or so since Chris Sale got hit hard by the Cleveland Indians for the second straight outing. There is a growing group of people who are starting to worry about the star southpaw for the stretch run. With everything else wrong with the team, Sale should be the last concern on the mind of Red Sox fans.
Now, to be fair, I understand where the impulse comes from. His last start against the Indians was a big one for a couple of reasons. For one, the Red Sox are in a crucial part of their schedule in a tight division race. Every game is important right now. On top of that, Cleveland has had Sale’s number over his career and were the only team to really hit him this year. It would have been nice for him to come through with a strong outing and put that concern to rest. He didn’t, and now that cloud still hangs over his head. When you add that to the fact that Sale has had a tendency to fall off in the final month of the season, the causes for concern become all the more real. Still, this is Chris Sale we’re talking about.
As far as the Indians are concerned, they clearly have something figured out against Sale that the rest of the league has yet to come around on. That being said, the lefty’s career numbers against the club are hardly relevant. What they’ve done this year is worth worrying about, but I don’t really see the point in thinking about what the 2013 Indians did against the 2013 version of Sale. Too many things have changed to care about that. Still, they are well-suited to beat Boston’s ace. We’ve seen that, when he’s at his best, Sale’s opponents can’t help but swing at everything he throws. The Indians, though, are among the most patient teams in baseball. Only the Red Sox and Dodgers have swung less than them, and no one has swung at a lower rate of pitches out of the zone. They have an impeccable understanding of the strike zone, and that’s how you beat Sale. If/when he meets them in the postseason, he’ll clearly have to make some sort of adjustment. Fortunately, he and Sandy Leon are smart baseball minds with a great ability to put together a gameplan. He’s too talented for any one team to completely own him.
The September struggles may be a little more relevant to this year. Sale has had a tendency to take a substantial step back in the last month of the season nearly every year of his career, and that is purportedly because of fatigue. With his latest outing being a bad one, it’s natural to wonder if it’s happening again. However, there are a few things that are different this year. For one thing, Sale has been even better than usual this year. He’s always been good, but it’s been on another level in 2017. In other words, he has a lot further to fall. It’s simply difficult to see him taking such an enormous step back. Furthermore, he’s dealing with different coaching and training staffs this year. Granted, the White Sox pitching coaches and trainers have a great reputation so this could actually be a bad thing, but it’s feasible that the Red Sox have emphasized something different in order to keep him fresh for the entire season. The last, and possibly most important, point is that he has a new home park. In Septembers past, it’s been the long ball that has undone Sale. His strikeout and walk numbers have stayed the same, but he’s been taken over the fence at a high rate. This year, he’s at a better home park in Fenway to keep the ball in the yard.
The most important part of all this, though, is that we’re talking about Chris freakin’ Sale. If/when they make it to a playoff matchup against Cleveland, the concerns will come up again, and they’ll be worth talking about. In the meantime, he’s been the best pitcher in baseball this season and outside of one horrendous start he’s given us little reason to worry. The Red Sox have plenty of concerns as they head into a close division race with the Yankees. Chris Sale is not one of them.