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2018 in Review: Chris Sale

Another mostly great season for the Red Sox ace, but with some disappointment.

World Series - Boston Red Sox v Los Angeles Dodgers - Game Five Photo by Ezra Shaw/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 we come up with that definition? Completely arbitrarily, of course! The list of players we’re using can be seen here, and if we are missing anyone please let me know in the comments. Anyway, for the players who are included we will wrap up their season in a sentence, look at the positives of their 2018, the negatives, review their One Big Question from the preseason (when applicable!) and look ahead to what’s on the table for 2019. Today, we discuss Chris Sale.

The Year in a Sentence

Chris Sale was perhaps the best pitcher in baseball for the first half of the season, and his end-of-year numbers were better than ever but a late-season injury put a damper on his overall impact in 2018.

The Positives

It’s easy at this point to look back at Chris Sale’s 2018 and focus on what he was (or, more relevantly, wasn’t) at the end of the year. However, before the injuries started to keep him off the mound Sale was every bit as good as he was in his first season in Boston, and probably even better. Even given the missed time and short starts in the second half, the Red Sox ace was still one of the most valuable pitchers in baseball, ranking 10th in Baseball Prospectus’ DRA-based WAR, 4th in Fangraphs’ FIP-based WAR and and 6th in Baseball-Reference’s ERA-based WAR. That’s among all pitchers in baseball, too, not just the American League. By the end of the year, Sale had only tossed 158 innings but finished with a 2.11 ERA, a 2.01 FIP and a 2.24 DRA. That doesn’t suck!

As always, Sale’s complete and utter domination of the strike zone is what led the way towards making him so special this past summer. Each and every year, the southpaw puts up some of the best strikeout and walk numbers in the league, and this season was no exception. He finished 2018 with 237 strikeouts and 13.5 strikeouts per nine innings, the latter of which was a career-high. That career-high strikeout rate corresponded with his highest ever swinging strike rate by a significant margin while also allowing his lowest rate of contact ever on pitches in the zone. I’ve said this a few times but I think Z-Contact rate (the rate of contact on pitches in the zone) is the best test of pure stuff. To put it simply, if hitters care consistently missing your strikes, you’re doing something right. No one with at least 1500 pitches in 2018 (a group of 147 pitchers) had a lower Z-Contact rate, with Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole and Jacob deGrom immediately following him. That’s quite the list to top. So, yes, Sale’s stuff was as impressive as ever in 2018.

World Series - Los Angeles Dodgers v Boston Red Sox - Game One Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

There are a lot of things that make Sale a special pitcher, but what really stands out is how he is so often able to put together these huge strikeout performances without throwing too many pitches. It’s rare that someone is so efficient with his strikeouts, but Sale just doesn’t walk guys. For the fourth consecutive season he walked fewer than two batters per nine innings (he finished with 1.9 BB/9), and he hasn’t walked more than two batters per nine innings since 2012. Part of it is that he can hit the strike zone with any of his pitches basically whenever he wants, and part of it is that he is extremely hard to lay off of when he throws pitches out of the strike zone. That is true for his sweeping slider and it’s also true for his fastball that can look so enticing above the strike zone.

For as great as the strikeout and walk numbers were, however, the real difference for Sale that elevated him to the next level in 2018 was the quality of contact he allowed. The lefty allowed just 11 home runs in his 158 innings, the lowest rate of long balls he’s allowed in his entire career. Looking at Fangraphs’ batted ball data, the trends look even more promising. This past year the ace allowed his lowest rate of hard contact since 2015, and among all pitchers with at least 150 innings pitched only Noah Syndergaard, Zack Wheeler and Aaron Nola allowed a lower rate. In fact, Sale was the only pitcher in the top six of this leaderboard not in the NL East. Furthermore, the Red Sox ace allowed his highest rate of soft contact in his career, and topped the list among those same pitchers with at least 150 innings. Throw in his highest ground ball rate since 2013, and you have a Sale who was just as dominant in the strike zone now inducing weaker contact. Hard to beat that.

The Negatives

For as staggering as those positives are — and I don’t think I fully appreciated any of it until I typed it all out — Sale’s 2018 may be more remembered for the negatives. This is unfortunate, but such is life. Heading into the year there was concern about how the lefty would hold up through the season given his history of September slides. This year, it wasn’t the typical September slide but rather an injury holding back the typically durable southpaw. Sale suffered a shoulder injury in late-July, then came back for one amazing start in August — one hit and 12 strikeouts over five innings against the Orioles — before missing another month with the same ailment. Once he got back, Sale made four starts in September to finish the year, but they weren’t typical starts. Instead, he was being eased back in to get ready for the postseason. It was the right move for the team, but it did cost the southpaw a legitimate chance at the Cy Young.

Then, the postseason rolled around and the team was hoping to get the midsummer version of their ace on the biggest stage. Remember, 2017 was his first experience in the postseason, and it didn’t go well. This year was much more solid, though he didn’t have that kind of standout performance. For his standards, this was a negative as he never recorded more than 16 outs in a start and finished the playoffs with a 4.11 ERA. The team won four of the five games in which he appeared, but he wasn’t the dominant Sale we wanted to see.

World Series - Los Angeles Dodgers v Boston Red Sox - Game One Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

The Big Question

Can Chris Sale avoid a late-season fade?

We just talked about this above, but the answer is not really, no. Granted, it wasn’t the fade we were prepared for, but instead were worrying about a potentially bum shoulder. Still, he wasn’t the big presence we were hoping for in September or October.

The Year Ahead

Sale is back for his final season under the extension he signed with the White Sox years ago. The ace is set to hit free agency after the 2019 campaign, which means we can be expected to hear a whole lot of extension talk throughout the year, unless it gets done sooner. He has expressed an interest to get something done, per reports. As far as him on the mound, his shoulder should recover through rest this offseason, and the team will be sure to take it easy on him in spring training. As of now, there’s little reason to expect anything but more domination from the lefty, at least until the final six weeks of the year.