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One Big Question: Can Chris Sale avoid a late-season fade?

It’s the one easily spotted roadblock for his 2018 season.

Boston Red Sox Spring Training Workout Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

Welcome back to the One Big Question series here at Over The Monster. For those who weren’t around for last year’s series or simply forgot what it entails — there’s a lot going on in the world today, so don’t be ashamed! — here’s a brief reminder. Every day, Monday through Friday, for the next eight weeks we’ll profile a new member of Red Sox 40-man roster. Rather than simply going through a simple profile of their overall game and what they offer the team, we’ll focus on the one question that could very well dictate how their season will go in 2018. In order to keep the order objective and avoid side conversations like ranking the players on the roster, we’ll go straight down the roster in alphabetical order by position. In other words, we’ll go by how things are ordered here. If you miss any editions or would like to look back on some of last year’s, you can see all of them here. Today, we’re looking at Chris Sale.

The Question: Can Chris Sale avoid another September/October fade?

While I’ve been doing this series, my prep work for each player has generally been the same. Go to their various player pages, look at some numbers, try to think back to what I was thinking about them during the 2017 season, come up with a few potential questions then try to figure out which is the most interesting. For Chris Sale, the process was not so complicated. I knew immediately what his question would be, because he’s Chris Sale and there really aren’t any questions about him. We know he’s going to be one of the truly elite pitchers in the game for the vast majority of the season, because that’s what he always is. This is a big reason why the Red Sox should be in the thick of a tight division race for the entire season and have a solid chance at winning a third straight American League East title.

Boston Red Sox Spring Training Workout Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

Of course, there is one elephant in the room when we talk about Sale, and that is his performance toward the end of the year. It is the one issue that he had last year, the reason he didn’t take home the Cy Young and one of the reasons the Red Sox were once again bounced in the first round of the playoffs. His struggles towards the end of 2017 may not be quite as bad as some may remember, though he certainly wasn’t himself. Instead, it was more about some rare inconsistency from Sale rather than pure bad performance. Hell, in his second-to-last start of the year he tossed eight shutout innings with 13 strikeouts and no walks. That seems decent. Still, fading down the stretch has become a theme in Sale’s career. Last year he posted an ERA of 4.30 over his last eight starts and he allowed an OPS of .809. In the month of September over the course of his career he’s pitched to a 3.78 ERA while allowing a .750 OPS, both of which are easily the worst of any month.

For both Sale and the Red Sox, obviously the goal is to figure out why this is happening and what can be done to counteract this trend. There are probably some people who would point to this being something to do with ability to perform in clutch performance or when the lights are brightest of whatever, but A) I don’t think that’s anything close to the prevailing opinion and B) it’s dumb as hell. For one thing, he’s struggled down the stretch on competitive teams and non-competitive teams. Additionally, he was great out of the bullpen in Game Four of the ALDS and that eight-inning shutout mentioned above was a fairly important game.

Instead, it seems logical that there is some sort of stamina/fatigue issue happening here and Sale simply hits a wall by the time the end of the year comes. His stuff doesn’t really diminish as he was still racking up strikeouts in his bad outings at the end of 2017, but his command suddenly fell off a cliff. Hard contact and Chris Sale generally don’t mix, but he allowed plenty of it during his struggles last September. Sale himself has a solution for this, and it involves his spring workout. According to the ace, he got himself too amped up prior to camp last year and as a result he ran out of gas towards the end of the year. His reasoning was that he was trying to impress a new fanbase and new organization, which is understandable. The issue is that, as we’ve mentioned, this is not a new problem. So unless he’s always that amped coming into spring, it can’t really be the only reason for his struggles.

That’s not to say that he and the Red Sox shouldn’t look at adjusting his spring routine to help him make it through the season without fading. Any possible solution needs to be examined, and if he’s comfortable with a new routine that will both have him ready for Opening Day and keep him fresh for all of 2018, that’s obviously a positive. It shouldn’t be the only approach, though. Alex Cora needs to find a way to get him some extra rest. He’ll be helped out by the new schedule this year as they are starting the season a bit earlier and adding a few more off-days into the schedule. Beyond that, Cora can get Sale (and the rest of his starters, for that matter) extra rest through the year by carrying an extra starting pitcher in his bullpen to skip starts here and there. He also shouldn’t be afraid to pull his starter earlier in games. Of course, that’s not only on Cora but also on the lineup to build some early leads and the bullpen to prove trustworthy enough to hold said leads.

Ultimately, this is not only the biggest question for Sale but also one of the biggest questions for the entire Red Sox roster. This team has proven to be playoff worthy for two straight years, and while nothing is a guarantee heading into a new season there is little reason to suspect they’ll be anything but a contender heading into the final six weeks of the season. If they want to make a strong push towards the end of the season and ultimately get over the hump of the ALDS (at least) they’ll need Sale to continue pitching like one of the best pitchers in baseball. They seem to have an early plan to keep him fresh all year, and hopefully they’ll be able to stick to whatever they come up with throughout the season.