The Red Sox will go as far as their starting pitching will take them. At least, that’s what I’ve been telling myself since before the season even started, a time when we thought Drew Pomeranz would be a top-three arm in the rotation and we had no idea if David Price was ever going to truly turn it around. Things have surely changed since then, but I still believe the mantra. The Red Sox will go as far as their starting pitching will take them.
It seems strange to feel that way at first. The offense, and specifically guys like Mookie Betts and J.D. Martinez, have been the focal point of the team this year. In looking at the differences between this team and last year’s, the offense is the clear standout. The bullpen is the focus of the fanbase right now, and it’s seen as the fatal flaw in October, if this team does indeed have a fatal flaw. Call me old fashioned, but I still think it all comes down to the starting pitching.
Just look at last year’s postseason to see how important it can be for your starting pitching to not bury you early in games. Chris Sale was not good in Game One of last year’s ALDS. David Price’s playoff struggles continued as well. Just like that, right off the bat, this team was down 2-0. Getting back to this year, there are still some questions, but nothing close to a guarantee for failure. Price has looked better than he ever has in a Red Sox uniform, and can hopefully get that playoff monkey off his back. Rick Porcello has been wildly inconsistent all year, but he’s seemed to step up in some big games and has also largely avoided full-on implosions. Nathan Eovaldi is a question mark for sure, but he has pitched extremely well against New York this year. Then, there’s Sale. I’m terrified of the Sale start.
To be perfectly clear, I’m not terrified because I think it’s anything close to a sure thing that Sale is going to be bad in the postseason. There is plenty of that fatalistic attitude out there — and after seeing how un-Sale like he’s pitched of late, I get it — but that’s not where I’m at. The truth of the matter is we just have no idea what he’s going to look like when the lights come on for the ALDS at this point. That is the scary part. The unknown is terrifying, as if playoff baseball wasn’t scary enough without one of the biggest stars on the roster being a total unknown. ce
In terms of the actual, tangible reasons to be scared about Sale, well, it’s pretty clear. The number one cause for concern for most, and the concern that is certainly getting the most publicity, is the velocity. Sale’s fastball hasn’t been where it normally is since coming back from his injury, and in his last start in particular it was way down. In September his velocity is down to 92.8 mph, per Brooks Baseball, compared to almost 98 mph in both June and July. In his last start of the year, that average was down to 90.2 mph.
As alarming as that is — and it certainly is eye-opening — it’s actually not my biggest concern with Sale. I say that only because I have no idea if he’s throwing at max effort, and I’m not sure of the validity of that average velocity from his last outing. I certainly can’t say this for sure, but watching I saw some fastballs come in at 86-87 mph, and it sure seemed to me like that was a case of misclassifying changeups as fastballs. Either way, we’ve seen Sale mess around with his velocity throughout his career, and we also saw this same concern back at the start of the year before he began to pick it up. Don’t get me wrong, if this is where he sits for the postseason too, it’s a problem. We just have some history of him being able to recover from velocity drops before that I won’t waste too much time being stressed about this.
However, it’s not just the velocity that hasn’t been Sale-like since his return from the disabled list. Although his slider has looked sharp and nasty in his last two outings in particular, the command on all three of his pitches is much more inconsistent than we’re used to with Sale. Watching his starts since his return from the disabled list, what has stood out the most to me has been the inefficiency, which is so incredibly un-Sale like. He’s made four starts in September, and he’s averaged fewer than 20 pitchers per inning in just one of them. Before his second stint on the DL, he averaged 20 or more pitches per inning in just two of his 23 starts. He got his command under control in the middle innings of his last start, but his first and last frame was more of the same.
The good news on this front, and in terms of velocity, is that he and the coaching staff are all insisting that this performance has nothing to do with physical ailments. Instead, they are chalking it up to poor mechanics in his lower half. Even if it was physical, I wouldn’t expect them to come out and say it, but there is some reason for optimism here. Alex Speier wrote about a similar bout with mechanical issues from earlier in the season, and Sale used a long rest to fix those issues and go on a ten-start run in which he pitched to a 0.69 ERA. Pretty nice.
So, at the end of the day, there are reasons to be concerned, and there are reasons to be optimistic that there’s a fix, and there’s reason to believe everyone is just lying and Sale’s shoulder is just straight-up still bothering him. In other words, who the hell knows. Anything could happen with Sale in Game One and I wouldn’t be surprised. I wouldn’t be surprised if he just doesn’t look like himself, because that’s what’s happened for the last month. I wouldn’t be surprised if he goes out and totally dominates, because he’s Chris Sale. I have no idea what to expect. And I hate not knowing.