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2019 in Review: Chris Sale

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It was a disappointing year, but with more reason for (very mild) encouragement than is being acknowledged.

Boston Red Sox v Cleveland Indians Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

Welcome to our 2019 Red Sox in Review series. This is, as you can probably guess, where we will be reviewing all of the players who made at least a modest impact on the Red Sox in 2019. Every week day we’ll be deep diving into one player every day. For each edition we’ll describe the season in a sentence, look at the positives from the year as well as negatives, look back at our one big question from the season preview and look ahead to the 2020 season. We’ll be going in alphabetical order of the players on this list. You can look over that list, too, and drop a name in the comments if you think I left anyone out who should be mentioned here. Got it? Good. Today we focus on Chris Sale.

2019 in One Sentence

Chris Sale’s 2019 started with a contract extension, is ending with trade speculation and was filled with injury and disappointment in between.

The Positives

One could easily argue that Chris Sale was the face of the Red Sox’ struggles as a star pitcher on the wrong side of 30 who suffered an injury and was just generally disappointing even when he was on the field. That perception, while certainly not unfair, does mask that there were some good signs for his season. The ERA was much uglier than an ace of a hopeful playoff contender can be, but it was buoyed by much better peripherals with a 3.39 FIP (25 percent better than league-average) and a 2.93 DRA (40 percent better than league-average). Now, it’s totally fair to be a little skeptical about those numbers and they definitely don’t totally make up for the lack of results, but it also shows he may have been a little better than it seemed.

The biggest reason those peripherals were so good, of course, was that he was still able to strike out a whole lot of batters. His 35.6 percent strikeout rate was lower than his previous two years in Boston, but that speaks more to how good he was in those years than any sort of significant decline. Sale was still second to only Gerrit Cole in strikeout rate among all pitchers with at least 140 innings. Per Baseball Prospectus Sale did see his swinging strike rate go down and his contact rate on pitches in the zone went up relative to 2018, but he was still among the best in both categories.

So, the strikeouts and the overall peripherals were good, but praising that was hard to swallow in-season while the results were so poor. There were a couple of months where the results were good, though, and it really looked like Sale was rebounding and ready for a big season. From April 23 through June 21, a stretch of 12 starts for the lefty, he pitched to a 2.44 ERA while opponents hit just .182/.245/.318. Among the 154 pitchers with at least 30 innings during that stretch, Sale was 13th in ERA, seventh in opponents’ wOBA, first in strikeout rate, first in K%-BB% and second in FIP. It’s easy to forget now because of how every other stretch in the season went, but we were legitimately optimistic about the Red Sox ace during this stretch.

The Negatives

So, yeah. For as encouraging as I think some of those things I highlighted above may be, it was not the first season we wanted to see after he signed his extension. I mentioned Sale’s poor results, which came out to a 4.40 ERA. That is actually better than average when adjusted for park effects, but it’s still not what you’re looking for with Chris Sale.

The results weren’t even the most discouraging part of his season, though. For as great as Sale has been for the bulk of his Red Sox career, his durability and general ability to finish seasons strong has always made people uneasy. The 2019 season did not make anyone feel better. Sale ended up making only 25 starts, the fewest he’s ever made since joining Chicago’s rotation in 2012 and his second straight season with fewer than 30 outings. This time around, the injury came midway through August and he didn’t make another start after August 13. Even worse was that an elbow injury cost him this time and he needed to visit Dr. James Andrews. The good news is, by all accounts, things are going well for Sale in his recovery. Still, we’re talking about an elbow injury for a guy who will turn 31 shortly after the 2020 season begins. It’s not what you want!

As far as on-the-field stuff goes, Sale’s control was a little wonky relative to what we’re used to with the lefty. It wasn’t really bad in the context of the league — his 6.1 percent walk rate was still considerably better than average — but it was his worst rate since 2012. Sale has always had great control of the strike zone, but he looked much more mortal in 2019. In this past season, 48 percent of his outings included at least two walks while only 24 percent ended with no walks on the board. Compare that to 2018 when those numbers were 33 percent and 30 percent. Sale actually hit the zone at a higher rate in 2019 compared to 2018, but batters just weren’t chasing as much when he didn’t. Given his style of pitching, particularly with the sweeping slider, if he’s not getting chases things aren’t going to go super well.

Speaking of that repertoire, he actually got solid results from his two main pitches in the fastball and slider. Both were a little off in terms of wOBA and whiff rate compared to 2018 — per Baseball Savant — but they were still very effective pitches. The offering that ended up doing Sale was the changeup. It’s not a pitch he throws terribly often, with Baseball Savant having the usage rate come in at just over 17 percent, but in 2018 it was a great weapon and in 2019 it was not. I do wonder how many of these changeups may have been slower fastballs — we know Sale has a few different speeds at which he throws his heater, and that can mess with pitch-recognition algorithms — but whatever the pitches were they did not work. He did get a whiff on about a third of swings, which is very good, but when balls were put in play they were hit hard. His expected wOBA against the changeup was .368, which was only a little worse than the actual mark of .346. In 2018 those numbers were .259 and .275, respectively. Sale’s fastball/slider combination is still money, but to be elite again he needs that third pitch to come along for the ride as well.

It’s also worth noting that, while Sale had that really good stretch in the first half, he was also quite bad in arguably the two pivot months for the 2019 Red Sox. One could make the case that their performance to open the season doomed them for the entire season, and one could also made the case that the team had some momentum heading into July (they were still 11 games out of the division but only two games out of the playoff picture). With a strong July, they could have been more convinced to make a supplementary move at the trade deadline, and who knows what happens from there. Instead, they struggled and Sale was a big part of both bad periods. In April, he pitched to a 6.30 ERA with a .357 wOBA. In July, it was a 5.86 ERA with a .354 wOBA. In a way, the Red Sox season went as Chris Sale did.

The Big Question

How will the Red Sox get Chris Sale to stay fresh and dominant over the entire 2019 season?

Well, they didn’t.

2020 Vision

Sale is arguably the biggest key for the Red Sox in 2020, and if he’s not number one he’s damn good. For as impressive as Eduardo Rodriguez was in 2019, Boston needs Sale to be Sale at the top of their rotation. It’s worth noting there is some trade speculation, but that seems far-fetched to me. Unless the team thinks Sale is toast, there’s no reason to trade him coming off a bad season that ended with an elbow injury, as they’re getting nothing back for that. I think I’m probably more optimistic than most about the southpaw’s chances to recover while healthy in 2020, but you’d have to have your head in the sand if you aren’t worried about how often that will be.