The Red Sox got their 2019 season underway, and the quest to become the first repeat champions since the turn of the century....well, it didn’t go so great. The good thing about baseball is that they play every day and they’ll have 161 chances to get this bad taste out of everyone’s mouths. It always feels more important because it’s the first game, but at the end of the day it was just one bad game. That’s not to say it wasn’t frustrating, of course, because it was. The offense had some good moments but really should have opened up a bigger lead over those first two innings. Both Rafael Devers and Eduardo Núñez picked up where they left off last year in the field. The bullpen looked mostly like how we expected it to, which is obviously not a compliment. Whether or not these things will continue to carry on through the season is a conversation, but whether or not it was fun to watch is pretty clear.
Of course, above all of those other issues the one that stood out the most was definitely the performance from staff ace Chris Sale. Fresh off his big extension, all eyes were on the southpaw after his 2018 ended on a downward note marred by injuries and inconsistency on the mound. This outing did not put anyone’s mind at ease. In the end, Sale tossed just three innings and allowed seven runs on six hits (three of which were home runs), two
, a hit batter and four strikeouts. It was up there with the worst performances we’ve seen from Sale.
When you combine these results with the concerns heading into the year, you can understand the uneasiness around the fanbase following this outing. While it’s generally not wise to react too strongly to anything after one outing, it’s at least understandable where people are coming from. The aforementioned shoulder injury has been on everyone’s mind all winter, as even despite Sale’s career-long durability that can always end in the blink of an eye with any pitcher. There were also concerns about how he’d pitch without Sandy León behind the plate as well as the normal (not to say fair) concerns about how any player will perform after signing a big contract. Again, it’s not fair to really ruminate on any of these concerns after one bad outing, but these were in the minds of fans before the start and this opener did not ease anyone’s feelings.
Above all else, the main concern people seem to having is with Sale’s velocity. On Thursday, the southpaw was averaging just under 93 mph with his fastball, compared to an average velocity of just under 96 mph in 2018. That’s a big difference! It’s also not a huge reason for concern after this outing.
If you’ll recall, this is the exact conversation we had at this point last year. Granted, Sale was outstanding at the start of 2018, but that was for reasons we’ll get to in a minute. Since Alex Cora has become the manager of the Red Sox, rest has been a staple of this team. Cora has insisted on easing his players — and particularly his pitchers — into the season. At the start of this past offseason, he said he would be even more extreme this season given the heavy workload from last October. All of that makes plenty of sense!
I mentioned that Sale averaged just under 96 mph with his fastball last season, but that was largely because he was throwing 97-98 in the middle months of the year. In April of 2018, there were the same concerns we have today about his velocity. Now, to be fair his velocity on Thursday was lower than it was last April, but only by 0.6 mph. That’s hardly a major difference. As Dana LeVangie said after Thursday’s game, Sale is no different than last year.
Now, just because the velocity isn’t super concerning at this point doesn’t mean there’s nothing to point to here. In that same linked quote from the pitching coach about Sale’s velocity he mentions very real mechanical issues. Specifically, LeVangie says Sale was opening up his front too early which led to command issues. If you watched the game, you surely noticed the command issues as well. Sale was missing his spots left and right — something Jessica Mendoza pointed out in the booth in the first inning — and too often those spots were being missed up in the zone. This is where the lack of velocity came into play, because if he was up in the 96-98 range, those misses wouldn’t have looked so bad. If you are missing in those zones with 91-93, however, major-league hitters will destroy it. That’s exactly what happened.
Moving forward, I know I will certainly be watching Sale’s starts a little more closely over the next couple of weeks. Not that I wasn’t watching closely before but, well, you know what I’m saying. The command, the mechanical issues that led to the command being off, are what I’ll be watching for. Sure, the velocity is not ideal, but this is how they are approaching Sale right now in trying to get him to last through the entire season. If he’s still throwing in the 91-93 range once May rolls around, then there will be real concern. For right now, though, the focus should be on Sale commanding all of his pitches and then we can move from there.