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One Big Question: What’s the plan to keep Chris Sale fresh all year?

It’s really the only question for Sale in 2019.

World Series - Boston Red Sox v Los Angeles Dodgers - Game Five Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

Welcome to Over the Monster’s One Big Question series. For those unfamiliar, this is something of a season roster preview where over the next 40(ish) (week)days we’ll be taking a look at each player on the 40-man roster prior to the season. If changes are made to the roster between now and Opening Day, we’ll cover the newly added players. Rather than previewing what to expect in a general sense, the goal of this series is to find one overarching question for each player heading into the coming season. We’ll go one-by-one alphabetically straight down the roster, and today we talk about Chris Sale.

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

If Chris Sale were to never pitch for the Red Sox again from this moment forward, I think it would be fair to say the team got their money’s (or, more accurately, their prospect’s) worth from the left-handed ace. They won a World Series with him at the head of the rotation — even if he wasn’t quite pitching to that level in the postseason, which we’ll get to soon enough — and they’ve gotten two elite seasons from Sale, even despite the question marks. He has been everything the team could have asked for and more since the day he was introduced as a member of the organization and he’s legitimately electrified Fenway just about every time he takes the mound. We haven’t seen anything like it since Pedro Martinez left town, and chances are we’ll have to wait a while before we see anything like it after Sale’s time here ends, whenever that may be. In terms of baseline, natural talent, there are no questions with Sale. When he’s healthy and rested, he is arguably the best pitcher in baseball and at the very least on the short list for that title.

Boston Red Sox Victory Parade Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

Of course, that “when he’s healthy and rested” is doing a bit of work in that sentence, and it is exactly where the lone pressing question with Sale lies. For as amazing as Boston’s ace had been — and again, in totality he has been everything they could have hoped for — he has not been his consistently dominant self in September and October. It’s been the case in both of his seasons in Boston, and it was the case while he was in Chicago as well. It’s not that he totally shuts down late in the year — he’s had plenty of amazing starts down the stretch — but he is a lot closer to mortal.

For his career, the southpaw’s ERA in September is 3.76 and he’s allowed a .747 OPS. On its surface, that’s not that bad. It’s not ace-caliber, but you can certainly get by with numbers like that. However, it becomes much more noticeable when compared to his career 2.89 ERA and .618 OPS allowed. That’s a stark difference. In 2017, he pitched to a 3.75 ERA in September (and a 4.38 ERA in August) while allowing an .875 OPS. In 2018, he was hurt for most of the second half, making just five starts after July 27, none of which lasted more than five innings. He did put up solid numbers in those starts, but the workload wasn’t there and he pitched to a 4.11 ERA in 15 13 postseason innings. I’ll say again, none of this comes close to outweighing what he has done in the first five months of the year — and in 2018, you can make the argument he was better than ever before he got hurt — but avoiding another late-season slide is clearly something both he and the team want to shoot for.

The Red Sox are clearly going to head into 2018 with a plan to keep Sale fresh and effective through the 2019 season. They are going to have a plan with every starting pitcher after last year’s deep run through October, of course, but given Sale’s history it’s likely they spent a little more time with this one. There are really two ways to go about it. The first is for him to take it easy earlier in the year. This sort of happened last year when he started the year with his fastball sitting around 92 mph and panic set in everywhere. He eventually ramped back up to his more normal 96-97 by May. I wouldn’t be totally surprised if he took a little more time to ramp up this year, though he’s obviously more vulnerable to worse results with lesser stuff. It’s a fine line to walk.

The other option would simply be working more days off into his schedule. Alex Cora is already doing that to start the year, going with a six-man rotation right off the bat. With guys like Brian Johnson and Hector Velázquez, and Mike Shawaryn eventually, available, this should be a tactic they use during any long stretch without a day off. The latter option is more appealing than the former, though I suspect a combination of both will be used.

Boston Red Sox Photo Day Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

That’s really all it comes down to for the Red Sox. If they were in a different division, it would be easier to set a firm plan to stick to through the entire season. In the America League East, one would assume it will be a close race with the Yankees all year, and every win will count. They’ll have their long-term interests at heart, but if they do fall behind early in the year they may be tempted to sell out for short-term success to avoid falling too far back. It’s also worth mentioning that Sale is going to be a free agent at the end of the year, and having to have his workload managed may not help him much on the open market. I don’t anticipate any major issues between the ace and the team on this issue, but it may be easier to handle this if there’s an extension in hand and Sale knows his future. There is mutual interest in a deal, for what that’s worth.

We know that, as he’s healthy, Sale is going to spend most of the year wowing us almost every time he takes the mound. That’s just who he is, and it’s the reasonable expectation right now. Still, there will be some doubt around him all year for what he’ll be able to do later in the year. Both the pitcher and the team are aware of it, and it’s up to them to find the plan to keep him fresh all year. Expect to see fewer starts and fewer innings from Sale to start the year, and probably some lower velocities as well. If it helps ensure he’ll be his peak self in September and October, it will certainly all be worth it.