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If the Red Sox are going to move up the standings, Chris Sale needs to be better

The Sox are still contending for a playoff spot, but it won’t matter if he’s not pitching well.

Los Angeles Dodgers v Boston Red Sox Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

In case you missed Saturday’s game against the Dodgers, Chris Sale had another poor performance. On its own it could be a forgettable night, much like his May 27th stinker against the Braves last year. A season is not won or lost on the back of individual games in the middle of the season, but rather over a season of poor performance from certain players. If you have good performances up and down the roster, you have to trust your team will be fine, because so few teams have the talent to win 90 games in a year.

The Red Sox, despite everything they’ve shown this year, are still one of those teams. They are enjoying standout performances from Christian Vazquez, Xander Bogaerts, Rafael Devers, David Price, Brandon Workman, and a few other players. They are getting quality production from Michael Chavis, Andrew Benintendi, Mookie Betts, J.D. Martinez, and Eduardo Rodriguez, among others.

Some of these seasons, despite being quality on their own, may appear disappointing. Mookie Betts isn’t looking like the guy who won an MVP a year ago. Martinez is hitting well, but the power isn’t quite there. Benintendi seems to have lost whatever power he had, and looks closer to league average. For all of these problems, these players are producing at a level that is at least acceptable related to their expected performance and the contract they are being paid.

Los Angeles Dodgers v Boston Red Sox Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

Chris Sale, despite sitting as we speak with fantastic peripheral numbers and an ERA better than league average, has not been one of these players.

I think it’s possible for a pitcher with fantastic peripheral numbers (his FIP currently suggests his ERA should be almost a full run better than expected so far) to still need to pitch better, and to have a bigger impact on the game and the season. He is the supposed ace of the staff, which means the team relies on his ability to either continue a winning streak, or to stop a losing streak. He hasn’t really done either thing this year. David Price, on the other hand, has played this role admirably, and is a huge reason why the team is able to remain in the playoff picture.

What’s gone wrong for Sale this year? What’s there that he can really fix? It’s not his fault the offense only scored 2 runs last night. It’s not his fault the bullpen allowed a further 6 runs. It’s not (entirely) his fault the Red Sox are 6-13 in games he pitches. There are things out of his control.

This is the worst we’ve seen Sale, but that’s also a high bar for him to clear. His first two seasons were magnificent, and kind of spoiled us. He may have burned out too early in each season, but he was a large part of why we made the playoffs in each of those two years. This season, he’s still striking guys out, and he’s still avoiding too many free passes, but he’s looked a lot more hittable. Part of that may be the baseball being juiced. Is it? I don’t know. (Ed. Note: Yes.) But there’s been a surge of home runs this season at both the MLB and AAA levels, and Chris Sale is allowing more HRs than he’s ever allowed in his entire career. It could just be a coincidence. It could be Sale aging and being easier to hit.

Los Angeles Dodgers v Boston Red Sox Photo by Rich Gagnon/Getty Images

The long ball has not been kind in losses in particular. Last night was the thirteenth game he allowed a HR in (out of 19, remember). Last season, he allowed HRs in 10 games (out of 27). In the 13 games he’s allowed a HR this season, the Red Sox are 2-11. If Sale allows a HR, it’s pretty easy to just write off the game and say we’ve already lost it. Four of those losses are only by one run. The offense could pick him up, the bullpen could pitch better, or whatever. Even if the Red Sox turn it around and win those four games, the Red Sox are only barely better than .500 in games he pitches. This simply is not good enough for the ace of the staff, of a championship caliber baseball team.

Another change for Sale this season has been the walk rate. For the first time since 2014, he’s walking more than two batters per nine innings. While it’s not as exaggerated of a difference as his HR numbers, he’s had a lot of these free passes come back to bite him. Saturday, he issued a leadoff walk that led to a run scoring in the first inning. This got me curious. How does Sale pitch with runners on base? It feels like he does not pitch well.

Last season, Sale pitched beautifully in these situations. Runner gets on, Sale locks it down. Opponents hit just .144/.207/.219 against him in these situations. This is very much what an ace does. He had the 4th best wOBA against in the entire major leagues last season in that situation.

This season, the results are far worse. With runners on, he’s been much less likely to lock the situation down. Not counting last night (because the stats have not yet updated, and I don’t feel like doing the manual calculations), he’s allowed a .240/.288/.455 line against. His wOBA ranks 112th out of 191 qualified pitchers, tied with Dylan Bundy from the Orioles. With runners on, Sale is pitching as effectively as Dylan Bundy does. That is not enough.

Tampa Bay Rays v Baltimore Orioles
Yeah, this Dylan Bundy
Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Finally, Sale just isn’t pitching deep enough into games. He didn’t even get out of the 5th inning against the Dodgers, and this isn’t a new development. He’s lasted longer than five innings in most outings (Saturday was his third time this season failing to get past the 5th), but this is the bare minimum of what we expect out of starting pitchers. Not the ace. He’s failed to get through six five more times, making eight out of nineteen appearances games where he needed the bullpen to get at least 10 outs. Of those remaining eleven games where he got through six innings, he was pulled six times after the end of the sixth, requiring the bullpen to get 9 outs. This leaves a total of five games this season where he pitched deep enough into the game to make the bullpen mostly irrelevant.

Whether the Red Sox win or lose those games at that point is also irrelevant (2-3 in the five games where he at least goes 7 innings). At that stage, it’s more to blame on the offense than on Sale himself. If he’s getting into the 7th inning with a close game (which he has in each of those games), the rest of the team needs to step up.

I’m not sure how to fix Chris Sale. He should be pitching better than he is. The peripherals suggest as much. But they’ve suggested as much for several months now. In his last ten starts, he has allowed 29 earned runs in 60.2 innings, which is good for a 4.30 ERA. League average ending last night was 4.48.

Chris Sale is pitching a little above average. The Red Sox just need more. And they need it soon.