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One Big Question: Can Chris Sale be counted on in 2020?

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Spoiler: Who knows?! But still read.

Boston Red Sox Spring Training Workout Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/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 singular question — sometimes specific, other times more general — for each player heading into the coming season. We’ll go alphabetically one by one straight down the roster, and you can catch up with the series here. Today, we cover Chris Sale.

The Question: Can the Red Sox count on Chris Sale this year?

I’ve had some good timing with these series previews this spring. A few weeks ago, when we were just getting this started, Mookie Betts’ turn came around at the absolute peak of the swirling rumors, and he ended up being traded just a few days after. It was impossible to discuss him while ignoring all of the noise. A similar thing is happening here, with Chris Sale’s turn coming up immediately in the wake of him needing an MRI and a third opinion and not needing surgery but maybe needing surgery later but really nobody knows. It’s not great! As with Betts and the trade rumors, the injury stuff colors everything we say about Sale at this snapshot in time in which it just so happens to be his turn on the docket. There’s no way to avoid it. We have to go with the simple question here: Can the Red Sox even count on Chris Sale in 2020?

There are a few ways to look at this question. If you’re trying to figure out if Chris Sale will do everything he can to provide as much as possible for this team in the coming year? That’s a resounding yes. Full stop. No further discussion needed. Say what you want about anything regarding this situation, there aren’t many players who will compete harder than Sale, sometimes to a fault.

If the question is whether or not Sale will be on the mound at all or if we’ll find out in a few weeks that he actually does need surgery? Well, there’s absolutely no way for any of us to answer that. If you are coming from that particular point in the future, you should be focused on cashing in on some March Madness bets and nothing else.

If the question comes down to whether or not Sale can be the Sale of a few years ago in which he was unquestionably one of the best pitchers in baseball and a perennial Cy Young candidate? There’s no way to know this for sure either, but we can at least make educated guesses here, and I’m pretty sure the answer to this one is no. Even if he pitches all the way up to his peak talent level — which seems unlikely in its own right, but let’s just play this game for a second — this latest setback will probably keep him out for at least most of April. Just from a sheer playing time perspective he can’t really provide that peak Sale value unless he’s absolutely as good as he’s ever been for five months, and he hasn’t been that guy for a couple years now, and that was without dealing with elbow issues all spring.

Atlanta Braves v Boston Red Sox Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

So, I think the more apt question is simply whether or not Sale can be a good, well above-average but short of elite arm that can lift a shallow Red Sox rotation, even if he’s only mostly healthy. Here, I think you can find some optimism. I mean, just look at last year. Now, obviously Sale did not live up to expectations in 2019, but there are some kernels of hope in there. His 4.40 ERA looks bad — and it’s not great! — but it came in a juiced ball season. By ERA-, it was still nine percent better than league-average.

I can hear you yelling at your device of choice. “Nine percent better than league-average is not good enough for Chris Sale!” First of all, chill out. People can hear you. Second of all, you’re right! However, the peripherals tell a better story. Sale finished the season with a 3.39 FIP and a 2.93 DRA. Relative to league-average after adjusting for park effects, those come in at 25 percent and 40 percent better than league-average, respectively. Among the 130 pitchers who threw at least 100 innings (Sale threw 147 13), those ranked 16th and 10th, respectively. Sale struggled with results because of a terrible left on base rate, a massive home run problem and a few really bad outings that skewed his overall results. He had seven outings in which he allowed at least five runs. He also had seven outings in which he allowed one or zero runs.

Of course, it wasn’t just the results from last year that have people worried about a less-than-100 percent Sale, which is a very real possibility in the coming season. It’s the stuff. Sale just didn’t look like Sale, and that’s not possible to argue with. His velocity was down on the fastball and none of his pitches looked very crisp. However, he still had elite strikeout stuff. Among that same group of pitchers with at least 100 innings, only Gerrit Cole struck out batters at a higher rate. According to Baseball Savant, he had a whiff rate of at least 28.5 percent on all three of his main pitches. His slider and fastball both produced expected and actual wOBAs under .300. Those are great, great numbers.

There was, however, an issue with his changeup. The fastball got the attention because of the drop in velocity, and the slider is always the headliner in a Sale repertoire. The changeup was the problem child, though. My initial assumption was that it came down to a lack of separation in velocity between the fastball and changeup, but at least in terms of average velocity the separation was the same in 2019 as it was in 2018, when the changeup was very good. Movement wasn’t the big factor either, as his vertical movement has been all over the place in his career while the horizontal movement stayed consistent.

Instead, it was a matter of command. Sale is at his best when he is locating that changeup on the edges of the zone and generally a little out of the zone. When he catches the middle of the plate, it is basically a mid-80s batting practice fastball that is thrown almost exclusively to righties, who already have the platoon advantage. It just doesn’t work. Look below at the comparison between his locations of the pitch in 2018 compared to 2019. It’s not great!

2018, via Baseball Savant
2019, via Baseball Savant

There is so much uncertainty around Chris Sale right now that it would be foolish for me to sit here and tell anyone to get excited about his prospects for the coming season. We don’t even know that he is going to pitch! The only thing I can say is this: Don’t write him off completely. If his changeup can just get a little better than it was last year and he can get a little more luck in his favor, Sale can be a reliable starter even if he’s simply most of the way healthy.