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2021 in Review: Chris Sale had some issues, but showed promise in return

There is some optimism for the southpaw heading into 2022.

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Championship Series - Houston Astros v Boston Red Sox - Game Five Photo by Omar Rawlings/Getty Images

Welcome to our 2021 Boston 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 2021. Every weekday we’ll be deep diving into one player, describing the season in a sentence, looking at the positives from the year as well as negatives, looking back at our one big question from our season preview and looking ahead to the 2022 season. Today we look at the year that was for Chris Sale.

2021 in one sentence

Chris Sale returned back from Tommy John surgery after a methodical comeback trail and was able to pitch well in the regular season before hitting a bump in the road come postseason play.

The Positives

First things first: he made it back healthy and generally looks like himself. Comebacks from Tommy John aren’t immediate. Command is often the last thing to come back and feel for pitches can drift off, but the fact that Sale came back and was something relatively close to the pitcher that he resembled before is a positive. And let us not forget that before a postseason that went off the rails, he put up a 3.16 ERA in the regular season with good strikeout (28.4 percent) and walk (6.6 percent) rates. I’d say that aside from those two pitches to Yordan Alvarez in the ALCS, he looked pretty great in his final postseason start, too.

The Negatives

His changeup got rocked. In the previous three years, Fangraphs’ pitch values rated his changeup at 7.4, 8.4, and 2.4 runs above average. His changeup this year was valued at -5.2 runs below average. Or, put another way, hitters slugged .615 against it. His command of the pitch was particularly brutal. It’s unclear whether it’s mechanical, or maybe he doesn’t have the feel for it. The former can be addressed during the offseason and in spring, and the latter might come with time as he recovers from his surgery. Either way, he needs this pitch to be good if he’s going to pitch like the ace he was before the injury issues.

Sale had problems with the long ball, too. They weren’t as bad as 2019 — and some of that likely has to do with the league environment, mostly related to the actual baseball — but it was bad nonetheless. Homers typically come from mis-located pitches, and as mentioned several times before, command is generally the last thing to come back from Tommy John. As Sale gets older, he’ll probably start giving up more homers, but there’s room for optimism here.

That said, the decreased fastball velocity doesn’t help here, either. In fairness, 93.6 mph can play well with his deception, but not as well at 95 does. Sale’s 2021 velocity mirrors his 2019 velocity more or less, which doesn’t bode well for a potential bounce-back to his glory days.

Sale’s performance throughout most of the playoffs left a lot to be desired, too, although, I thought his start against the Astros was excellent aside from two middle-away fastballs to Yordan Alvarez. Sale had his ace stuff that night, which did provide hope for next season even if it was the last we saw of him in 2021.

The Big Question

Will Chris Sale immediately be able to command his fastball?

This is a bit complicated. He had starts where he had it to a T, but there were other starts such as the one he had in the ALDS against Tampa Bay where he was either nibbling or couldn’t spot his fastball. There were also individual starts where command wavered throughout the outing, like against the Nationals to end the regular season. He had it more often than not, though and the good walk rates reflect that.

2022 and beyond

For the first time since he’s been healthy and a member of the Red Sox, I’m not sure Sale is the ace of the staff anymore. Nathan Eovaldi has been great in his stead. They’ll still need Sale to pitch like one either way, though, if the rest of the rotation is any indication. The problem with that is that he’ll likely be on an innings limit, putting a cap on how much value he can bring. The big things to watch from him are fastball velocity, consistent command, and for the changeup to return to form. If two of those three things happen, he should be great. If all three happen, he’s in contention to start the All-Star game. If only one of the three happens, he’ll be good, but he won’t be getting any Cy Young votes and people will wrongly complain about his contract.