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One Big Question: Will Chris Sale get his fastball command back right away?

If not, he won’t be the help they’ll likely need him to be.

Boston Red Sox Spring Training Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

Welcome to the annual Over The Monster One Big Question season preview series. Over the next 40(ish) days, we will be running through every player on the 40-man roster and identifying a key question for them pertaining to the coming season. This should run us up to the start of the season, at least as it is scheduled now. We will go through the roster in alphabetical order. For the most part, these will run Monday through Friday every week running up to the week before Opening Day, though expect some weekend posts mixed in as well as the 40-man is expected to continue to be altered before the start of the season. You can catch up with every post by following this link. Today we take a look at Chris Sale.

The Question: Will Chris Sale immediately be able to command his fastball?

I really wasn’t sure whether or not Sale should be included in this series. He’s obviously not on the 40-man roster right now, having been transferred to the 60-day injured list at the earliest possible date as he continues his recovery from Tommy John surgery. At this point, it’s not even clear when exactly he’ll be able to return to the team, to say nothing of what he’ll look like when does. That being said, if the Red Sox are going to make a surprising run at the postseason that will almost certainly include a significant contribution from Sale over the second half of the season. They have a path with their current rotation to hold things over until Sale can come back, but it’s hard to see them finishing things off without him. And so his importance in that sense makes it feel like he should be here even with the questions and his lack of a 40-man spot.

We should start with that timeline, though, because that is the first step here. It’s still not entirely clear what the team is thinking here. On the one hand, they justifiably want to be careful with their best pitcher. On the other hand, this is Chris Sale and he’s not really one to take things easy. There will be a lot of push and pull, and obviously whether or not there are setbacks will play a significant role here as well. That said, I think if the team is contending and his rehab goes reasonably well, he should be back somewhere in July, which would give them about a half-season with him in the rotation. Again, it’s still too early to be super confident, but that’s my base expectation at this point.

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

When he’s back is only part of the question. There’s also the question of who he is when he comes back. I’ve seen some people wondering if he could come back as a reliever to end the season, but I don’t think that’s in the cards right now, nor should it be. If he has some setbacks along the way and his return gets pushed back to mid-August, then I would consider that as a way to get him some time in the majors ahead of 2022 without over-exerting him. But if he is back midway through the year, he should and almost certainly will start. That’s part of the “who?” question.

The other part, and the more difficult part to answer, is how well he will pitch. At this point, Tommy John surgery is seen as almost routine by many, which is an overestimation of how easy it is to come back right away after the procedure. It’s still a very long process and even with the physical issues aside, there is plenty of rust to be shaken before a pitcher gets back to his old self. For Sale specifically, I’d suspect how much of that rust is shaken in rehab starts down on the farm versus in the majors comes down to the team’s place in the standings combined with the state of their rotation at that point. If they need help and are in a position to shoot for a playoff berth, they could have him come back for some four-inning starts to work himself back up in the majors.

For me, when he comes back the think I’ll be watching the most is his fastball. However, it won’t really be the velocity I’m most concerned with. I mean, if Sale comes back and he’s sitting 89 with his four-seam and isn’t pushing it any higher, then that’ll be different. But I won’t really concern myself too much with the difference between 93 and 96. Most of that is because Sale throws like four different fastballs, and some of them are slower than others. He has velocity, but he’s not good because of his velocity.

Instead, he’s good because of that sweet, sweet slider along with his ability to set it up with impeccably located fastballs. And it was that location that led to him being so inconsistent before he was finally shut down for good in 2019. Yes, there were some velocity issues, but it was more that he wasn’t hitting his spots with the heat. He was either yanking them, leading to his highest walk rate since 2012 (though it was still only six percent because he’s still Chris Sale), or he was leaving them in the middle of the plate.

As a result of the latter, he gave up 12 homers on the fastball — that’s the most he’d allowed with the pitch as a member of the Red Sox despite making fewer starts than his other two seasons — and opponents had an average exit velocity of 92 mph against the pitch. According to Baseball Savant, he had never allowed an exit velocity that high against any of his pitches dating back to 2015 when Statcast first started tracking the data.

And as I said, the fastball is just as important for Sale as a set up pitch as it as one to get whiffs, even if it historically does induce a bunch of those too. But the key for Sale is that he is throwing competitive strikes early in counts to get ahead of hitters so he can then toy with him. At his best, he is working that fastball in the upper edge of the zone, only to drop that back-foot slider that is just impossible for righties to hit. But when he’s throwing the pitch right down the heart of the zone, the batter is going to hit it hard, even against Sale.

There are a million questions for the southpaw heading into this season, even if we only limit it to the rehab stuff. We have no idea when he’ll be back, or how long it will take him to work up his stamina, to say nothing of where the team will be competitively when he does return. All of that context is important here. But beyond all of that, if the Red Sox are in a position where they can make a run and they need Sale to be something close to the Sale we know, don’t get too distracted by the fastball velocity. As long as that’s solid, he’ll be fine if the location is where it needs to be. If it isn’t, it doesn’t matter how hard he’s throwing it because it will be open to some hard contact regardless.