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What can the Red Sox realistically expect from Chris Sale in 2021?

Chris Sale is getting closer and closer to returning to the mound for the Red Sox, so let’s try to set expectations for what he might contribute in 2021.

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Houston Astros v Boston Red Sox Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

Optimism about Chris Sale’s return has reached a fever pitch this week. The one true ace of the Red Sox, who has not pitched since August of 2019, has gotten in some real work in Boston this week and is not mincing words when discussing just how much he wants to be pitching once more. As some have put it, “boogeyman’s coming.”

The progress Sale is making in his return from Tommy John surgery would be exciting at any time, but considering how well the Red Sox have played this season, there’s no denying that seeing a light at the end of the no-Sale tunnel is extra enticing right now. At 37-25, the Red Sox are just one and a half games back from the Rays for first place in the American League East and well within the race for the AL wild card. Although they are far from a flawless team, we’re past the “it’s too early” phase of the campaign, meaning the Red Sox will likely be contending deep into the fall. When they do so, Sale may be along for the ride and contributing to their success.

Just a few months ago, both a Sale return and contention for the Red Sox seemed a little far-fetched. Although the Red Sox have been pretty consistent in saying that Sale would be back and contributing at some point in 2021, as we’ve seen with guys like Noah Syndergaard and others pitchers recovering from major injuries, the path back to the mound is far from an easy one and nothing is guaranteed. However, Sale appears to be right on schedule with the Red Sox’s expectations, even if he would like to speed things up a bit himself.

Of course, with all hope, there needs to be some level of realism brought in. Sale isn’t going to go out and start tomorrow night and probably won’t be on the mound until at least after the All-Star break, if not later. However, with an actual end date to his recovery within shouting distance, it’s time to start looking at what the Red Sox can realistically expect from Sale this season and what he’ll need to show to indicate he’ll be ready to go all out in 2022. After all, Sale’s current deal will have him in Boston through the 2025 season.

Starting with general expectations for a Sale return, I’d expect the Red Sox to be exceptionally cautious and to ease him back into the grind of being an MLB pitcher. Although there’s a possibility that could lead to a bullpen role, I expect the Red Sox are more interested in getting him ramped back up to starting duty. Ramping up is the operative phrase. During his Red Sox tenure, Sale has averaged a little more than six innings per start, with that number obviously higher during healthier stretches, but there’s no way he’s going to be asked to go deep into games much in 2021, if at all. That means we’ll likely see some level of pitch and inning limits each time out, leading to outings of five, four, or even three innings, depending on how much he has to exert to get through frames. For a guy who routinely threw up seven- and eight-inning efforts when healthy, it will be a change for sure, but it's all part of the process.

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

Moving beyond game-by-game expectations, it seems likely that Sale will be held to an innings limit regardless of when he comes back in 2021 and regardless of how far the Red Sox get in October. I could be wrong, as the chance to win a title may outweigh the risk, especially with how competitive Sale is, but given how cautious the Red Sox have already been with his recovery, putting that all on the line for a shot at glory would be out of character. In total, I’m expecting somewhere between five to 10 starts and maybe 40 to 50 innings for Sale, assuming he comes back at some point after the All-Star break. Several projection systems back up this expectation. For example, Steamer currently expects Sale to make nine starts and log 52 total innings. It also expects him to strike out 69 batters and post a 3.01 FIP in that time. The Red Sox would certainly be pleased with that.

Now that we’ve laid out some realistic expectations for how much Sale will pitch, let’s determine some reasonable metrics to evaluate Sale’s performance in his return. Expecting the exact same guy from 2017 isn’t exactly fair, but seeing some improvements in what ailed him prior to surgery will indicate he is on his way there to some extent.

To start with, Sale really needs to get back his velocity. Sale has always been a pretty hard thrower, but his fastball lost a ton of zip in 2019 before he was put on the shelf. He averaged 93.5 miles per hour on his heater that season, which was down nearly two miles per hour from 2018 and more than a full mile per hour below his career average. Sale isn’t going to flirt with triple digits, especially on his return, but seeing him get back into the 95 to 96 range with his fastball more consistently will be a welcome sign.

As long as we’re discussing specific pitches, Sale will also need to display his customary snap on his slider. One of the best pitches in baseball over the last decade, Sale’s slider was flatter than usual in 2019, yielding a mark of -1 in run value, according to Baseball Savant. For context, his slider had a -17 run value in 2018 and a -13 run value in 2017. Surprisingly, Sale’s slider didn’t lose much in terms of speed during 2019, but it lost a bit of horizontal break compared with 2018, making it a less devastating pitch.

Assuming he can get his arsenal back to being world class, Sale also needs to nail his location more consistently than he did in 2019. Although he still had an impressive strikeout rate, Sale’s walk rate that season rose to six percent, which was only a small leap from the year before, but it also marked the first time since 2012 that he was at six percent or higher.

Of course, Sale doesn’t need to just throw strikes but strikes in good spots. One of the most worrisome trends of the 2019 season was Sale’s sudden propensity for giving up hard contact and home runs. After posting a 26.5 percent hard hit rate in 2018, according to FanGraphs, Sale let up a career-worst 36 percent hard hit rate in 2019. In fact, it was only the second time in his career that he has surpassed 30 percent. A lot of those well struck balls ended up over the fence, as Sale posted career-worst marks in home runs per nine innings (1.47) and home run per fly ball rate (19.5 percent). To put those numbers in perspective, Sale’s career marks in those categories are 0.95 and 11.9 percent, respectively.

All in all, it’s really exciting that Sale’s return is nearing, but we likely won’t get peak Sale back right away, which means we’ll see he and the Red Sox focus on incremental improvements across a gradual ramp-up whenever he does start pitching in 2021. Or maybe I’m being too safe and Sale will really be the bogeyman of MLB right away.