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OTM Roundtable: Is Chris Sale definitely the best starter?

Probably, but let’s find out for sure.

Houston Astros v Boston Red Sox Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

It’s a big weekend for Red Sox fans, with Chris Sale getting set to make his return from the injured list after missing time going all the way back to this point on the calendar in 2019. The southpaw has been working his way back from Tommy John for two years, and it will all culminate in his return on Saturday. Given how important he is for this Red Sox team, especially the way they are playing now, I wanted to know if even after all this time off the staff still expected him to lead this rotation down the stretch, or just merely be a big part of it. I asked whether or not Sale will be Boston’s best starter the rest of the way.

Scott Neville

Chris Sale has a good chance to be the top performing Red Sox starter the rest of the way. Granted, there is not a lot of competition at the top right now. I expect Sale to be the most dominant pitcher when he’s out there, but be limited by his pitch count. I fully expect Sale to have the lowest ERA on the staff down the stretch run, but pitch far fewer innings than Eovaldi and Pivetta. Sale is a strikeout pitcher, which typically leads to a lot of “waste pitches” when the count is 0-2, 1-2 or even 2-2. In his last rehab start Sale threw 89 pitches in just 4 23 innings, allowing two hits, three walks and eight strikeouts. I think his typical line will be roughly five to six innings, two runs or less, a couple walks and a lot of strikeouts. He’ll get sharper as the season progresses, but I think he’s going to throw more balls than expected. That said, he’ll be one hell of an upgrade over Pérez.

Stephen Thompson

It would be unreasonable to expect the pitcher fresh off a year of injury rehab to immediately be Chris Sale again. But once he can put major-league innings under his belt, I expect Sale to become the de facto ace. Whether this is a credit to his abilities or just pessimism about the rest of the rotation, I think Sale will eventually overtake Rodriguez and Eovaldi and be the man Alex Cora turns to in Game 1 of a hypothetical playoff series. That said, my faith in Sale often feels like wishful thinking. The longer Boston’s struggles persist, the more Sale’s return looks like the last resort of a faltering team rather than reinforcements for a championship contender.

Bayleigh Von Schneider

Tommy John Surgery is in no way an easy surgery to bounce back from, but let’s also be real, is there any surgery that’s easy peasy lemon squeezy? Short answer, no. This surgery, and this surgery alone, is why Chris Sale will not rank amongst the top performers in the Red Sox rotation moving forward. To ask arguably, when healthy, the best left handed starter in Major League Baseball to be his vintage self again, right off the bat, seems like quite the ask.

Will Chris Sale push himself too far? Will his tenacity and drive have the upper hand? Truly, and honestly, I’d say no. The Red Sox have done a sensational job with Sale’s rehab, and looking from the outside, Sale’s handled himself with the utmost professionalism. In his rehab starts back, Sale has accumulated 20 innings in five starts, pitched to a 1.35 ERA, walked five and struck out 35 batters. In Sale’s final rehab start he was stretched out to 89 pitches, and is slated to face the Baltimore Orioles at Fenway on Saturday, August 14th, his first big league start in two years.

Kansas City Royals v Boston Red Sox Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

My belief is that from a pure performance standpoint, Sale will look like, well, vintage Sale at times, as he has during his rehab. Vintage Sale was never diligently watched before, he was allowed to air it out, pitch at minimum seven innings, and at times strikeout seventeen men, just to stay in shape. To expect that type of performance every fifth day, from the 2021 version of Chris Sale just seems to be a hope, and a dream. Will Chris Sale be a major improvement over the 40 percent of the Red Sox rotation that has been near the bottom of the league from a starting pitching standpoint? Undoubtedly. A top three of Chris Sale, Nate Eovaldi and Eduardo Rodriguez, with Tanner Houck and Nick Pivetta rounding out the back of the rotation is better than a lot of rotations Major League Baseball offers in 2021.

Chris Sale’s innings will likely be shortened, his pitch count heavily watched, and his work between starts most likely monitored more vigilantly. He’ll pitch extremely well, I believe, he just will not be asked to shoulder the load like he was prior to Tommy John Surgery. For the 2022 season, however, I believe vintage Sale will return. We will see him pitch at an elite level, and quite frankly he might just be better than ever. The rest of baseball should shudder at the thought of a better than ever Chris Sale. Watch out, MLB, the Boogeyman’s back!

Michael Walsh

Chris Sale should almost certainly rank as the Red Sox’ best starter for the rest of the season. He’s a top-tier ace with massive strikeout potential, and although Nate Eovaldi and E-Rod are having solid seasons (yes, E-Rod is), they just don’t have the stuff and the swing-and-miss potential that Sale has. The only caveat is that both Eovaldi and E-Rod are built up to starter workloads, while Sale will likely be handled delicately as he continues to progress. However, even factoring in an innings deficit, Chris Sale is too good to not expect ace-level performance.

Brady Childs

At first I misread this question and thought Matt was asking where he’d finish among starters in year end performance, which is an interesting question in of itself because before the season PECOTA projected Sale to lead the staff in WARP with something like 80 innings. Now, he’s not going to hit 80 innings and PECOTA didn’t have anyone else throwing more than around 124 innings if I recall correctly, which would’ve suppressed their value. He’s going to eclipse Pérez and Richards in total value down the stretch because they’ve been so bad, depending on what WAR metric you use, he could eclipse Rodríguez (B-Ref has him being worth .6 WAR, while he leads the team in Baseball Prospectus’ WARP with 1.9 which Sale will not surpass). Eovaldi’s spot seems safe. He could creep up on Pivetta’s 1.3 WARP mark, but probably not his 2.1 rWAR mark.

So yes, I think Sale is the best pitcher on the team for the rest of the year when he gets back because he’s a better pitcher than anyone else on the staff. It’s unfair to expect him to single-handedly pitch the team back into the division lead considering he’s fresh off TJ recovery, but he’s the ace until he’s not.

Shelly Verougstraete

I think that Chris Sale will be our best starter going forward. Eduardo Rodriguez and Nathan Eovaldi are just too inconsistent while Nick Pivetta and Tanner Houck simply are not as talented as Sale.

Tamp Bay Rays v Boston Red Sox Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

Steven Brown

Considering Chris Sale has not taken the mound at the major-league level in nearly two years, it is somewhat bold to say that he will come back and immediately reflect as strong of numbers as his track record shows over the course of his career. Then again, Sale has looked dominant in nearly every outing he has had while rising through each respective rank of the organization’s minor league system. The current core of starters in Boston has clearly been both great and downright insufferable on numerous occasions, with two of the five starting pitchers having already been demoted to the bullpen.

I expect Chris Sale to ease himself back into action whether that be by getting right to business and shutting down the opposing offense as he has so many times before or faltering in some early outings in his late-season debut. I predict the former will be the outcome for Sale’s abbreviated 2021 campaign and by season’s end, he will be back at the top of his game. He did not show any clear signs of regression after rehabbing his injury for the first half of the season, which was clear as he managed to strike out numerous batters while on the mound. He should be able to slide right back into his familiar No. 1 spot and be a force that can help Boston get back to its winning ways for the remainder of the season, giving the rotation a much-needed anchor to make a push for the playoffs.

Phil Neuffer

On an inning-by-inning basis, I expect Chris Sale will be back to his regular form. Every report I’ve seen from his rehab starts have shown that he still has dominant strikeout stuff and is ramping back up his velocity. The only thing that would hold me back from saying he’ll be No. 1 without a question is what kind of limits the Red Sox put on him. It seems unlikely that he’ll be allowed to go deep into games right away, if at all, which could open the door for Nathan Eovaldi to keep his hold on the title or for Eduardo Rodriguez or someone else to be the better pitcher just by volume. But, hey, the “boogeyman” is back and I’m expecting him to be great, so I’ll say No. 1.

Mike Carlucci

Given his performance during rehab, his track record before injury, and the current state of the Red Sox rotation I think Chris Sale will slot very comfortably as the third best pitcher. While I’m placing him behind Nathan Eovaldi and Tanner Houck, this isn’t expecting Sale to be “a number three” but rather that the other two will be excellent and Sale will be returning from injury and likely experience some bumps along the way.

Over 20 minor league innings Sale struck out 35 against just five walks. Basically the Chris Sale you remember. The limiter is that this is a sample of 20 innings over five games. Alex Cora has been a careful manager. We’re not going to see 110 pitches from Sale. We may not see 100. We may not even see Sale pitch every five days - why risk it? Even though the Sox are still in the playoff mix, Chris Sale’s recovery is about 2022. The next month and a half will be preparing him to retake the ace mantle in the spring.

Bob Osgood

If this question was posed as “Where will Chris Sale rank among Red Sox starters in 2022?” my answer would be “first, in all categories”, without hesitation. I have no hesitations that Chris Sale will be a true ace next year as he enters his age-33 season. There are few, if any, more competitive individuals on the mound than Sale and I know that he wants to prove that he is worth every dollar of the five-year, $145 million contract that runs through 2024. However, for this year, I have to learn historically from Tommy John surgery, where the command and control returns in year two. I expect a lot of 4 2/3 to 5 1/3 performances in the 90 to 95 pitch range with 6-8 strikeouts. This will, of course, be incredibly useful to a staff that is already hitting their innings thresholds coming off a short season. I predict that over the final month-and-a-half of the season, Sale will rank 2nd in strikeouts and ERA but 3rd in innings pitched, wins, and WHIP. All I know is that I can’t wait to see that lanky gentleman on the hill again at Fenway on Saturday at 4:10 ET.

Brendan Campbell

Even with the way the Red Sox have played as of late, the hype surrounding Chris Sale’s return on Saturday should still be immense around Fenway Park and beyond. I’m not implying that we should expect elite stuff from Sale right out of the gate, but his 2021 debut – and first major-league start in just over two years – will be exciting to watch, nonetheless. That being said, I think Sale will rank second or third among Red Sox starters the rest of the regular season. I say that because, even though we are all understandably looking forward to Saturday, expectations for how Sale performs should be held in check, at least initially. Additionally, if Eduardo Rodriguez and Nathan Eovaldi can build off what they did against the Rays this week, then I think some pressure would be taken off Sale and would be able to settle into a nice rhythm and routine as he makes his way back from Tommy John surgery.

Matt Collins

I honestly thought that this question would get 100 percent yeses. It didn’t, but it was close. My plan was to swoop in here at the end and provide my hot take that he will not be the best. But that thunder has been stolen. That said, there will likely be a start or two where he just doesn’t look the same, as it takes time to get that constency back after such a long absence. Normally that would be fine, but with so little of the season remaining that can really hinder the overall numbers. I think one of Nathan Eovaldi or Eduardo Rodriguez is going to have a big stretch run and be better than Sale down the stretch. If I had to pick, I’m a little more confident in Eovaldi right now, but I could see either one doing it.

Bryan Joiner

I think Sale will be number one. Bold take I know, but with the way the other guys are going, it shouldn’t be a tough ask. If they waited this long to get him ready, he ought to be ready, and if he’s ready, he’s the guy.