Saturday was one of the biggest days in recent Red Sox history — as in the last few years — in terms of an impact on the franchise. It wasn’t a super notable game on its own. They did win by 14 runs, which is at least a little notable in any context, but clearly it was a whole lot more than just one win in a three-game sweep over one of the worst teams in the sport. Rather than just a win, it was how they did it, and more specifically who led the way.
I’m going to assume if you’re reading this that, by now, you realize I’m talking about the return of Chris Sale to the rotation. For the first time in just over two years, the southpaw was back on the mound and electrifying Fenway Park. It wasn’t a perfect start, and he did allow a pair of home runs over five innings of work, but by and large it was effective. Both of those homers were of the solo variety, resulting in the only two runs charged against the lefty on the day. Sale also struck out eight without walking a batter, allowing six hits overall.
Digging a little bit deeper, there was a lot to like about the kind of stuff Sale was featuring in the day. He came out of the gate showing all of his looks, with all three of his pitches — fastball, slider, and changeup — being used right off the bat. Whether it was to see what he did or did not have a feel for, or just to show that he was ready to use all three right off the bat, it was effective. The fastball — and it should be noted he threw exclusively four-seamers rather than mixing in some of the two-seam variety — was sitting with the same velocity we saw in 2019 around 93 mph, and getting up as high as 96. That pitch got whiffs on over 40 percent of swings, as did his slider.
And speaking of the breaking ball, which is clearly his top pitch, he spun some great ones here. As you can see below, there were a few that didn’t really break and were way out of the zone on his arm side, but for the most part the command was on point. He kept the pitch generally in the bottom third of the zone or below it, and had a few particularly nasty ones sweeping to his glove-side of the plate.
So, it’s great that Sale looked, well, great. If he can keep this up — and between this start and his rehab outings, there is plenty of reason to be optimistic about that — then having him take the mound every five days makes a huge impact.
That said, the impact doesn’t start there. Sale’s return to the fold, particularly if he’s something resembling his former self, changes this whole pitching staff. And first and foremost it does potentially give them the bona fide number one for which they’ve been searching much of this season. That’s big in any context, but it’s particularly important for a Red Sox team that has a pretty good chance of playing in a winner-take-all Wildcard Game in October. Obviously it’s not always a guarantee to be able to line up your best pitcher for that day — for example, if they’re still in the division race heading into the season’s final series, they will obviously want Sale in for one of those games — but having that option makes it a little easier to breathe thinking about the potential of playing in that game.
And then there’s the chain reaction of moving everyone else down a spot, which has a bigger impact than one may think. Nathan Eovaldi has been largely fantastic this season, and his All-Star bid was well earned, but he’s also starting to come back down to Earth just a little bit. As long as he’s throwing strikes, he’s going to be mostly effective. Still, a lot of his early season success was built on limiting homers to an extent we’ve never really seen from him in recent years. As that normalizes, Eovaldi is a much better fit as a number two than a number one.
And then you have a lessened amount of pressure on Eduardo Rodriguez, Tanner Houck, and Nick Pivetta. For Rodriguez, his struggles this season have been well-documented. He’s suffered from plenty of bad luck, but is also allowing enough contact that he’s made some of his bad luck. At this point, expecting more consistency in terms of results could prove foolish. As a number three, you can accept some of that inconsistency, and you get a huge bonus if he does shove down the stretch.
With Houck and Pivetta, there are different issues to look at. On an inning-by-inning basis, it’s hard to quibble much about what we’ve seen from Houck at the major-league level. However, he still isn’t going deep into games. Without Sale, there would be more pressure to consistently get six innings out of Houck. But as a number four in this rotation, you can live with five strong and then going to the bullpen. Similarly, Pivetta’s performance has been all over the place. He’s had enough good starts that you don’t want to take him out of the rotation, but enough bad ones that you also don’t want to count on him. That’s perfect for a number five.
And then you get to the two ousted starters with Martín Pérez and Garrett Richards, the latter of whom was pushed out for Sale. I’m still skeptical on their stuff playing up too much in the bullpen, but their impact is simply reduced significantly in these roles. As starters, their issues led to early holes for the rest of the roster to deal with. In relief, as long as they’re mostly avoiding high-leverage spots, any issues just aren’t going to have the same impact on the game and the roster.
All of this is just the on-paper impact that Sale makes, too. The lefty is, in a way, the heart and soul of this rotation. It’s a tight-knit group, and having that kind of presence back in the mix as a participant rather than just an observer has the kind of intangible effect that a team in a tight playoff race needs. It’s not a guarantee that the rotation is going to be great down the stretch, or that we don’t need to worry anymore. But it’s a boost on multiple fronts, getting a potential bona fide ace, moving everyone back down a peg to more appropriate roles, and getting a perfectly-timed intangible boost on top of it all. Chris Sale’s return really does change everything for this pitching staff.