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One Big Question: Can Chris Sale reclaim his status as one of the best pitchers in baseball?

Even when he’s not at the absolute top of his game, Chris Sale is still a good pitcher. But will we ever see vintage Sale ever again?

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Texas Rangers v Boston Red Sox Photo by Omar Rawlings/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 Boston Red Sox 40-man roster and identifying a key question for them pertaining to the coming season. 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, at least as things are scheduled right now. Obviously, the lockout may change the timing of the season, and it also means we will likely see more additions of new faces. If need be, we will add some weekend posts to fit any and all additions to the 40-man before Opening Day. You can catch up with every post by following this link. With that, today we cover Chris Sale.

The Question: Can Chris Sale reclaim his status as one of the best pitchers in baseball?

Normally, I don’t count down the days until the end of the summer. It’s probably just a relic of my childhood when the end of the summer meant going back to the classroom instead of just wearing a long sleeve shirt while I work. Regardless, when the calendar flips to August and inches toward September, I’m usually lamenting summer’s inevitable demise.

However, last year, I felt a little differently (as I’m sure many Red Sox fans did) because the closer we got to the summer’s twilight, the closer we got to the return of Chris Sale from Tommy John surgery. Although his exact return date wasn’t etched in stone in the beginning of the 2021 season by any means, it seemed like he was on schedule to get back sometime in August or September. This led to a pretty intoxicating swell of hype the closer Sale got to being ready for game action, including a sweet new nickname for the southpaw and some crowds at his rehab starts in the minors that had the same fever as the ones on opening night for Avengers: Endgame.

On Aug. 14, 2021, Sale finally returned to the mound for the Red Sox, making a start at Fenway Park against the Baltimore Orioles. The Saturday afternoon game was appointment viewing for anyone with a hint of interest in the Red Sox. After all, it had been almost two years to the day since his last appearance.

Once the game started, all the waiting was over and Sale could just pitch and he pitched … pretty well. Across five innings, he struck out eight batters and allowed two earned runs, setting a pretty nice baseline to start his comeback. As the rest of the season progressed, he more or less stayed in that lane of pretty good. He made nine starts, logged 42 23 innings and produced a 3.16 ERA and 3.69 FIP. All in all, it was a solid, if not spectacular, return to baseball for Sale, as he never fully hit ace-hood while never looking entirely terrible for too long either.

For a lot of pitchers, Sale’s production at the end of 2021 would be more than satisfactory and for the most part, that’s how it was for Sale. But when you have ascended to the heights that Sale has during his career, satisfactory and above average aren’t the descriptors you’re used to hearing. Of course, expecting Sale to just be the same guy who made seven-straight All Star appearances and finished in the top six or better in American League Cy Young voting every year from 2012 to 2018 in his first handful of outings after Tommy John surgery wasn’t exactly fair, and, as mentioned before, he still pitched well. However, that makes 2022 a pretty defining season for him, as we are likely going to found out if the Sale of old is still in there somewhere or if he’s gone forever.

Of course, when I say the “Sale of old,” I’m talking about the halcyon days from 2012 to 2018 when Sale was in contention for the title of best pitcher in baseball. In addition to the accolades I just mentioned, during those seven seasons, Sale struck out 1,678 batters in 1,388 innings, netting an ERA of 2.91, a FIP of 2.84 and an ERA+ of 143. He also led the AL in strikeouts twice, including when he tossed an MLB-best 308 in 2017 during his first season with the Red Sox, and was the AL leader in complete games twice, doing so an MLB-best six times in 2016. During that seven-year stretch, only Clayton Kershaw and Max Scherzer accumulated more wins above replacement among qualified starting pitchers than Sale, according to FanGraphs.

Unfortunately, in 2019, Sale’s longtime dominance faltered. He was still solid, but a 4.40 ERA (even if that was a bit unlucky when you look at his overall body of work) pointed to some deterioration and ultimately led him to need surgery in the spring of 2020.

New York Mets v Boston Red Sox Photo by Kathryn Riley/Getty Images

So, when you put it all together, we actually haven’t seen brand name Chris Sale in more than three years, which raises the question: What’s been missing?

To start with, Sale’s velocity really took a dive in 2019 and 2021, as he averaged below 94 miles per hour on his fastball both years, according to FanGraphs. Sale’s average velocity has dipped below the 94 MPH mark for full seasons before, even during that great seven-year stretch we were just talking about, but he’s someone we’re used to seeing hit 95 on the gun more often than not. It’s very likely that the dip in velocity in 2019 was a result of an arm that would eventually need surgery, and like most of his production in 2021, there was only so much he’d be able to do in his first handful of starts after recovery. Still, declining velocity is never a good thing.

In addition to his fastball losing a little mustard, Sale’s strikeout numbers weren’t on par with his career work in 2021, although he somehow kept it up in 2019. Last year, his strikeout rate hung in at 28.4 percent, which is still good but not at the mid-30s level he’d produced in the three previous seasons. The good news is, Sale has had sub-30-percent strikeout rates before and still been lights out (see his 2012, 2013 and 2016 rates for proof). The bad news is when taken in combination with other declines elsewhere on his resume of late, including an increased tendency to give up home runs and a slowly increasing walk rate, it can start to spell trouble.

But let’s get back to that good news. Like I said, Sale doesn’t necessarily have to be a 35 percent strikeout rate guy to be elite, and since his slider still looked good for the most part last year, there’s every reason to believe he can make things work with a slightly diminished heater. As I’ve tried to make clear throughout this piece, even during his down years in 2019 and 2021, Sale was still a good pitcher; he just wasn’t the elite ace the Red Sox expected him to be when he signed a five-year, $145 million deal before the 2019 season, especially considering the incentives it included that were tied to awards.

While we shouldn’t necessarily take Sale’s performance in 2019 and 2021 as gospel for what he’ll be going forward, especially considering he had major surgery sandwiched between those two campaigns, it is entirely possible that Sale is just in a different phase of his career now. That might mean he’ll no longer be throwing fireballs and racking up insane strikeout totals and instead getting more precise with his location and crafty with his slider and the rest of his arsenal. Using such an approach, he can still be a very good pitcher, maybe even an ace. But, if there is a season in 2022, we’re going find out if vintage Sale still has the sauce that made him more than that.

Statistics in this post from FanGraphs, Baseball-Reference and Baseball Savant.