For the second-straight year, the Boston Red Sox are eagerly anticipating the return of Chris Sale. The seven-time All-Star starting pitcher was absent for the entire 2020 season and most of the 2021 campaign while recovering from Tommy John surgery, but he got back on the mound and made nine starts during the stretch run last summer. Over the course of those nine starts, which totaled 42 2/3 innings, Sale looked pretty good, posting a 3.16 ERA and 3.69 FIP while striking out more than 10 batters per nine innings. However, there were still some shortcomings, which made us wonder if we would see vintage Sale in 2022 (or ever again for that matter). Unfortunately, the answer to that question remains on hold, as Sale was put on the 60-day injured list before the season with a stress fracture in his rib cage.
While the new health issue was obviously disappointing for Sale and the Red Sox, his return appears to be at least on the horizon, albeit without an exact date. Forget a date though, as some of the rumblings from the last week paint an unclear picture of what Sale’s spot on the staff will actually be when he does return, at least initially, with the possibility of Sale contributing as a reliever floated out there, although as MassLive reported, “bringing Sale back as a fully built-up starting pitcher is Boston’s preferred plan.”
With that bit of uncertainty lingering around Sale’s role once he’s back to MLB action, it’s worth examining the case for and against him spending some time as a reliever once he does return. So, let’s look at some of the pros and cons of Chris Sale, professional baseball reliever.
Pro: It would get Sale back sooner
Part of the long recovery process from a serious injury isn’t just letting the bone, ligament, tendon or whatever else heal; it also requires a lengthy bit of conditioning and training to get back to game shape. Just like every player needs spring training (and maybe a week or two to start the regular season) to get into the rhythm of full game speed, those returning from injury can’t just go from the recovery room to the field in one fell swoop. Patience and preparation are required and for pitchers, that means simulated games, live batting practice and rehab appearances in the minors, sometimes with a long progression from the lower levels to Triple-A. The general idea is to build up arm strength and recover velocity. But what if Sale could do a little bit of that while also contributing at the big-league level? That’s what he’d be able to do if he threw out of the bullpen, as he wouldn’t need to be ready to throw five or six or more innings right away. In that way, the Red Sox would get the benefits of a pitcher of Sale’s caliber (albeit in smaller doses) without having to wait until later in the summer or later.
Con: Relieving requires a different mentality and skill set than starting
Even though the line between starting pitching and relief pitching has blurred to an extreme degree in recent years, there is still a different approach to be taken depending on the type of situation a pitcher faces. Most starters are expected to go for a long time, so stamina is important, meaning pitchers need to know how to conserve energy to remain effective for longer periods of time. Changes in pitcher usage and the introduction of the opener throws a wrench in that calculus, but there are still plenty of starters who operate under this kind of expectation. Relievers, even those who pitch multiple innings at a time, have a bit more freedom to go all out with every pitch and can often just focus on a single inning or run through the order, eliminating as much of a need to be frugal with energy excretion and to have multiple strategies for each hitter. Based on his track record, there’s no reason to believe Sale can’t go back and forth between those two types of pitching (more on that later), but, ultimately, the Red Sox need Sale to be a starter, so getting him to build himself back into one by asking him to fulfill a different job could backfire or prolong the process.
Pro: The Red Sox need bullpen help
The Red Sox’s bullpen has been fine this year, but it’s far from an elite group. Boston relievers rank 17th in baseball in fWAR this season (1.2) and aside from Tanner Houck and John Schreiber (at least recently), just about everyone else has been pretty inconsistent, and it’s not like Schreiber and Houck haven’t had their rough moments. Plus, with Matt Barnes on the IL and struggling mightily when healthy and with Josh Taylor also on the IL, the depth of the group has thinned even more. Most average MLB pitchers would be an upgrade for the Red Sox’s bullpen at this point, let alone someone with Sale’s abilities, especially if his velocity really is coming back.
Cons: The Red Sox might need rotation help more
Even if we don’t include Sale, the Red Sox have a loaded rotation on the injured list, with Nathan Eovaldi, Garrett Whitlock and James Paxton all sidelined currently. That leaves the starting rotation rather thin for the club, even if Nick Pivetta is going full super Saiyan currently. Behind Pivetta, Michael Wacha and Rich Hill are still solid and Kutter Crawford looked pretty good in his first start of the season earlier this week, but there is very little depth from there, especially MLB-proven depth. That means the Red Sox need to do everything they can to get Sale back as quickly as possible to help with any other issues that crop up during the course of the season, and it’s just not clear that having him work out of the bullpen will accomplish that goal.
Pro: Sale has been good as a reliever before
During his career, Sale has made 80 regular season appearances as a reliever, logging 95 1/3 innings of work and posting a 2.55 ERA with 112 strikeouts. In addition, he has also pitched in relief in the postseason, with his last such appearance coming when he struck out the side to clinch the 2018 World Series. Basically, if Sale pitches in relief, the Red Sox will win the World Series, right? OK, maybe not, but there is some precedent that Sale can succeed in the bullpen.
Con: Most of Sale’s relief experience is from more than 10 years ago
The pro section above loses water fast because Sale has never thrown an inning of relief in the regular season for the Red Sox and he’s only made three postseason relief appearances for them. Pretty much all of Sale’s actual relief experience comes from his first two seasons in the majors in 2010 and 2011. During those campaigns, he was just coming up with the White Sox and making a pretty strong case for being a late inning reliever by saving 12 games while accumulating 94 1/3 of the 95 1/3 total relief innings of his career. But that was quite a while ago. I mean, we were still in phase one of the Marvel Cinematic Universe at that point and Google+ was the hot new social media platform, or at least Google thought it was. Anyway, the point is that we can’t really use Sale’s experience as a reliever as a positive here since it is from more than a decade an entire Infinity Saga ago.
So, what have we determined here? For every pro, there’s a con for this potential experiment, meaning there isn’t really a clear answer. However, for my money, I’d prefer if the Red Sox just work on getting back Sale as a starter regardless of how long that may take. Maybe Sale would be a pretty good reliever, but we know he can be an absolutely elite starting pitcher. Since we don’t know how much longer he can keep being one (if he can even get back there at all), the Red Sox should be doing everything they can to give him the best chance at getting back fully. As my good pal Mike Ehrmantraut said, “No more half measures.”