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2023 In Review: Chris Sale Was Back! And Then Not Back. . .

The lefty ace was good when he was healthy.

Detroit Tigers (2) Vs. Boston Red Sox (5) at Fenway Park Photo by Barry Chin/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

2023 In One Sentence

The Chris Sale we know and love is back. . . but at this point “the Chris Sale we know and love” is very much an injured Chris Sale.

The Positives

Let’s start with this: Chris Sale pitched more than twice as many innings in 2023 than he did in the previous three years combined. Granted, we saw so little of Chris Sale during those three years that it felt like he was one of those things that the pandemic took from us forever, like business travel or scorpion bowls, but nevertheless, we got to see one of the most talented pitchers of his generation pitch again, and that’s a wonderful thing.

And it wasn’t as if he was a shell of his former self out there, either. During his most successful stretch of the season from mid-April to June his velocity was back to where it was in 2019 and he was pitching deep into games. Take a quick look at his Savant page and you’ll see a whole lot of red:

Baseball Savant

He wasn’t quite “Cy Young contender Chris Sale” but “top-of-the-rotation Chris Sale” wouldn’t be a bad thing for him to settle into in the final years of his infamous contract.

The Negatives

Well, about that innings total: while he did throw more than twice as many innings as in the previous three seasons combined, his final innings tally was just 102.2 ( a number is significantly lower than his innings total in any season from 2012-2019), thanks to a midseason stress reaction in the shoulder.

I’ll step forward here and admit that I was one of the people last offseason repeatedly shouting some variation of “Chris Sale’s injuries haven’t been pitching related! He’s going to surprise you!” And sure, broken pinkies and bike accidents shouldn’t be seen as indicators of long-term health issues. But the fact is that people have been questioning whether someone with the build of Jack Skellington could withstand the rigors of a Major League workload for years. No matter how good he looks from time to time, Chris Sale’s body simply cannot be relied upon. Watching him pitch is like watching a teetering Jenga tower: it’s fun but you know it’s all going to come crashing down eventually.

Best Game Or Moment

Instead of one game, let’s go with the entire month of May. Sale struck out 30 hitters over 26 innings that month while maintaining an ERA of just 2.42. Moreover, his four starts came against the Phillies, Padres, Cardinals, and Diamondbacks, three teams with lineups that finished in the top half of the league in OPS+ and a fourth that currently sits one win away from a surprise run to the World Series.

One Big Question

My first instinct was to go with “Will Chris Sale ever be healthy again?” But, sadly, I think we all know the answer to that question. So instead let’s go with “Can we live with the 2023 version of Chris Sale next year?”

It’s seems almost certain that he will never again provide production that matches his contract. But if he can be a solid/occasionally dominant starter for three-to-four months next season in between stints on the DL, then he could still be a valuable member of the Red Sox — provided, of course, that the Red Sox do not count on him anchoring the rotation and go out and get some serious pitching help.

2024 And Beyond

2024 is likely the last season that Chris Sale will pitch in a Red Sox uniform. (His contract includes an option for 2025 that vests if either the Red Sox exercise the option, or if he finishes 2024 healthy and in the top 10 of the Cy Young voting, which, lol to both.) Is he going to be remembered for the dominance of his early tenure and his postseason heroics in 2018, or is he going to be remembered for his albatross contract? The answer, of course, is both. But what he does next year could go a long way towards defining his legacy one way or the other.