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Things We’re Excited for In 2023: Chris Sale Trying To Earn His Contract

The lefty ace has a lot to prove — and he knows it.

Boston Red Sox Spring Training Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

Chris Sale’s tenure with the Red Sox has been a lot like Chris Sale himself: the highs as tall as he is, the body of work as slight as his build. In the two years after the team acquired Sale for a handful of prospects, the trade appeared to have paid for itself in the form of 545 strikeouts in 372.1 regular season innings and a Manny Machado sized K to clinch the 2018 World Series. Not long after twisting Machado into the dirt, Sale signed an extension with the team, tying him to Boston through at least 2022.

Since signing the extension, Sale hasn’t been the same guy they paid for. In fact, he’s hardly been present at all. A flurry of injuries both on and off the field have kept Sale off the mound for the past several years and prevented him from having any sort of continuity or rhythm throughout a season. He hasn’t been performing poorly, he just hasn’t been available to perform.

Sale’s contract is guaranteed. He could completely check out and collect his paychecks like countless other MLB stars who signed megadeals then faded into obscurity (see: Sandoval, Pablo). I’ve never been one to worry about a player being overpaid. In most cases, you pay what you have to in order to acquire the player. It’s as if the player earned the contract before they even signed it. Chris Sale, however, would likely disagree with me. Words and actions are two different things, but if you believe his words, Chris Sale is not one to give up. Time and time again, he’s spoken as if he’s disappointed in himself for not living up to the value of his contract. The frustration is evident. He wants to compete. For an athlete of his caliber, that motivation is powerful thing.

You could argue if he actually wanted to be compensated based on his performance, he should have opted out and signed for a lesser amount. Even if he did want to do that, I don’t see a world where Scott Boras would let that happen, and who could blame him? Like it or not, Sale is here for the next few seasons. He wants to be here. He wants to earn his money. And while he likely won’t throw 200 innings or strike out 300 batters in a season ever again, I don’t see why he can’t return to the dominant pitcher he once was.

The two major concerns with Sale are durability and talent. Given his track record, it’s fair to wonder if he’s capable of pitching for an entire season, at any level. The odds of him sustaining some sort of injury are considerable, but his elbow isn’t the ticking time bomb it was back in 2019. Jeff Zimmerman has done extensive research on Tommy John surgery and identified a “honeymoon period” of sorts where pitchers can return to their former ability, to some extent (more on that here). In short, the first season after the procedure is the toughest for a pitcher, followed by a return to form in the next few seasons. In terms of innings, Sale is right in the middle of his “new prime”, so to speak. As for the hand injury, the chances of that being a repeat occurrence are low and doesn’t have much to do with Sale himself, unless we’re to believe he’s cursed by some act of sorcery or voodoo (which might be the case!) I won’t categorically rule that out as I haven’t paid close enough attention to know if he’s done something to warrant a curse, but I’m willing to say it’s unlikely.

There’s still reason to wonder if Sale can still pitch at a high level. We’ve only seen him in short cameos over the past few seasons, so it’s difficult to project who he is as a player at this point in his career. Sale showed flashes in 2021 but never fully returned to form — his velocity was down a few ticks from his peaks in 2017 and 2018, which is to be expected following Tommy John. It’s a miniscule sample, but his first start in 2022 gives us a little glimpse into the condition of his arm and a reason to believe he can still throw quality innings.

The box score from his scoreless season debut was great: five innings, three hits, one walk, five strikeouts. One scoreless start could be almost entirely luck though. Going back and watching the start gives a clearer picture. Throughout the start, he was consistently throwing his fastball 95 MPH and even got up to almost 97 at a point, much closer to where he was at his peak. His slider command was nearly flawless, throwing it both in the zone for strikes and in the dirt for whiffs. His changeup wasn’t great, he had trouble locating it, but even still he flipped it in the zone for a few called strikes. Here’s a clip of him dismantling Brett Phillips with a few sliders and a fastball.

It’s a clinic in pitching theory and execution. He starts off with the slider and gets a whiff, so he follows it up with the same pitch, just a little further out of the zone. He doesn’t get a bite, but that’s not a big deal. In the even count he changes the eye level and locates his fastball well to get a foul ball. From there, he throws another slider in the dirt and doesn’t get a swing. Knowing that Phillips is likely looking for another fastball at that point, he throws a slider in the zone to freeze the hitter for strike three. From the first pitch of the at bat, Sale was in control and didn’t let go. It’s a nearly perfect sequence from Sale in just his third inning in almost a year.

In his final two innings he was clearly dealing with some fatigue and his command abandoned him to an extent, but he still managed to pitch around trouble and induce weak contact. Even in his second game back where he allowed three runs in his only inning, he was hit with some bad luck on soft hit balls and a throwing error that failed to cut down a run at the plate.

All in all, there are plenty of promising signs for a guy who hadn’t pitched consistently for over two years. While he may not be the perennial Cy Young candidate he once was, there’s evidence he can still be a high-end pitcher. On top of that, if you give credence to what Sale has to say in his media appearances, he still has the drive to compete and the desire to hold up his end of his contract. There’s always a chance he goes out there, strains a muscle or gets hit by another line drive and misses time, but if Chris Sale is consistently on the mound, look for him to become the anchor of the Red Sox 2023 rotation.

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