You’re probably familiar with the curse of the monkey’s paw. It originated as a short story written by English dramatist W.W. Jacobs, but has been told and retold countless times over the last century, by everyone from Stephen King to The Simpsons. The gist of the story, if you somehow haven’t seen any of these adaptations, is that, by wishing on a monkey’s paw, a person will get exactly what they desire, but their wish will come at a tragic cost.
What gives the monkey’s paw stories such lasting resonance is that the cost, while unforeseen, is usually a completely logical consequence of the wish itself. So, yes: Lisa Simpson gets her wish for world peace, but after the nations of the world lay down their arms, the defenseless planet is taken over by aliens.
The stories serve as a haunting reminder that joy and tragedy are not, as we so often assume, in opposition to each other. Rather, they are codependent. No amount of human joy allows us to escape tragedy, in part because, without the latter, the former wouldn’t even be worth pursuing in the first place.
On Thursday night, while pitching for the Boston Red Sox in the finale of a three-game series against the Cincinnati Reds, Chris Sale got injured. We knew this was going to happen, just as we know that James Paxton is going to get injured, too. (Sorry to be doom-and-gloom about this, but let’s face reality and enjoy him while we can.)
I had joked about Chris Sale’s inevitable injury several times before the season even began: I wrote that he’d be impaled by a pen dropped from a helicopter covering the marathon on Patriot’s Day; I said his leg would get tangled in a hot air balloon that would carry him over the city as he bounced off one chimney after another. But as it turns out, he got hurt in a much more pedestrian and predictable way: he got hurt pitching.
Throwing a baseball 95 MPH is an incredibly violent act. The shoulder rotation necessary to do so is the single fastest motion the human body can produce, stretching our ligaments in the exact same way a slingshot is stretched. And so, what the act of pitching does, almost inevitably and without exception, is break the human arm. Asking “how can we keep pitchers healthy?” is a bit like asking “how can we keep SEAL Team Six out of danger?” We can’t.
And so we have Chris Sale. He is able to throw a baseball more effectively than almost any other human being who has ever existed, and he has been rewarded for it handsomely, both in the material and non-material sense. His arm has made him wealthy, famous, and an object of worship. But it has come at a cost. Ok, Chris, the monkey’s paw told him, you will be named an all-star seven years in a row, record the final out of the World Series, and earn over $177 million throughout your career — but in order to do so, you will need to break your body; and one day you will completely and entirely lose the thing that has given you your very identity. The monkey’s paw strikes again.
Curt Schilling has said a lot of things, and most of them aren’t worth listening to. But, prior to the start of the fateful 2004 season, he said something about pitching that’s as true as anything I’ve ever heard. He was talking about the importance of starting pitching health, and he said that, at the end of the season, the best team will often be the team whose top five pitchers started the most games.
That proved to be remarkably prescient that year, as the Sox top five pitchers in 2004 — Pedro Martinez, Derek Lowe, Tim Wakefield, Bronson Arroyo, and Schilling himself — would combine to start an astounding 157 of 162 games (shout-out to Byung-Hyun Kim, Pedro Astacio, and Abe Alvarez for covering the other 5.) Take a look at other successful Red Sox teams and you’ll see a similar pattern: the 2018 team had 4 pitchers who made at least 23 starts; the 2007 team had 5 pitchers who managed that feat; the 2013 team, often aspirationally compared to this one as a team of seeming castoffs who might nonetheless surprise, had 4 pitchers start at least 27 games.
At the moment, the 2023 Boston Red Sox have just one single pitcher on pace for over 24 starts: Tanner Houck, who currently carries a 5.46 ERA. This should not be a surprise! The 2022 Red Sox had just two pitchers start 24 or more games: Rich Hill and Nick Pivetta. Rich Hill was not retained by the Red Sox, nor were Michael Wacha and Nate Eovaldi, the arms who started the third and fourth most games for last year’s team.
There were plenty of legitimate reasons to let Hill, Wacha, and Eovaldi leave. But nonetheless it must be said: the 2022 pitching staff was a disaster, with 12 different starters combining to produce the 7th-worst ERA+ in all of baseball; and yet the only thing the Red Sox did to address it in the offseason was add Corey Kluber, a 37-year-old who put up an ERA+ of 84 last year. The Red Sox pitching plan this offseason was, simply, to hope that Chris Sale, James Paxton, and Garrett Whitlock — three guys who have made a combined 26 starts over the last three years — would pitch more this year.
Well, Chris Sale has pitched more this year; his 11 starts are the most he’s made since before the pandemic. Garrett Whitlock’s 5 starts already represent more than half the number of starts he made last year. And Paxton’s 4 starts are 3 more than he made the last two seasons combined. But cue the monkey’s paw: between these three guys, we already have 4 combined IL stints.
Wishing for healthy pitching is an unfortunate reality of being a baseball fan in the modern era. But wishing shouldn’t be a team-building strategy. But the reality is that, though they refuse to admit it publicly, the Red Sox front office views 2023 as a bridge year, just as they’ve viewed each of the prior 3 seasons. And so, wishing is all we got. It won’t be enough.