Red Sox: Can Chris Sale avoid first year struggles in Boston?


We’ve seen a number of high profile pitchers stumble in their first season with the Boston Red Sox. Can Chris Sale avoid the same fate?

The highly anticipated 2017 season gets closer by the day, as Boston Red Sox fans eagerly await the chance to see Chris Sale take the mound for the hometown team.

Fans are excited to see Sale join a star-studded rotation, but those standing ovations can quickly turn to jeers if he stumbles out of the gate. The veteran lefty need only look to his fellow co-aces in the Red Sox rotation to see how difficult it can be for even the most talented of pitchers to adjust to this environment.

Rick Porcello‘s first year in Boston was a dud. The Red Sox were so high on his potential that they signed him to an $82.5 million extension early in the 2015 season, only for his performance to leave the front office questioning their projections. Porcello went 9-15 with a 4.92 ERA, regressing significantly from his breakout season in Detroit the previous year.

Last winter, the Red Sox signed David Price to a record deal for a free agent pitcher. He won 17 games in his first season in a Red Sox uniform and led the league in innings pitched, but also posted a 3.99 ERA that was his highest since he was a rookie in 2009. That would be a great season for most pitchers, but not one making $217 million.

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Red Sox fans can be… let’s say, demanding. We have an insatiable thirst for success that demands that our team contend year in and year out. When players fall short of expectations they are bound to feel the wrath from fans and an unrelenting media. They can try to tune it out, but it’s nearly impossible to avoid the critics in a city that considers itself the hub of the sports world. Bostonians have a strong passion for their teams that can boil over into frustration when the season isn’t going as planned.

It can be difficult to adjust to playing in Boston, particularly for players that haven’t experienced an atmosphere like this before. Now it’s Sale’s turn to try to live up to lofty expectations. To his credit, he enters the season with the right mind frame to repeat the performance that has made him an All-Star in each of the past five seasons.

Appearing at Red Sox Winter Weekend at Foxwoods last weekend, Sale was asked if he’s concerned about adjusting to his new home.

"“I’m not really focused on that,” answered Sale, according to ESPN’s Scott Lauber. “It’s the same game. No matter what uniform you’re wearing or what ballpark you’re pitching in, it’s still strike one, strike two, strike three. I just try to keep the same mindset.”"

Sale makes it sound simple, but is it easier said than done? He comes here from a Chicago White Sox team that failed to make the postseason in each of his seven seasons in the majors. Now he’ll pitch for a Red Sox team with World Series expectations, putting him in uncharted waters. His confidence is encouraging, but we won’t really know if Sale can handle the heat until he’s thrown in the fire.

Porcello and Price weren’t lacking in confidence when they arrived, yet by the end of their first seasons fans were ready to run them out of town. Granted, both were burdened with living up to their lucrative contracts, but Sale has to prove that he’s worthy of surrendering two of the organization’s top prospects. There’s no shortage of pressure on the star southpaw.

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What we must remember is that a slow start doesn’t doom the decision to deal for Sale, so we’ll have to resist the urge to turn on him if he’s not his usual dominant self from Day 1. Adjusting to pitching for this franchise isn’t easy, but those that came before him have proven capable of turning it around after fans were ready to give up on them.

Porcello went from being labeled a bust to earning the Cy Young award last season. John Lackey had a brutal first two years in Boston before missing a season due to injury, only to bounce back as a key cog in the rotation during the World Series run in 2013. Josh Beckett had an ERA north of 5.00 in his first year here, but the following season he won 20 games, finished as the runner-up on the Cy Young ballot and carried the team to a championship with a brilliant postseason run.

Price will get his turn to redeem himself in the eyes of Red Sox Nation this year. His tenure in Boston got off to a rocky start and closed with a bitter ending in October, but for a 24-start stretch in between he was one of the best pitchers in baseball. Given his track record, I wouldn’t bet against him putting together a strong season.

Which brings us back to Sale. He seems excited to pitch in Boston and isn’t backing down from the pressure of a demanding fan base. On the contrary, he believes that their passion will fuel him.

Perhaps it will. Sale may very well have the demeanor to handle the pressure, or at least the laser sharp focus to ignore it. We know what he’s capable of and that he’s been among the elite pitchers in the American League for half a decade.

Now we just need him to prove that he can remain at that level wearing a Red Sox uniform.

Next: Update on Winter League performances

Sale has no doubt that he can thrive in Boston and he’s yet to give us a reason to believe otherwise. There may be an adjustment period, as there has been for other star pitchers that came here before him, but in the long run I’m banking on his talent.