Red Sox 50th anniversary throw-down: Chris Sale vs. Jim Lonborg

TORONTO, ON - AUGUST 29: Chris Sale
TORONTO, ON - AUGUST 29: Chris Sale /

The Boston Red Sox are celebrating the 50th anniversary of the remarkable 1967 Impossible Dream season. Just how do the two aces of their respective staff’s matchup?

Jim Lonborg later became a dentist in Hanover, Massachusetts, but in 1967 he was the best pitcher in the American League, earning the Cy Young Award as the ace of the Boston Red Sox.

Nicknamed “Gentleman Jim,” the 6’ 5” right-hander was certainly no gentleman as he led the AL in hit batters with 19. That is a remarkable achievement for someone who posted a 2.7 BB/9.  The previous year Lonborg managed only seven, getting a dent from one of his tosses. There is a reason behind this sudden selective deterioration of control.

The Red Sox had a new manager, one Dick Williams. Williams was a veteran of the wars between the New York Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers of the 1950’s and that certainly left an impression on the younger Williams. One of most impressionable participants was Giants pitcher Sal Maglie.  Maglie had the nickname “The Barber” for his ability to give a batter a close shave and Maglie became Boston’s new pitching coach with his first project being Lonborg.

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Lonborg was instructed to take control of the inside of the plate – give a hitter no mercy or quarter. Lonborg was obviously a willing student and even kept notches on his glove to record his “kills” much like a fighter pilot keeping score.

The Red Sox had a good staff in 1967, but only Gary Bell and Jose Santiago managed double-digit wins as starters – each with 12.  Lonborg led the AL with 22 wins and down the stretch was the go-to guy with a 4-2 August and 4-3 September. The most significant of games was the very last one against Minnesota when Lonnie tossed a one earned run for a complete game win.

There is also a game that I vividly remember that Lonborg tossed prior to his Twins effort.  Lonborg faced off against the Cleveland Indians with the Red Sox in desperate need of a win. Lomborg took the Fenway mound and proceeded to get bounced around for a 6-0 loss. Of note is the park was just half filled.

The difficulty of any comparison to the past with the present is just how the game was played.  I have an asterisk for all statistics before 1947 for obvious reasons. In 1967, pitching was in charge. The league starters had a 3.27 ERA, 3.34 FIP, and 1.21 WHIP.  Lonborg was 3.16, 2.95 and 1.14. The league had a .261 BABIP and Lonborg a .270 BABIP.

Lomborg won the Cy Young Award and with today’s heavy emphasis on metrics, he may have fallen short. Dean Chance of the Twins won 20 games and had the league-best 6.7 fWAR. Jim Kaat also pitched for the Twins and had a 6.4 fWAR.  Lonborg’s fWAR was 5.7.  Lonborg led the AL in starts (39) and strikeouts (246) along with wins and hit batters, but in 1967 the significance of wins was weighted higher than today.

Chris Sale has seen his Cy Young hopes vanish with a lackluster September and the continued impressive performance of Corey Kluber. Sale took an impressive high note game in reaching 300 K’s and got toasted with four Toronto home runs to stifle any serious September run at the CYA.

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Since the end of July, Sale has been ordinary, but his ordinary is still impressive.  The issue has been one of consistency and good and bad seem to rotate in his starts. The reality is Sale has been the fix all for this staff since the season began. Even in a “slump” Sale is still the ace or leader of the rotation.

Statistically, Sale is different from Lonborg when compared to league average – a significant advantage in that category. A few pitching nuggets I value point this out.  The American League starters have a 1.35 WHIP and Sale is at 0.97. Traditional earned run average is 4.55 for the league and 2.90 for Sale.  For metric fans the new ERA is FIP and Sale has a league-best 2.45 to the league average of 4.57.

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Sale is a clear victor in the comparison based on how each performed against league average.  Both Sale and Lonborg were instrumental in keeping their squads in contention, but Lonborg had less support from his fellow rotation members. Lonborg had that last crucial game victory in 1967 and Sale will not have that opportunity, but Sale will have the opportunity to match or exceed Lonborg in the coming playoffs.