Boston Red Sox ace Chris Sale faded down the stretch last season, which he explains may have been due to the pressure to prove himself early on.
Chris Sale was everything the Boston Red Sox could have hoped for and more in his first season with the team.
The lefty won 17 games, posted a 2.90 ERA, nearly set a single-season franchise strikeout record, started for the AL squad in the All-Star Game and finished second in the Cy Young race. Despite all that success, Sale still can’t shake the late-season fade that soured his season.
After a dominant first half that garnered whispers of a potential MVP campaign, Sale stumbled in August by going 2-2 with a 4.38 ERA. The low points of that stretch included a pair of shellackings at the hands of the Cleveland Indians, as his old AL Central nemesis knocked him around for 13 runs in eight innings over two starts that month. He was also shelled for five runs in his final regular season start by the Toronto Blue Jays as he chased Pedro Martinez‘ franchise strikeout record.
The rocky road to reach the regular season finish line was merely a precursor to rough postseason. Sale coughed up seven runs in five innings to take the loss in Game 1 of the ALDS against the Houston Astros. He pitched brilliantly in relief during a must-win Game 4 but was left in the game a bit too long and was tagged with another loss after giving up a pair of runs in his 4 2/3 innings of work.
It’s not about how you start in Boston, it’s how you finish. Sale learned that lesson the hard way last season, so this year he’s taking a different approach to help avoid a second-half fade.
In an appearance during the Red Sox Winter Weekend, Sale explained he felt that he had to prove himself to his new team after he was acquired from the Chicago White Sox for a massive prospect haul.
He showed up to spring training ready to go with his arm nearly in mid-season form by the time he made his regular season debut on April 5. The pressure to make a strong first impression fueled Sale to a dominant first half but it wasn’t sustainable.
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That’s why Sale plans to take a more gradual approach this spring to build up his arm strength for the long-haul rather than come out blazing from the start.
Managing Sale’s workload a bit more would also go a long way toward keeping him fresh for the stretch run. He led the majors with 214 1/3 innings last season, a year after setting a career-high with 226 2/3 innings. Sale’s pursuit of 300 strikeouts may have swayed former manager John Farrell into leaving his ace on the mound longer than he should have. Alex Cora will need to avoid making the same mistake. Sale is a workhorse capable of handling 200+ innings but there is no need for him to be leading the majors in that category when the team anticipates needing him to throw some additional innings in October.
Sale has shown Red Sox Nation that he’s worthy of the ace mantle. With the pressure to prove himself behind him, Sale can focus on the big picture. If he stumbles through spring or has a rough outing in April, don’t panic. It’s all a part of the plan to work his way up to mid-season form rather than burst out of the gate on fire.