Boston Red Sox ace Chirs Sale has undoubtedly been the best pitcher in the American League but can he win the Cy Young with a limited workload?
Chris Sale has been the best pitcher in baseball when he’s taken the mound this season, which unfortunately hasn’t been as often as the Boston Red Sox would have hoped for. A pair of trips to the disabled list with shoulder inflammation have limited Sale’s workload to the point where it may cost him the chance at his first Cy Young award.
Sale leads the league with a sparkling 1.96 ERA but won’t win the ERA title unless he reaches the minimum 162 innings. The lefty currently sits at 147 innings this season. There’s time remaining in the regular season for Sale to receive only three more starts, which may not be enough given the expectation that Boston will monitor their ace’s workload with extreme caution.
We saw the Red Sox give Sale the kid gloves treatment in his return from the disabled list on Tuesday. He was expected to pitch the first two innings but ended up having his outing cut short after a 26-pitch opening frame. Sale finished up his projected pitch count in the bullpen, alleviating concerns that the early hook was injury related. It still further limits his innings total.
The plan is for Sale to gradually build up his pitch count until he’s ready to be unleashed in the postseason. We can’t expect him to go more than a few innings in his next start. He may not last much longer in the turn after that. The Red Sox hope that he can handle more than five innings by the time he makes his final regular-season start but expecting him to average five innings over his last three starts may not be realistic.
Which begs the question – will Sale still warrant consideration for the Cy Young if he doesn’t pitch enough to qualify for the ERA title?
History wouldn’t be on his side. While a few relievers have won the award, no starting pitcher has ever won the Cy Young without qualifying for the ERA title. They have almost always been workhorses who log 200+ innings. 2014 NL winner Clayton Kershaw can be put in the “close enough” category with his 198 1/3 innings. The last starting pitcher to win the award without finishing among the league leaders in innings pitched was David Cone in 1994 when he tossed only 171 2/3 innings.
Could Sale’s brilliant season make him an exception? Not only does he lead the league in ERA, he also tops the league with a 1.95 FIP, 0.85 WHIP, 13.53 K/9, 2.27 SIERA, and 6.6 WAR. He’ll fall short in some counting stats, such as strikeout total, but not by much given how outstanding he’s been on a per-start basis.
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Working in his favor that other AL Cy Young contenders have also missed significant time. Blake Snell is second in the league with a 2.03 ERA but has only thrown 164 innings. Trevor Bauer is holding steady at 166 innings while sitting idly on the disabled list. They rank second and third respectively behind Sale in WAR. While they both qualify for the ERA title, neither has topped Sale’s workload by enough for it to be a significant factor if the race were to boil down to this trio.
That may open the door for Justin Verlander to leap to the head of the pack. His 2.72 ERA trails Sale by quite a bit but is still good enough for fourth in the league. Verlander leads the league with 195 innings and a 7.37 K/BB ratio. He’s also second with 258 strikeouts and a 0.94 WHIP.
Sale has undoubtedly been better than Verlander this year but the difference in workload can’t be ignored. At what point do we say that Sale simply hasn’t pitched enough to beat out Verlander? Does the ERA title requirement draw that line for us or is that an arbitrary number?
A strong case can be made in either direction. It wouldn’t be wildly unreasonable for Verlander to win based primarily on his superior innings total. The rest of his numbers, while not quite as great as Sale, have still been excellent. Verlander will have the edge in wins and strikeout total, which may draw votes from the old school crowd.
However, Sale has been so unbelievably dominant when he has been available that Verlander’s other advantages ultimately may not matter. Nobody should complain if Sale makes history by winning the Cy Young with a limited innings total. Well, except maybe Kate Upton.