Just what is with the magical left arm of Chris Sale? The Boston Red Sox newly enriched star may have some historical fellow lefties to look at.
The contract for Red Sox ace Chris Sale may be significantly higher than originally projected if Sale’s recent low velocity is an indicator of possible shoulder damage. The base contract is for five years and $145M. The contract was commensurate after a physical examination that apparently gave Sale a clean pitching bill of health. And higher will be noted if Sale misses significant time over the length of the contract. Cost per start will eventually be determined.
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Since I am certainly noted for jumping to conclusions were both parties aware of potential issues? And if there were any just what the seriousness was? My further assumption, would the Red Sox attempt to insert a protection clause as they did with John Lackey?
The Red Sox had inserted into the contract an interesting stipulation that gave the team what amounted to a free season meaning league minimum salary if Lackey missed a season.
Lackey’s problems surfaced in 2011 with a 12-12 record, but the real story was the other statistical evidence 6.41 ERA and a more moderate 4.71 FIP. Lackey had the inevitable Tommy John Surgery and missed 2012. Is that the path of Sale? I will place the optimistic argument regarding Sale.
Pitchers reach an age where they must adapt. Rare is the Nolan Ryan or Randy Johnson who continue to issue a smoking heater deep into their MLB careers. Sale has a magnificent skill set with a fastball that can easily reach the upper 90s, a slider that may be the best in baseball, and a quality change-up.
All three are delivered with precision. Sale’s velocity is the topic as it now rests at the very low 90s after just a sample of two games. Sale may have no shoulder issue at all, but simply be in a transition phase with his speed.
Both his slider and change are down two ticks which may also be reflective of either physical or deliberate changes. But there are two other pitchers who I have long admired that may the change from thrower to pitcher. Both have Boston backgrounds in their careers. Both are lefties.
The first is the incomparable lefty Warren Spahn who pitched for the Boston Braves. At the beginning of the 1953 season, Spahn was coming off his fourth consecutive season leading the National League in strikeouts. That spring Spahn injured his knee, pitched in pain all year, and led the NL in wins (23) and ERA (2.10). Spahn relied on great control and a mix of pitches. The fastball no longer became the out pitch. Spahn never again led in strikeouts but churned out eight more twenty-win seasons.
For lefty Frank Tanana who in his early career with the Angels could throw as hard as anyone best demonstrated this by leading the AL in strikeouts (269) in 1975. Two more seasons followed of 200+ strikeouts and then the fastball disappeared. Tanana did miss extended time for a shoulder injury, but the overpowering fastball was gone. From a 9.4 K/9 in 1975 to a 5.0 K/9 in 1980.
Tanana was traded to Boston in 1981 and did little to impress (4-10, 4.01) and signed the following season with the Rangers as a free agent and promptly led the AL in losses (18). Despite the negatives, Tanana remained a viable pitcher for the lower end of a rotation and finished with 240 career wins.
What will Sale become? There are three possible outcomes with the one that Red Sox Nation prays to the baseball Gods will be the most likely that this is just a temporary glitch. The second is the Spahn scenario and that means Baseball Hall of Fame. The last is Tanana where you have a latter-day Barry Zito (I left Zito out). Time will soon tell.