Evaluating the 2019 season of Boston Red Sox lefty Chris Sale and assigning a grade based on how his production lived up to expectations.
Boston Red Sox ace Chris Sale has been one of the game’s most dominant pitchers of this decade yet it’s fair to question if his best days are behind him in the wake of the worst season of his career.
For a second consecutive season, Sale missed the majority of the second half with an injury. Only this year, the ailment is more concerning since we still haven’t seen him come back from it. Shoulder inflammation shut him down for a significant chunk of 2018 but the lefty returned in September and was a factor in the postseason. This year, an elbow injury shut Sale down in August and he ended the season on the 60-day injured list.
When he did pitch, this wasn’t the Sale we’re accustomed to seeing on the mound. He went 6-11 with a 4.40 ERA in 147 1/3 innings. The American League’s starting pitcher in each of the last three All-Star Games was left off the roster this year and there wasn’t much outcry about a snub considering his unworthy production.
Sale got off to a horrific start to the season, posting an 8.50 ERA through four starts. A reduced workload in spring training may have left him unprepared, as the rest of the Red Sox pitching staff sputtered out to similarly slow starts.
A pitcher’s win-loss record isn’t necessarily in their control yet it was baffling that Sale didn’t earn his first victory until May and his first win at Fenway wasn’t until after the All-Star break. His bullpen let him down a few times but there were plenty of outings where Sale didn’t pitch well enough to deserve the win.
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There were flashes throughout the season that Sale was regaining his previous form. He had a 17-strikeout performance against the Colorado Rockies in May and a complete-game shutout against the Kansas City Royals in June. What he lacked was the consistency that once made him great. Those gems were offset by three other outings in which he allowed 6+ runs. He gave up five runs in three consecutive starts. Even the best pitchers hit a rough patch on occasion but Sale’s were more frequent this year.
Even in his worst season, Sale remained among the league’s elite strikeout artists with a 13.3 K/9. He topped 200 strikeouts for the seventh consecutive season despite making only 25 starts. Sale also hit a significant milestone by reaching 2,000 career strikeouts in fewer innings than any pitcher in MLB history.
His 3.39 FIP was a bit high for his standards but it’s more than a full run below his ERA, suggesting Sale pitched better than it appears on the surface.
The main problem was his control. A 2.3 BB/9 is reasonable for most pitchers but it’s the highest walk rate that Sale has produced since his first season in the rotation in 2012. More concerning was his career-high 1.5 HR/9. Sale allowed 24 home runs despite tossing the fewest amount of innings since he became a starting pitcher.
Sale has finished top-six in Cy Young voting in every season since 2012 but doesn’t deserve to be on the ballot this time. The lanky lefty was expected to be the ace of a formidable rotation but ended up being the poster child for everything that went wrong with this Red Sox pitching staff.
The elite strikeout rate prevents Sale from being deemed a complete bust. He pitched better than his ERA shows but was still a long way from meeting expectations. Perhaps he was on his way to finding his groove down the stretch but the elbow injury prevented us from finding out.
The Red Sox inked Sale to a five-year, $145 million extension in March that ensures he’s not going anywhere, for better or for worse. Sale will turn 31 before the start of next season and has been plagued by health concerns in each of the last two years. His virtually untradeable contract threatens to clog Boston’s payroll for the next handful of years, creating a potential disaster for the franchise if he can’t bounce back to form.
While Sale is expected to avoid Tommy John surgery, the elbow injury will remain a concern until we see him back on the mound next spring. He still has the potential to be one of the best pitchers in baseball but Sale now carries a tremendous amount of risk in the short and long term.