Red Sox lefty Chris Sale may have to reinvent himself as a pitcher

Left-handed pitcher Chris Sale of the Boston Red Sox is now on the comeback trail from Tommy John surgery. How will he adjust?

Chris Sale has finally succumbed to the pain and multiple examinations and will undergo Tommy John Surgery (TJ). The recover time is in the range of 12-18 months so Sale will miss the 2020 season if we even have a 2020 season. A lost season could be good news for Sale and especially the Red Sox whose contract with Sale may be significantly altered with the COVID-19 interruption.

Recovery is just one aspect of TJ with the other far more important being quality of performance returns. There are extensive lists that document failure and success with the most notable success being Tommy John himself. This is not new territory for Red Sox pitchers as Sale just is another to a list of current and former pitchers who have undergone the process. Sale has one significant date that is important – he’s 30 years old and at a stage of his career where skills start to erode even among the pitching healthy.

Sale’s velocity is in the range of mid-90s with his fastball, but his pitching tour de force is his slider – considered one of the best in baseball. In his three seasons with Boston, Sale relied more on his slider than at any other point of his career. The speed spread between Sale’s slider-fastball is generally in the 10-12 MPH range. Sale’s last pitch of note is his least used – a change-up. Sale’s curveball is as rare as an Amur Leopard.

Arm injuries alter pitchers’ mentality with both the PTSD of a re-injury and the necessity to add new pitches. The great Warren Spahn lost some speed but added an occasional new pitch to his repertoire each year. Spahn was noted for pinpoint control and along with Greg Maddux was the best I have ever seen in keeping hitters consistently off stride.

If Sale’s future is one where speed has diminished it is certainly not the end of days for Sale. Another Red Sox lefty of another era came back strong after a year of arm miseries to win 105 games for the Red Sox. Lefty Grove was the ultimate power pitcher leading the American League for seven consecutive seasons in strikeouts while the ace of the great Philadelphia teams of the early 1930s. Traded to Boston, Grove tanked, going 8-8 with a 6.50 ERA. After recovery, Grove never won another whiff title but did lead the AL four times in ERA.

TJ has no guarantees of returning without a glitch. The great unknown but in the case of Sale, his contract provides a $140 million comfort zone. So the idea is to present a positive front and assume the best. If Sale is back in full force sometime during the 2021 season, the Red Sox have their ace and possibly multiple aces if Eduardo Rodriguez is the real deal.

Mechanics have often been mentioned in conjunction with Sale. That became an issue – albeit a minor one – when Sale became a member of the Red Sox. Did mechanics contribute to his surgery? Will Sale alter his mechanics? Both Grove and Spahn tweaked their mechanics.

Sale will be watched and the new best friend will be the all-important radar gun that will keep track of his velocity – an issue that surfaced in 2019 with inconsistency not only game to game but inning to inning.  Will that consistency return? If not Sale will undoubtedly have to change his approach. Just how will his slider be impacted? Will Sale refine the little-used curve? Can Sale keep his BB/9 in the 2.0 range or under?

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I look for Sale to emulate Grove and Spahn. Both were venerable lefties who successfully adapted to a new personal pitching reality.

Sources: Warren Spahn:  A Biography of the Legendary Lefty by Lew Freedman

Lefty Grove: American Original by Jim Kaplan