Red Sox ace Chris Sale could return sooner than you think

FT. MYERS, FL - MARCH 1: Chris Sale #41 of the Boston Red Sox throws before a Grapefruit League game against the Atlanta Braves on March 1, 2020 at jetBlue Park at Fenway South in Fort Myers, Florida. (Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images)
FT. MYERS, FL - MARCH 1: Chris Sale #41 of the Boston Red Sox throws before a Grapefruit League game against the Atlanta Braves on March 1, 2020 at jetBlue Park at Fenway South in Fort Myers, Florida. (Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images) /
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Boston Red Sox ace Chris Sale’s recovery form surgery is going great

Chris Sale won’t be available when the Boston Red Sox open the 2021 season but the latest update on the pitcher’s recovery from Tommy John surgery provides optimism that he’ll reclaim his rightful place at the top of the rotation sooner than expected.

The Red Sox aren’t planning on having Sale take the mound until June but his progress suggests that he could beat that timeline. He underwent surgery nearly nine months ago and will be approaching the one year mark when the season opens. Rehabilitation from Tommy John surgery usually takes about a year. While it can take longer, in some cases taking up to two years for pitchers to regain their previous form, Sale’s progress appears to place him on the shorter end of that range.

Sale’s agent, B.B. Abbott, provided an encouraging update that suggests Sale’s recovery is on track for him to return to vintage form, according to Alex Speier of the Boston Globe.

"“The recovery is going great,” said B.B. Abbott. “If anything, they’ll be holding him back. From a work ethic standpoint, he’s not going to fall off at all. He’s going to be in a good place physically. … I think on the other side, he’s going to look like the old Chris Sale. I don’t anticipate anything different from him.”"

Sale has started long-tossing with plans to throw off a mound in January. Barring a setback, Sale could be ready for game action by late-March or early-April. That doesn’t mean the Red Sox can plug him back into the rotation right away though. He will have missed spring training by that point and will need at least a month to build up his arm strength.

That still makes the June projection feel a bit conservative. We know that Sale will be chomping at the bit to get back on the mound. His excellent work ethic will ensure he is prepared. If the Red Sox get off to a decent start that puts them in the hunt entering May, Sale would be even more motivated to rejoin the team. It’s not out of the question that Sale could return about a month ahead of expectations.

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Abbott suggested that the team might take a cautious approach by holding Sale back even if he’s physically ready. That’s not a terrible idea. The Red Sox have a lot invested in their ace and they won’t want to rush him back too quickly. If Boston stumbles in the first few weeks to dig themselves into an early hole, the team will have less incentive to allow Sale to push himself.

He’ll have plenty of rust to shake off after missing an entire year and we’ve seen what happens when Sale isn’t given sufficient time to build up his arm. Following their World Series run in 2018, the Red Sox limited Sale’s innings in spring training ahead of the 2019 season. He struggled out of the gate, losing his first four starts while posting a brutal 8.50 ERA before finally finding his stride.

Pitchers usually don’t see a significant decline in velocity following Tommy John surgery – in some cases it even goes up a tick. It’s not uncommon for veteran pitchers to see their velocity down a bit early in the season though so the Red Sox will want to see him throwing that mid-to-high-90s heat before activating him. They also need to ensure that his surgically repaired elbow can handle the torque of his trademark slider and that the pitch still has the same bite.

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Sale has several obstacles to overcome on his road to recovery but if he meets these challenges without any setbacks, there’s reason to believe that he will be back to his old self ahead of schedule.

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