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Tuesday, April 9, 2019

How Concerned Should the Boston Red Sox Be With Pitcher Chris Sale?

The 2019 season is officially 12 games in for the Boston Red Sox. Just 12 games. Of those, ace pitcher Chris Sale has started three of them. That’s a tiny sample size, but optics of those games, encompassing 13 innings, have been terrible enough that Boston fandom around the globe are clutching their respective pearls. They may be justified for this kneejerk reaction.

If Sale wasn’t THE Boston ace and hadn’t JUST signed a mammoth five-year, $145 million extension, reactions may have been a little more forgiving towards his chilly start to the season. After losing to the Toronto Blue Jays on April 9th he is now 0-3 with a 9.00 ERA. He has struck out just eight batters in his 13 innings, while allowing four home runs and a batting average against north of .400. These are stark contrasts to his career marks of a 2.93 ERA and 10.8 strikeouts per nine innings, which is currently the best of all time.

Perhaps the most concerning aspect of Sale’s struggles has been a sudden drop in velocity. His fastball, which he has traditionally thrown at an average of about 95 MPH, is not only averaging about 91 MPH this year, but he is also throwing it far less than usual. FanGraphs not only notes this drop in velocity, but also shows how he is throwing his fastball about 36% of the time, compared to his previous low of 49.2% in 2017. His fastball speed ticked up a bit against Toronto, but is still well below his normal standards.

What makes this most nerve-inducing for fans is not just the money, but the sudden change from being one of the most dominant starters in recent memory to a pitcher would not be rosterable if improvements were not made as the season went along. When Sale is right, he is capable of headlining any team and giving them the type of rotation fire power that makes them an automatic World Series candidate if they can reach the postseason.

It’s also quite alarming that these struggles in 2019 come on the heels of Sale suffering shoulder issues down the stretch last season. He missed some starts, but was not the same when he came back, posting a 4.12 ERA and limited in his durability in the postseason.

Sale is just 30, and while he has experienced fatigue in the past, he has been durable (four seasons with at least 208.2 innings) and avoided major injuries during his career. It’s unfathomable that the Red Sox would have inked him to the extension if there was any inkling of long-term concerns; either health or otherwise. Therefore, what gives? His stuff just isn’t there yet and he is no longer missing bats at a historic pace.

Three games are a completely unreasonable amount of time to pass judgement, but his inability to show what fans have come to expect have only been magnified by the team’s dreadful 3-9 start to the season. Sale has done nothing to help turn things around, but it’s also not all his fault either. He is just the most visible of Red Sox stars most drastically underperforming his expectations.

Ultimately, fans will not sleep well at night until Sale reverts to his old form and notches some wins and starts piling up the strikeouts like cord wood again. What is going on with his fastball must also be addressed. Why is he throwing so less frequently and with such lower velocity? If it’s not health related, then what is it?

Red Sox fans hate losing. They dislike uncertainty even less. The struggles of Sale are combining the two and causing ulcers en masse, as answer are even less forthcoming than team victories. If something doesn’t change soon or explanations made available, Milk of Magnesia will become a hot stock in New England in record time.

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