The Red Sox undoubtedly made the biggest move of the offseason by sending prized prospects Yoan Moncada, Michael Kopech, and others to the White Sox for ace Chris Sale. On paper, this gives the Red Sox a decided edge in the AL East, as they now have arguably baseball’s strongest pitching rotation with Sale joining Cy Young winners Rick Porcello and David Price.
However, Sale’s coming off a down season by his standards. Despite tying a career-high with 17 wins, Sale posted a respectable, but certainly not elite 3.34 ERA. In addition, his Fielding Independent Pitching, which measures a pitcher’s ability to control strikeouts, walks, and home runs, increased from 2.73 in 2015 to 3.46 last season. His strikeout per 9 innings ratio took a tumble as well, dropping from a league-leading 11.82 in 2015 to 9.25. Granted, this could be attributed to a noted change in his pitching philosophy, which allowed him to work deeper in games. Nonetheless, his home run per 9 innings figures did not improve, either. Considering that he will be pitching in an even friendly park for hitters now that he’s in Boston, it’s a tad unnerving to think that Sale is coming off a season in which he allowed home runs at a 59% greater clip per nine innings than he did in 2014 (0.67 HR/9 in 2014 compared to 1.07 in 2016).
Despite a few doubts surrounding Sale’s recent performance, though, I’m still quite optimistic about his ability to be successful as Boston’s ace for the next couple of years, for four reasons. Reason #1 is relatively simple: Sale has largely avoided long stints on the disabled list. That makes him a pretty good bet to remain healthy, in spite what critics may say about his violent delivery.
Reason #2: He’s still in his prime. Sure, he might not have performed quite as well last season as he did in the two years prior when he was one of baseball’s very best pitchers. But he still managed to finish in the top 10 in FIP, so it’s not like he had a bad season by any means. Considering that Sale is only 27, the Red Sox should be able to maximize his potential for at least a couple of seasons.
Speaking of which, reason #3 as to why I think Sale will pay huge dividends for Boston is that the Red Sox have him under team control for a manageable price. He’s only owed $12 million next season, and no more than $13.5 million until his contract expires in 2019. In short, the Red Sox have an elite pitcher who isn’t paid like an elite pitcher. Not only does that make Boston one of the most imposing teams in the AL, but it even gives general manager Dave Dombrowski flexibility to make necessary roster upgrades, if need be. And say Sale is a bust. They’re not paying him Albert Pujols or David Price money. They can pick up and move on relatively easily, with their only regret being that they gave up a couple highly-touted prospects.
Yet the last reason why Sale will succeed in Boston goes beyond his relatively thin injury history, his age, and his contract situation. Simply put, I think he’s going to pitch well. Since 2013, only Clayton Kershaw and Max Scherzer have added more value in Wins Above Replacement than Sale. He’s widely regarded as one of the most difficult pitchers to hit in all of baseball, and he even combines his high strikeout per 9 innings total with a relatively low walk rate.
Plus, he has never had run support, nor a defense, in Chicago like he’ll project to have in Boston. Sale managed to win 17 games last season, and 70 over the previous five, despite playing for a team that finished with the league’s worst offensive WAR from 2012-2016. And on the defensive side, Sale will finally have a respectable unit behind him. Chicago managed to rank 16th in fielding according to Fangraphs last season. For them, however, that was a huge accomplishment, considering they were baseball’s worst fielding team in 2015, and the third-worst in 2014.
Sale still managed to shine given these horrific circumstances. Now he’ll join a team that scored nearly 200 more runs than the White Sox to pace all of a baseball in 2016. He’ll also finally play on a team that isn’t just respectable defensively, but is objectively one of MLB’s best.
Provided he stays healthy, Boston’s new herky-jerky lefty is about to take away some buzz from their other exciting talents like Mookie Betts and Xander Bogaerts. And with David Ortiz’s departure potentially creating a void in Boston’s lineup, Sale’s presence in the starting rotation, along with Porcello and Price, will allow the Red Sox to return to the playoffs, likely for an even deeper run.