BOSTON (CBS) — Look, I get it: You want to see Chris Sale pitch. You want to see him close out games like the one he pitched on Thursday, when he struck out 13 in eight innings of an eventual 4-1 Red Sox victory over the Toronto Blue Jays in the finale of a three-game series. Sale threw 102 pitches, a preposterous 80 for strikes. It was pure dominance.
Maybe John Farrell was right for pulling Sale when he did. Maybe he’s an idiot. Maybe those things aren’t even mutually exclusive given Farrell’s general history of game management during his stint as Red Sox manager.
But this much is indisputable: the stakes for the Red Sox this season are greater than any other in the last few years at least, and Chris Sale has a late-season history of fading that nobody in Boston seems willing to talk about.
Tell you what: let’s take Thursday out of it. Let’s just look at the facts. In September of last season, Sale went 2-3 with a 4.39 ERA in six starts for the White Sox. In 41 innings, he allowed 42 hits and eight home runs while allowing an OPS of .778. (Prior to that, Sale had a 3.10 ERA and had allowed an opposing OPS of .621.) Red Sox followers still drunk from the Sale acquisition like to suggest that this is from Sale losing interest, from being disenchanted after he went Edward Scissorhands on the White Sox and their throwback uniforms last July.
The reality? In 2015, Sale faded even worse. He was 1-4 with a 4.34 ERA in September, allowing 45 hits, eight homers and an .817 OPS in six starts covering 37.1 innings. In the entire second half that year, his ERA was 4.33. Find whatever excuse you want for that one. But if you can ever step out of the game for a moment a take a good look at Sale, then you’ll notice that he is listed at 6-foot-6 and a mere 180 pounds, that he is so downright spindly that Pablo Sandoval could use him to pick his teeth.
Is that why Farrell pulled him from Thursday’s game? Only heaven knows. Given Farrell’s history, I doubt it. But Sale’s career ERA in September in 3.79 – easily his worst of any month – and he has a won-lost record of 9-14, the only month in which he has a losing record. Maybe that’s why Sale himself went into last season saying he wanted to be more economical and pitch for the longer term.
In the last weeks and months, many compared the trade that brought Sale to the Red Sox to the 1997 deal in which the Sox acquired Pedro Martinez from the Montreal Expos. Martinez himself is now tweeting about Sale like an intoxicated fan. All of that is fine. Sale has radioactive stuff and is rapidly becoming must-see TV, and the only truly unfortunate thing so far is that is that three of Sale’s four outings have been day games, which means many (or most) Red Sox fans have not been able to watch.
Know what the other similarity between Sale and Martinez is? Questions about durability. In 1998, his first season in Boston, Martinez went 1-3 with a 4.15 ERA in September. He wilted down the stretch. What the Red Sox subsequently learned to do with him – and this was even after Martinez strained his shoulder in the 1999 All-Star Game – was to build in a midseason break. They learned to manage him. Out of necessity. Because they knew they would need him in September and, ultimately, October.
Since Dave Dombrowski took over the Red Sox in 2015, Boston has made a considerable number of moves to win sooner rather than later. They signed David Price to a record-breaking contract. They traded prospects for Craig Kimbrell, Drew Pomeranz, Tyler Thornburg and Sale. Boston’s current championship window stands at three years – that’s THREE – which happens to be the number of years the club also has Sale under his current contract.
Even before Price injured his elbow in spring training – and if you think he’s coming back to pitch effectively, you’ve been smoking K2 with Aaron Hernandez – there was already a great deal of weight on Sale’s slight frame. Now there is even more. Had Price pitched well last October, Sale might not even be here at all. Now Price is essentially cooked and the lead dog in the Boston rotation has a history of pitching September with his tongue hanging out his month.
You want to blast John Farrell? Fine. Heaven knows he has given you the artillery. But let’s not confuse issues or cross streams. Farrell’s highly questionable game management skills and the need to have Sale at full force come autumn are two different things, and you sometimes have to pick one or the other.
The goal here is to win a championship, folks. You have every right to think the manager is a dope. But don’t take it out on Chris Sale.
You’re going to need him later.