By Matt Dolloff, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Chris Sale was spectacular in the first four months of 2017. But after kicking off his Red Sox career with a thunderous roar, he finished with a whimper, turning a would-be Cy Young campaign into a second-half disappointment as the Indians’ Corey Kluber blew by him to win the award.
At the end of the day, it’s not a big deal that Sale did not win the Cy Young award – especially when Sale himself probably doesn’t even care. The bigger issue is that Sale got absolutely bombed by the eventual World Series champion Astros in his first career playoff start, and that disastrous outing underlined the lefty’s disturbing trend of fading after the All-Star break.
Sale’s career ERA in the first half of the season has been 2.74; in the second half, it’s jumped to 3.28. Since converting to a starter in 2012, Sale’s ERA has been higher in the second half than the first half in every season but one. His ERA dropped from 3.38 to 3.28 in the second half of his final season with the White Sox in 2016, but every other season has seen his ERA rise.
It’s clear that the Red Sox also view Sale’s second-half swoons as a problem that needs fixing if they want to play deep into October, as evidenced by comments that president of baseball ops. Dave Dombrowski made at the GM Meetings in Orlando.
“We’ve talked about it,” Dombrowski told reporters. “We haven’t sat down and talked to Chris about it. I think it’s something we’re looking at from an internal perspective. It’s a challenge and it’s something we need to do. But it wasn’t something we weren’t cognizant of last year.”
Dombrowski is right. It’s not as if the Red Sox were oblivious to Sale’s potential issues with holding up over the course of the regular season.
“We never brought him back on short rest. Any time we could give him a sixth day, we did. He threw 215 innings; it’s not like he threw 250 innings,” Dombrowski said. “Two hundred fifteen is a lot, but it’s the lowest that’s ever led Major League Baseball in a particular year. But I think we need to explore all of those types of things.”
For the same reasons that the Patriots can’t just keep Rob Gronkowski in bubble wrap and the Celtics can’t sit Kyrie Irving on the bench until the spring, the Red Sox need Sale to win them some games. Preferably 15-20, or even more.
“It doesn’t do any good to preserve your guys for late in the year but then you haven’t qualified for postseason play,” Dombrowski added. “So, there’s a lot that’s mixed into that.”
One season where Sale was able to stay dominant as a starter until the end was in 2014 with the White Sox, when he posted a 2.28 ERA in the second half. He also happened to post career lows of 26 starts, 174 innings, and 685 batters faced. That was due in part to a minor arm injury in May that landed him on the 15-day disabled list for the only time in his career. Sale also skipped a start after the All-Star break, giving him a 12-day rest period in July.
He took nine days off during the 2017 All-Star Break and absolutely crushed it in July, going 3-1 with a 1.04 ERA and 56 strikeouts in 34.2 innings. But once August hit, that’s where Sale began to slide.
It was more of an up-and-down affair than an all-out collapse – he allowed four or more earned runs in five of his 11 starts in August-September, and one run or fewer in five of the other six (he allowed three in one start). But gone was the consistent dominance that characterized Sale’s first four months, a period that was so commanding that he appeared to have the Cy Young wrapped up by mid-July. What also ballooned was Sale’s home runs allowed, as he let up 13 in August and September alone after allowing 11 over the first four months.
Combine his second-half decline with Kluber’s stunning surge, and you get Wednesday night’s Cy Young result. There’s little need to lament that Sale lost the award in the first place, but it’s emblematic of a problem that simply needs to be solved in order to give the Red Sox serious postseason hope. They simply won’t get past the Astros (or, for that matter, the Yankees or Indians) if they can’t get first-half Sale in the fall.
Perhaps they could look to his 2014 results as a possible solution. It’s not ideal to hold your best starter under 30 starts or 200 innings, but to insist that he should top the league in those categories would also fail to see the big picture. Granting Sale an extra day off here, another skipped start there, could benefit him in the end. Sale also needs to look into his own mechanics and what personally happens to him to cause his late-season breakdowns.
Another thing they could look at is Sale’s pitch counts, which jumped to 4.03 pitches per plate appearance despite his career average of 3.89. He threw the second-most pitches of his career with 3,428; by comparison, Kluber threw 2,945 pitches in just 10.2 fewer innings (3.79 pitches per plate appearance). Sale had previously said that he was working on pitching to contact more in order to preserve his pitch counts over the course of the season, but it obviously didn’t work out that way as he struck out a staggering 308 batters. As exciting as it was to watch Sale mow people down most of the time, it’s in his and the team’s best interests that he really does work on cutting back on his pitches and innings in order to be at full strength once the games truly matter.
The Red Sox are starved for power, and that may still be their biggest need. But if Sale can’t be better down the stretch – and keep the ball in the park – an improved offense won’t matter much in October.
Matt Dolloff is a writer/producer for CBSBostonSports.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, CBS, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.