Reeling Red Sox Need More Than Chris Sale to Save Collapsing Season

Zachary D. RymerAugust 11, 2021

Portland, ME - July 20: Boston Red Sox pitcher Chris Sale during a press conference after pitching 3 2/1 hitless innings during a rehab appearance for the Portland Sea Dogs against the Harrisburg Senators during first inning action at Hadlock Stadium in Portland, ME on July 20, 2021. (Photo by Matthew J. Lee/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
Matthew J. Lee/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Even as recently as July 28, the Boston Red Sox were tied for the best record in the American League and looking forward to gaining more firepower upon ace left-hander Chris Sale's return from Tommy John surgery.

Cut to a Spongebob-like "Two Weeks Later" title card, and things are suddenly pear-shaped for the Red Sox.

Seemingly out of nowhere, they've lost 11 of their last 14 games. That mostly covers a 2-8 road trip between July 30 and Aug. 8 that started with them up 1.5 games in the American League East and ended with them looking up at a four-game deficit to the Tampa Bay Rays. After a crushing defeat to the Rays on Tuesday night at Fenway Park, Boston's deficit is now five games.

The New York Yankees and Toronto Blue Jays, meanwhile, are 8-3 and 9-3, respectively, since loading up with stars—like Joey Gallo and Anthony Rizzo for the former and Jose Berrios for the latter—ahead of the July 30 trade deadline.

As those three teams' playoff odds have improved, Boston's have taken a nosedive.  According to FanGraphs, the Red Sox's chances of making the postseason in any capacity have gone from 95.9 to 66.8 percent since July 28. Their chances of winning the division are even worse, going from 69 to 22.4 percent.

On the plus side, Sale's return is officially on as he's slated to start for the first time in two years Saturday against the Baltimore Orioles. The Red Sox should be thrilled about this.

There will, however, be a different sort of pressure on Sale than there might have been if the Red Sox had kept on winning in his absence. In lieu of just another weapon, they now need him to be more like a savior.

Boston Needs Vintage Sale

If the Red Sox have their way, Sale will return to be something like what he was between 2012 and 2018.

He was an All-Star and Cy Young Award contender in each of those seven seasons,  compiling a 2.91 ERA and 5.6 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 1,388 innings. By racking up 39.6 rWAR, he edged Justin Verlander for the overall lead among American League hurlers.

The stuff with which Sale did this? It was good. His fastball got as high as 100.5 mph, and he used that and an excellent slider-changeup combination to draw 169 more whiffs than any other left-handed pitcher between 2012 and 2018.

Yet it's also worth recalling that Sale wasn't particularly good in his most recent season, as his 25 starts in 2019 yielded only a 4.40 ERA over 147.1 innings. He did save some face by striking out a whopping 218 batters, but his weirdly fluctuating fastball velocity was a factor as he also got dinged for a career-high 1.5 home runs per nine innings.

It was elbow inflammation that ended Sale's 2019 season early in August, and rest and rehabilitation didn't save him. Further elbow trouble during spring training for 2020, and he finally went under the knife in March.

Sale turned 31 shortly after he had surgery. Now he's 32; by pitcher standards, he's not young anymore. Heck, he might even be older than middle-aged.

 For now, though, the signs are good. Sale made five rehab starts between July 15 and Aug. 7 and dominated in them. In 20 innings, he allowed only three runs on 17 hits and five walks. He struck out 35.

When Sale pitched for the Triple-A Worcester Red Sox on July 20, his fastball was reportedly up to 97 mph. Also in fine form was his slider:

Rob Friedman @PitchingNinja

Chris Sale. Sliders. 🤮 <a href="https://t.co/htWiuVgc20">pic.twitter.com/htWiuVgc20</a>

The catch is that Sale topped out at five innings and 89 pitches, respectively, during his rehab assignment. Starting on Saturday, the Red Sox must therefore hope that the southpaw will not only maintain his electric stuff but also take further strides toward longer outings.

Any guy who can do that is a true No. 1 starter, and the Red Sox need at least one of those right now.

Boston's Pitching Had This Coming

Even when the Red Sox were going good, their starting pitching was something of a lingering specter. Not just because their primary starters weren't particularly good in general, but also because a few of them had the potential to get even worse.

Well, take a wild guess what has happened.

Through May, Boston starters only ranked 16th in ERA at 4.20. Between the start of June and that fateful day July 28, that ERA ballooned to 4.70. Nathan Eovaldi continued to pitch well, but Eduardo Rodriguez, Garrett Richards, Nick Pivetta and Martin Perez each took turns contributing to a combined 5.38 ERA in that span.

Should Chaim Bloom, Boston's Chief Baseball Officer, have taken the hint and added a starting pitcher or two at the trade deadline? You bet. But he didn't, seemingly out of a sense of sticker shock.

“Some of the trades that were put in front of us, I didn’t feel like they made sense,” Bloom said, according to Jason Mastrodonato of the Boston Herald.

As if on cue, disaster has found the Red Sox's starting rotation. It has served up a 6.71 ERA since July 29, notching the second-worst such mark in the majors. There's already been one notable casualty, as Perez is now pitching out of Boston's bullpen.

To his credit, 25-year-old righty Tanner Houck has played the pick-me-up role well by allowing only two earned runs in three starts since July 22. It should also be fun for the Red Sox to have him and Sale in the same rotation, since they're basically the same pitcher:

Rob Friedman @PitchingNinja

Tanner Houck vs. Righty Chris Sale, Sliders (individual pitches + overlay) <a href="https://t.co/31tEWpLksb">pic.twitter.com/31tEWpLksb</a>

Like with Sale, though, the "yeah, but..." with Houck is that he's not built to go deep into games. In both the minors and majors this season, he's only gone as deep as five innings with a maximum of 87 pitches.

That groan you just heard came from the Red Sox's relievers, who've already picked up enough slack throughout 2021. Boston has five guys with as many as 40 appearances, plus another guy in Garrett Whitlock whose 33 outings have covered 55.2 innings.

To this point, the men in the pen have done the job by accounting for more rWAR than all but one other team's relievers. But cracks have begun to form, as noted by a 6.85 ERA since July 29 and, well, this:

Not to mention also this and, more recently, this.

Albeit to a lesser extent, there's also another party to blame for Boston's downfall.

Boston's Offense Also Had this Coming

Even after hanging eight runs on the Blue Jays on Sunday, the Red Sox's offense has still only mustered 36 runs over the team's last 12 games. 

It might be tempting to see this as a fluke given that the Red Sox's offense had previously been one of the best in baseball. Through July 28, its 105 wRC+ marked it as five percent better than average and tied for the seventh-best in all of MLB.

But even then, the Red Sox's offense wasn't so much a big collection of good hitters as a medium-sized group of mediocre hitters around a smaller core of great hitters.

TORONTO, ON - AUGUST 08:  J.D. Martinez #28 of the Boston Red Sox celebrates scoring a run on a single by Kevin Plawecki #25 in the second inning during a MLB game against the Toronto Blue Jays at Rogers Centre on August 08, 2021 in Toronto, Canada.  (Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)
Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

J.D. Martinez, Xander Bogaerts and Rafael Devers did the heavy lifting with a combined 144 wRC+ through July 28. Apart from them, Boston's other nine most oft-used hitters had just an 88 wRC+

Barring some extraordinarily fortunate twist of fate, there always was going to come a moment when Boston's Big Three all struggled at the same time. When that finally did happen, the Red Sox's supporting cast would either step up or keep struggling and leave the team's lack of offensive depth utterly exposed.

Since July 29, it's the latter scenario that's come to life:

Going forward, it stands to reason that the Big Three will get back on track. Ideally, they'll also get a boost from Kyle Schwarber, who accounts for the one big splash that Bloom did make at the deadline, once he's fully recovered from a hamstring strain that landed him on the injured list back on July 2.

But with Schwarber having recently suffered a setback in his recovery, he's now not projected back until the third week of August. And unless he quickly masters first base—a spot where the Red Sox have gotten an MLB-low minus-1.3 rWAR in 2021—he could be a man without a set position down the stretch.

There's definitely a road ahead of the Red Sox that not only gets them to the postseason, but perhaps deep into it. This is the one in which Sale does recapture his vintage form, thus rallying the team's rotation while the Big Three and Schwarber eventually do the same for the offense. Without question, that version of the Red Sox would be dangerous.

But before the Red Sox can get on that road, they must see to a fix-it list that will hardly get shorter after Sale returns.

Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, StatheadFanGraphs and Baseball Savant.