Opinions, Sports

Blasberg ’18: Has Chris Sale escaped the fate of other first-year Red Sox?

By
Sports Columnist
Friday, April 21, 2017

It has become common knowledge that any highly touted player coming to the Red Sox from another team will struggle in his first season. Josh Beckett, Carl Crawford, Hanley Ramírez, Rick Porcello, David Price — the list goes on. Many players attribute their lack of initial success in Boston to the heightened stakes and ruthless fans and media. As a result, when Chris Sale arrived in Boston this offseason, I was not expecting him to pitch to his full potential in his first starts with the Red Sox. Sale proved me wrong, allowing just three runs in his first four starts. His auspicious opening begs the question: Has Chris Sale broken the trend of underperforming first-year Red Sox?

Sale has been nothing short of spectacular this season. In four starts for the Red Sox, he has surrendered three runs and struck out 42 in 29.2 innings. Pitching at least seven innings in each of his starts has been invaluable this spring, as the Sox staff has been routinely pummeled in the opening innings, causing the bullpen to be overworked. The one loss on his record is misleading, as he pitched a gem that day — working 7.2 innings and giving up just two runs. Sale’s ability to limit opponents’ contact and to work into the late innings of games will be invaluable to the Red Sox down the road.

Sale does most of his damage by getting ahead early in counts. He rarely starts batters off with balls and has only allowed six walks this season. He began Thursday’s start by throwing 32 of his first 36 pitches for strikes and recorded seven strikeouts in the first four innings. His 67.8 percent strike rate keeps his pitch count low and, once ahead in the count, Sale has three primary put-away pitches. His slider and changeup are so effective because his fastball routinely reaches the high 90s, while his off-speed pitches can be in the low 80s. His tall stature and his three-quarter, left-handed delivery often make sliders impossible to hit.

Many have compared Sale’s first few starts with the Red Sox to early Boston seasons of Pedro Martínez. Like Martínez, Sale has shown the willingness to pitch inside. Sale, in fact, led the American League in hit batters in both 2015 and 2016.

Of course, it is too early to tell whether Sale will fall victim to the fate of Price, Craig Kimbrel and Ramírez, but he is off to a good start. Generally, when players from other teams come to the Red Sox and struggle in their first years, they begin the season struggling and level out their performance by the end. When Porcello had a disastrous season in 2015, he finished with a string of quality starts through August and September. The same was true for Kimbrel, who had a mediocre start to the season last year, but bounced back from his knee injury and was able to pitch well in August and September.

Sale, up to this point, has not needed time to adjust to the Red Sox, even after coming from the Chicago White Sox, a medium-market team whose fans and media coverage do not rival Boston’s. Sale has handled the media gracefully by delivering a consistent message — that his sole focus is winning baseball games. This offers a clear counterpoint to David Price’s soaking up the big stage in Boston. He featured his dog Astro in numerous promotional videos and appeared in Dunkin’ Donuts commercials.  Sale sees his role in Boston as a pitcher and veteran leader on the Red Sox, not as a media personality.

Based on his hot start on the mound and ability to resist media spotlight outside of baseball, Sale could very well have shattered the mold of first-year Red Sox players who failed to translate success in other cities to Boston.

Charlie Blasberg ’18 can be reached at Charles_Blasberg@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and other op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.