Arguably, no first-time participant is more central to his team's postseason chances as Sale, who never sniffed October during his seven-year run with the White Sox (2010–16) before being dealt to the Red Sox last October. The wiry southpaw was supposed to join 2016 AL Cy Young winner Rick Porcello and 2012 winner David Price at the front of the rotation, but a funny thing happened on the way to October. Price battled elbow woes and local media, made just 11 starts and will pitch out of the bullpen for the duration of Boston’s run. Porcello was lit for a 4.65 ERA and an MLB-high 38 homers. Sale looked Cy Young-bound for much of the season, and was in position to win the Pitching Triple Crown—leads in wins, ERA and strikeouts—into August. Though he became the first AL pitcher to top 300 strikeouts since 1999, he scuffled during August and September, managing just a 4.09 ERA and five quality starts out of 11; thirteen of his 24 homers allowed came over his final 66 innings. For a Sox team that doesn't mash like those of yesteryear, it's vital that he's at the top of his game.
Sale isn't alone among the Red Sox’s first-timers. Twenty-year-old rookie Rafael Devers didn't debut until July 25, but he shored up the team's Sandoval-sized third base woes on both sides of the ball, turning in a team-high 112 OPS+ (on a .284/.338/.482 line with 10 homers in 240 PA) in the process.