How was your Opening Day? Well, unless you lost a limb somewhere in the process, it was better than Chris Sale’s. Just a week after putting his signature on a new nine-figure contract, Boston’s ace looked anything but against the Mariners. Rebuilding Seattle torched the lefty for seven runs in three innings, his worst start with the Red Sox, as he struggled with both his velocity and his command in a night to forget for both him and the team in a 12–4 defeat. So is there cause for concern for Sale after such a dreadful debut?
Before I go further, I have to acknowledge that any kind of reaction to what happens on Opening Day, save injury, is an overreaction. The only reason that fans generally put so much stock into Opening Day performances is because, well, it’s Opening Day; it’s all you’ve got to work with, and it happens on a bigger-than-normal stage. Good or bad, you’re talking about one game out of 162, and even though Sale did get whooped on like a piñata, his body of work would suggest that this is an aberration, not a new normal.
So is Sale broken? The short answer is “Yes, with an if”—that “if” being “He’s hurt.” There’s been no indication from either Sale or anyone else as to that being the case, so for now, that’s shelved. I’ll move on, then, to the longer and more interesting answer: “No, with a but.”
If nothing else, the degree to which Sale got battered causes some worry. The stringy southpaw labored against one of the majors’ less imposing lineups, needing 76 pitches to get just nine outs. He gave up three homers—two to the light-hitting Tim Beckham, who came into the game with a career 0-for-15 line against Sale, including nine strikeouts—and allowed five balls in play at 100 mph or more. The biggest problem was his fastball, which never cracked 94.5 mph (he averaged 95.7 with it last year) and sat at 92.3, and of the 25 four-seamers he threw, he didn’t get a single swing and miss. Nor was his slider command particularly strong.
With that in mind, is it time for Red Sox fans to crack each other’s heads open and feast on the goo inside? Diminished velocity is always a troubling sign, but it’s nothing new for Sale in April. Last season, his four-seam fastball velocity puttered between 90 and 94 mph in the opening month before rising to its usual 95–98 range thereafter. At the time, the Red Sox attributed the dip in speed (as well as some problems with his slider) to mechanical issues. A purposefully shortened spring training may have also contributed, as he didn’t appear in a game until March 9. The team did something similar this year: Sale made just two starts, the first not coming until March 16, and threw only nine innings total. In that debut, his fastball didn’t break 92 mph, though neither he nor Boston’s coaching staff seemed alarmed by that.
It’s easy to understand why the Red Sox took it easy with Sale this spring. First, he was coming off an extra month’s worth of work thanks to Boston’s World Series run. But more importantly, he missed a big chunk of last season’s second half due to shoulder inflammation—the second straight year in which Sale more or less fell apart after the All-Star break. Interestingly, in 2018, his velocity spiked from May through July, touching 99–100 mph regularly and averaging 97–98 before the shoulder injury sidelined him and robbed him of his velocity going forward, as he threw in the 92–94 range during the playoffs. Whether or not those things are connected is unknown, but it would make sense that Sale’s arm, after a conservative spring and early part of the season, couldn’t hold up when pushed.
That, if anything, is what has to be concerning for the Red Sox. A Chris Sale who throws 97 mph is completely unhittable: From June 1 through Aug. 12 last year, when his fastball was at its peak, he struck out 115 batters in 71 innings with a 1.14 ERA. All his best years with the White Sox were also built on that premium velocity. But a version of Sale that either can’t or shouldn’t throw harder than 94 is a tougher thing to predict. That puts far more emphasis on his mechanics, which are already herky-jerky enough, and on his command and control. Against Seattle, you saw what happens when he has neither the execution nor the velocity. And a Sale with the former but not the latter may be a decided step down from the Sale we’ve seen in years previous.
These aren’t the kind of questions you want to have about the man to whom you gave $150 million, but Sale’s durability and strength were always going to be the biggest of wild cards in terms of handing him a long-term deal. I’m not, though, going to declare Sale or his deal a disaster over one bad start. As we saw last year, he’s perfectly capable of performing well even without his full arsenal, and there’s plenty of time for him to get his mechanics right and increase the velocity. Barring the shoulder acting up again, this shouldn’t be a long-term worry.
But that Opening Day demolition does raise a question that will likely take the whole season to answer. If, for whatever reason, Sale can’t be or isn’t the same hard-throwing pitcher he’s been in the past, what will he look like going forward—and will it be good enough for Boston?