Boston Red Sox: Why Chris Sale could be key this season

BOSTON, MA - JUNE 9: Chris Sale #41 of the Boston Red Sox looks on from the dugout during a game against the Houston Astros at Fenway Park on June 9, 2021 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)
BOSTON, MA - JUNE 9: Chris Sale #41 of the Boston Red Sox looks on from the dugout during a game against the Houston Astros at Fenway Park on June 9, 2021 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images) /

We are far enough into the season to acknowledge the fact that Boston Red Sox are actually a good baseball team this year.

After a miserable 2020 season, this team started off the season hot and hasn’t showed any signs of slowing down. It isn’t a question of whether or not this team is a playoff contender anymore, but how far they can go this season.

Boston’s lineup was expected to be able to hit coming into the season, and they have done just that for the most part this season.

The surprises have come from the pitching staff, both the starting rotation and the bullpen. After fielding a number of pitchers who belonged nowhere near a major league stadium last season, the Sox have managed to revamp their pitching staff entirely in just one offseason.

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The exciting part about this whole ordeal is that Boston’s best pitcher may not have even taken the mound yet this season. For all the success stories we have seen this season so far, from Martin Perez and Nick Pivetta shoring up the back of the rotation, to Garrett Whitlock and Hirokazu Sawamura developing into lockdown relievers or Matt Barnes and Adam Ottavino forming a deadly combination at the end of bullpen, Chris Sale still has yet to throw a pitch this season.

Yes that’s right, Chris Sale still exists. After undergoing Tommy John surgery and missing upwards of 15 months of action, Sale is closing in on his return to the mound for the Red Sox. And he could be the key to determining how far this Red Sox team goes this season.

Let’s rewind a bit, and turn things back to 2018, which ended with a World Series championship for the Sox. It will be remembered for Sale making Manny Machado look like a fool on the last pitch of the season, and arguably one of the best Red Sox teams in Boston’s history. But it was also the first season we saw Sale’s injuries pop up, and he looked mortal at times throughout Boston’s postseason run.

That set the stage for the 2019 season. Sale’s 2019 season was something of a letdown, as he posted a 6-11 record with a 4.40 ERA, which was the highest of his career by nearly a full run. He dealt with a number of injuries throughout the season and was eventually shut down so he could undergo the Tommy John surgery that has kept him out all this time.

Sale’s struggles were certainly worrying, as he’s already 32 years old, and his awkward side-armed delivery appears to have finally caught up with his arm. He was still striking out hitters at a ridiculous rate in 2019, but opposing hitters were having a much easier time hitting Sale earlier in the count than normal, possibly due to a decrease in movement on his pitches.

As a result, Sale got pretty beat up in 2019, and it’s fair to wonder whether he can recapture his old form after coming back from such a long layoff.

Can Chris Sale be the ace the Boston Red Sox need?

This is the big question that will surround Sale’s return to the mound for Boston, and rightfully so. In a typical Dave Dombrowski move, he shelled out a massive contract for Sale early in the 2019 season, and it certainly hasn’t aged well so far.

Sale is being paid like an ace, but after his injury history, and an extended absence from the mound, is it reasonable to expect Sale to be able to head this Red Sox rotation again?

The good thing is, he might not have to. There’s a reason the Red Sox have the fourth-best record in MLB currently, and it’s due in large part of the starting rotation.

Aside from Eduardo Rodriguez, who has looked miserable over the past month or so of action, Boston has almost always been able to count on their starters to come in and give them at least five solid innings of work before handing things over to the bullpen.

That should alleviate some of the pressure off of Sale’s return to the mound. He won’t be expected by Alex Cora and the  Boston Red Sox staff to come in and be lights out off the bat, so as fans of the team, we shouldn’t either. It’s probably more reasonable to expect Sale to struggle a bit as he finds his way back after such a long layoff, with the hopes he can turn it up when the postseason arrives.

But that’s the thing; if Sale can regain his Cy Young form, the Boston Red Sox will really be in business this season. Sure, the starting rotation has been really great so far this season, but as we have recently seen against the Houston Astros, they may not have what it takes to take down a team in a playoff series.

Having a guy like Chris Sale leading your rotation, while also hanging around in your back pocket (Game 5 in the 2018 World Series for example) is critical to making a deep playoff run.

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That is why Chris Sale could be the key to the Boston Red Sox 2021 season. If he can come back and pitch like his old self, the Sox will have a really good shot at making some noise this season.

If not, the front office is going to be staring down a large contract for the next couple of seasons, and it could be detrimental to Boston finding their next ace of their rotation.