Roster Recap: Embracing Chris Sale, Puns and All

Welcome to BP Boston’s second annual Roster Recap series. Over the next few months, we’ll be analyzing every player on Boston’s 40-man roster and many of their top prospects in order to provide a comprehensive overview of the Red Sox roster’s strengths and weaknesses, as well as what we can expect moving forward. From MVP-candidate right fielders to reserve relievers, we want to give you a look at every Red Sox who might matter in 2017. View the complete list of Roster Recaps here. Enjoy! 

Before we start, I’d be remiss not to mention that this was originally supposed to be about Travis Shaw. He’s in Milwaukee now via That Other Trade on the day Chris Sale was acquired. So adios, Travis Shaw. What a fun April and May you had. Here’s Shaw hitting a 450 foot home run off Chris Archer.

And now, take one more moment to let it sink in that Chris Sale is on the Red Sox. He’ll join Rick Porcello and David Price at the top of the Red Sox rotation, as well as on at least one Sports Illustrated cover where none of them smile. Dave Dombrowski’s quest to torch every minor league system he inherits continued at the Winter Meetings this year, but that was always 1.) a luxury the Red Sox could afford and 2.) what was going to happen when Dombrowski came aboard. Andrew Benintendi, Blake Swihart and Eduardo Rodriguez are all still on the team. The team also kept Rafael Devers, who could be in the Majors sooner than later and probably even sooner than that if Pablo Sandoval struggles out of the gate.

What Went Right in 2016

Most things! Chris Sale continued to be the incredibly talented pitcher he’s been throughout his career. He managed to throw the most innings (226.2) of any season in his career, surpassing 220 for the first time ever. He was essentially a seven-win player, posting his best WARP (6.9) since 2013, the only season where it was higher. He had a 77 cFIP, tied for third best in baseball behind Jose Fernandez, Noah Syndergaard and Chris Archer. His 3.42 FIP was good for 9th best (one below Rick Porcello, shouts to Rick Porcello). He did all this while throwing more innings than only three starters: Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer and David Price. He finished fourth in Cy Young voting for 2016 after finishing 6th in 2012, 5th in 2013, 3rd in 2014 and 4th in 2015.  He is good.

What Went Wrong in 2016

This is where it gets tricky. If you look at a lot of Sale’s numbers compared to 2015, there are some red flags, although calling them “red flags” seems overdramatic. His K/9 dropped two and a half points, from 11.8 to 9.3. A big reason? Sale stopped using his changeup. In 2015, Sale threw his change up 28 percent of the time. It was a pitch that generated the most whiffs (38.96%) of any of the four he threw, according to Brooks Baseball. Batters only hit .239 against it, second best to his slider.

In 2016, however, Sale only threw his change up 14 percent of the time. He essentially all but stopped using it against lefties (18 percent to two percent) and only threw it about half as often to righties (30 percent to 16 percent) . He also threw it for a strike seven percent less often than in 2015. It’s certainly not the whole picture, but going away from one of his most effective strikeout pitches might start to explain the drop.

And about that 3.42 FIP he had – it was actually up a considerable margin from 2015, when Sale posted a 2.70 FIP. And that cFIP? Up 10 points from 2015 and 13 points from 2014. A lot of stories about the White Sox catchers’ inability to frame pitches have popped up, and there seems to be a general consensus that Sale’s numbers will benefit from a better defensive staff in Boston. Is there reason to be concerned that Sale is striking people out less while his contact numbers go up? Or is it just some natural regression from insane numbers to still pretty great ones? Even if Sale is more 2016 than 2015 this season, the Red Sox will have one of the best pitchers in baseball. He’ll also be making $9.6 million, which feels legitimately criminal.

Also, Sale got kicked out of his own clubhouse on a day he was supposed to pitch for tearing up a bunch of White Sox jerseys with a pair of scissors. That is something that went wrong in 2016.

What to Expect in 2017

Sale is as good a bet as any to continue his consistently dominant play. There’s a small minority who point to his career-high innings load coupled with a strenuous throwing motion as a reason to proceed with caution, although that certainly feels like nitpicking. Sale is younger than Price, Porcello, Steven Wright, Clay Buchholz and Drew Pomeranz. In fact, he’s closer in age to 23-year-old Eduardo Rodriguez than he is to Buchholz and Wright. He’ll only be entering his seventh season when he joins the Sox for Spring Training in February. Sox fans can expect 200 innings of Cy Young-caliber pitching sandwiched between starts from Rick Porcello and Daivd Price. They can also expect the Chris-Sale-Hates-Retro-Jersey jokes to go well into August, at least.

Photo by Rick Osentoski/USA Today Sports Images

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