I still haven’t quite wrapped my head around the fact that Chris Sale is in the Red Sox rotation. It will probably require me seeing him pitch in a Red Sox uniform for it to fully sink in – the beat writers’ grainy, from-a-distance Spring Training videos of bullpen sessions don’t count. I mean, this guy has been one of the five best pitchers in the American League over the last five years and now he is on our team. But that is the past. It gives us an idea of what to expect, but things are different. Pitching in Boston presents a difficult transition that has gone remarkably poorly for many who have tried to make it before Sale; two good examples are also in the Red Sox rotation.
A major part of Sale’s transition will be adjusting to pitching the majority of his innings against foes in the American League East, which is a different beast from Sale’s previous home in the AL Central. To give a quick and dirty idea of what I mean: in 2016, by TAv, the East teams ranked 1, 4, 8, 9, and 14 in the AL, while the Central teams ranked 3, 10, 11, 13, and 15. Simply put, the offenses were stronger in the East last year. But it was not just last year; similar differences in offensive quality exist between these two divisions going back to 2012 (Sale’s first full year as a big league starting pitcher). The combination of the ballparks and the ways in which the teams were constructed has tended to favor offense in the East.
The good news for Sale and the Red Sox is that in his career, Sale has pitched very well against East teams (2.86 RA9, 22 HR, 259 SO, 68 BB in 226.1 IP) and in East ballparks (2.62 RA9, 7 HR, 146 SO, 35 BB in 134.0 IP). Those numbers are ridiculous and actually a little better than Sale’s standout career numbers. This success against the East division is wonderful to make note of and should help quell the concern about his move to Boston. But that’s too easy. Let’s fan the flames of that fire by looking at four batters who currently reside in the AL East – and will therefore see Sale more often than in previous seasons – with whom Sale has had (relative) difficulty.
Before getting to the hitters, I will note that specific pitcher-hitter matchups are mostly noise due to the low number of plate appearances, so highlighting these matchups is not meant to suggest that the Sale-mashing will continue from these guys, but rather that they are a point of interest and something to look for this coming season. It will probably not surprise you that each of the hitters who have had success against Sale and are focused on below are right-handed and are good hitters in general. As a reference, for his career, Chris Sale has held right-handed opponents to a .231/.283/.376 line (.235 TAv).
Chase Headley (3B, Yankees)
I can’t put my finger on exactly why, but I don’t really like Chase Headley. Maybe it is because I wanted him to come to Boston two years ago rather than Pablo Sandoval but then he went to the Yankees. Maybe it is because he got chippy with Rick Porcello last year. I don’t know. But if he keeps hitting Chris Sale like he has (.385/.429/.923 in 14 PA), it is going to get worse between me and Chase. Two of Headley’s five hits off Sale have been home runs, and they both were no doubters: as a Padre and as a Yankee.
Mark Trumbo (DH/OF, Orioles)
We used Trumbo as an example of that incredible thing that Sale does to get hitters to swing at pitches that hit them, but while he has been embarrassed by Sale he has done damage against him. In 15 PA he holds a .357/.400/.714 line that includes two doubles and a home run. Trumbo seemed to have Sale figured out one day in 2012, as he went 3-for-3 with a double off him, but since then he has only two hits (the other double and the home run), one walk, and five strikeouts. Take out those first three plate appearances and Trumbo’s line against Sale drops to .182/.250/.546. Ahh, the fun of variance in small samples. In any case, ideally Sale can hold the recent trend and keep Trumbo from rekindling that May 17th, 2012 magic.
Adam Jones (OF, Orioles)
Trumbo’s teammate Adam Jones has also generally fared well when facing Sale, posting a .308/.400/.538 line in 15 PA. But, like Trumbo, much of his success came during one season. For Jones it was the 2014 season, in which he worked Sale over for three hits (one left the yard) in six trips to the plate; he struck out the other three times. In Jones’ subsequent six PA he has a single and a walk.
Steve Pearce (IF/OF, Blue Jays)
If not for the straightforward platoon advantage aspect, Pearce’s numbers are sure to get him in the lineup when the Jays oppose Sale. In 13 PA, Pearce has a .333/.385/.417 line against Sale with one double, one walk and only one strikeout. That last bit is the most interesting. Pearce has done well with putting the ball in play off Sale and it has led to some success. Pearce will take Justin Smoak’s (.143/.400/.143 in 10 PA) or Ezequiel Carrera’s (.250/.250/.250 in 4 PA) spot, making the Jays’ lineup a bigger challenge than it already is with the likes of Josh Donaldson, Troy Tulowitzki, and Jose Bautista. However, of those three only Donaldson (.278/.300/.611, two HR in 20 PA) has had much success against Sale. Edwin Encarnacion has hit Sale well in his career (.385/.500/.615 in 16 PA) but he moved his parrot wrangling services to Cleveland and made facing the Jays substantially easier for Sale (and everybody else).
All told, pitching in the AL East, and specifically in Fenway Park, more often than he has in the past is going to present a challenge for Chris Sale in his first year with the Red Sox. There are some high-powered lineups and ballparks where the ball flies in the East, but Sale has a track record of dominance that is not a house-of-cards built on pitching in the AL Central. Sure there some right-handed hitters he is going to see more often who have had success in their limited chances against him, but there are also other, typically excellent, right-handed hitters that have struggled against him (e.g., Evan Longoria: .048/.091/.048 in 22 PA, Jose Bautista: .143/.250/.286 in 8 PA, Russell Martin: .000/.000/.000 in 10 PA). Plus, there is the stream of left-handed hitters who turn to mush when they step into the batters box to square off against the lanky lefty (e.g., Chris Davis, Jacoby Ellsbury, Brett Gardner). It will be an adjustment for him, but I suspect he’ll be just fine.
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