After winning a World Series, the Boston Red Sox have suffered one of the worst cases of a championship hangover in the last decade. The Big Lead brought in MassLive Red Sox beat writer Chris Smith to talk about Chris Sale’s struggles out of the gate, how closer-by-committee is working out, and the chances of Dustin Pedroia resembling himself again.
Liam McKeone: Hey, Chris. I’ll start with the most obvious question from Boston’s shaky start: how concerned should Red Sox fans be with Chris Sale?
Chris Smith: Yeah, I think that it’s a strange situation. I mean, I don’t think there’s anything structurally wrong with his arm because they took MRIs when he was signed to the 5-year, $145 million extension. The Red Sox wouldn’t be that foolish or do something like that where they would sign someone knowing there was potential for structural damage with the arm just because of what he’s done or what he means to the organization. But I don’t think he’s strong right now, I think they didn’t build him up in spring training. They only had nine innings with him in spring training. I mean, he has a weird delivery, he’s been pitching for a long time now, and we didn’t see the velocity come back after the shoulder inflammation last year. I’m sure it’ll pick up eventually here, but is he going to be the type of pitcher who tops out at 95 in a game instead of topping out at 100? Will he have to develop into more of a finesse pitcher as his contract goes on? I think there should be concern long-term about what he can be as a pitcher going forward. I think the Red Sox… I wrote in January they should take the year to evaluate, and then, if they didn’t feel comfortable, if he wasn’t durable again, then they shouldn’t re-sign him.
McKeone: It seemed like Sale was shaken by his performance post-game after only lasting four innings in the home opener. Do you think he’s questioning the viability of the long-term view vs. short-term view in terms of how many pitches he throws and how hard he throws them?
Smith: I think that he summed it up best: that he should be able to get up on Christmas Day and throw a strike, and that’s true. So he’s not blaming the program they did in spring training, he’s taking accountability himself. I think that the program didn’t make him strong coming into the year, and it’s funny that they want him strong at the end of the year, but they’re off to a 3-9 start, are they going to be playing at the end of the year for a division title? It’s interesting in that respect.
I think he wants to be a power pitcher more than a finesse pitcher. We saw it last year when he said he’s taking out “the Ferrari”… he was throwing in the low 90s, but he was topping out in the higher 90s in these early starts, so it was different from this year, where he was probably topping out at 94, 95 instead of a higher 90… He wants to be a power pitcher and he probably would’ve preferred to get more innings in his spring training, like anyone would.
I think that he’s got to learn and he’s got to see what’s best for him because when he turned on the Ferrari, things didn’t work out. He topped out at over 100 in four different starts, he was throwing with the best velocity of his career… and he ended up having shoulder inflammation twice and ended up pitching 29 innings in the second half, and I think that was a direct result of him going from where he was to throwing 100 miles per hour. So I think there needs to be a middle ground with him.
McKeone: What other factors do you think have contributed to the Sox’ shockingly slow start?
Smith: The starting pitching overall hasn’t been good, and I think that has to do with the lack of innings that they had in spring training. David Price threw fewer innings than Chris Sale. The starting pitching has just been horrendous, where last year, when they went 17-2 to start the season, over [that stretch] they had the best ERA by a Red Sox team in the live ball era, which dates back to 1920. So we’re seeing totally different starting pitching than we saw last year at the beginning of the year. But you can go back to everything right now. Nothing’s working. Their OPS is at the bottom of the league, they’re making errors. In the outfield, even!
They don’t have their heads in the game at all, and it’s strange. They didn’t have a great spring training, and, you know, spring training results don’t matter, but they did matter last year, as Cora said because that helped them get off to a good start. They didn’t look good in spring training, and they haven’t looked good this year, and it’s been everything. It hasn’t just been the starting pitching. The offense has been inconsistent, the defense has been some of the worst in major league baseball, everything is not clicking. That steal of home [at the home opener] kind of shows you that their heads aren’t in the game. They’re just not doing anything right.