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Chris Sale’s first season in Boston ends in familiar place

Sixth straight season with a lot of Cy Young support, but no Cy Young

MLB: ALDS-Houston Astros at Boston Red Sox Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

It’s incredible that Chris Sale now has six consecutive seasons with a top-six Cy Young finish.

It’s a little more incredible that it can be viewed as a disappointment.

Sale fared better than he ever had in the voting this time around, but it was only good for second behind Corey Kluber. Both pitchers took all of the first- and second-place votes between them, but Kluber was first on 28 of 30 ballots.

It’s only a drag for Sale fans because he looked like the easy favorite in late July, and the edge in workload that Sale accumulated -- and one that now-former manager John Farrell was criticized for — didn’t make a difference.

Now everybody on Boston’s side faces the same conundrum the White Sox battled. ESPN’s Scott Lauber wrote a story about it, and there’s a bit of a record-scratch moment halfway through when Lauber brings in Don Cooper to talk about the “hybrid approach,” and doesn’t question the results:

Sale bought in -- hook, line and lots of sinkers -- to Cooper’s plan. He averaged 9.3 strikeouts per nine innings, down from 11.8 in 2015 and well below his career average of 10.5. But he set career highs in innings pitched (226.2) and complete games (6). Most important, his ERA dipped from 3.38 before the All-Star break to 3.28 after it, while his home run rate dropped from 1.22 per nine innings to 0.89. [...]

As Sale begins his second year with the Red Sox, new manager Alex Cora and pitching coach Dana LeVangie would be wise to convince him that there's a better way. By sacrificing strikeouts for early-in-the-count groundouts in May, he might record more outs in September and October.

And, well, that's what Sale insists he came to Boston to do.

It’s true that Sale piled up innings, and it’s true that Sale had a more satisfying finish to the season, although two of his last three starts were ugly and probably cost him in Cy Young voting. It’s also worth noting that Sale only made one start over a 20-day period in July because of the All-Star break and the jersey-slashing incident.

But before and during the August-September stretch, there were games Sale lost because his 92-mph fastballs went over the fence, or because he barely touched his changeup. He had his highest DRA as a starter in 2016 (3.04), and going back to his natural aggressive state in Boston, he set a career low (2.37), even if he also stopped throwing his changeup after the All-Star break.

All things being equal — and they kind of are, when you look at Sale’s award-voting finishes — I’d take the strikeout-seeking version, even if it’s better for 28 starts instead of 32. Sale’s innings total from 2016 shows that Cooper’s idea had merit, but it ended up in the same place, but without the start-to-start excitement.

Usually when I follow players the Sox traded away, I only really pay attention to the first season, because perhaps the acquiring team saw something that could be immediately fixed, or maybe the player remains just as limited. Regarding the former, the A’s correcting Marcus Semien’s throwing mechanics during his first year in Oakland. As for the latter, Jeff Samardzija continued his high cutter usage after signing with the Giants.

Here, the Red Sox seem to be hunting for the same missing piece the White Sox couldn’t grasp, so maybe it’s not there. Under normal circumstances, I’d hop off the train here and hope Sale continues his Hall of Fame track. However, if Boston comes up with its own idea of an economy mode for the other kind of Sale, I’ll probably hang around to see what that looks like.