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Different Sox, same September for Chris Sale

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Trade to Boston hasn’t solved his tendency to look ordinary late in the year

MLB: Boston Red Sox at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

As was the case with Tim Anderson, I wanted to wait until September before drawing any firm conclusions on Chris Sale’s season.

There’s no doubt it’s been a great one. He’s once again prominent in awards conversations because he’s once again thrown 200 innings, except this time he’s on pace to eclipse 300 strikeouts for the first time in his career.

But his performance in September and October would answer whether it’d be a different one. The last month of the season vexed The Condor during his time with the White Sox. His ERA was a full run higher than any other point, and it was his only month with a losing record.

He faltered in the final weeks of 2012, which was understandable since his first year of a starter had already exceeded all expectations and innings estimates. That characteristic persisted, though. Outside of 2014, when he threw three strong starts out of four, his final month has always left something to be desired (and 2014 was the year he missed a month early in the season after a 127-pitch outing).

Sale is so talented that his worst is never that bad, but he’s fallen short of the big things, like sustaining a team’s hopes or winning the Cy Young.

Both of those are in play in some form this time around. The Red Sox are ahead of the Yankees in the AL East, but only by three games, so they can’t relax just yet. The same can be said about Sale’s standing in the Cy Young race, as Corey Kluber has closed the gap considerably:

  • Innings: Sale 201.1, Kluber 191.2
  • Record: Kluber 17-4, Sale 16-7
  • ERA: Kluber 2.35, Sale 2.86
  • FIP: Sale 2.37, Kluber 2.49
  • DRA: Kluber 1.99, Sale 2.15
  • Strikeouts: Sale 286, Kluber 252
  • WHIP: Kluber 0.86, Sale 0.96
  • bWAR: Kluber 7.7, Sale 5.6
  • fWAR: Sale 7.6, Kluber 6.9
  • WARP: Sale 7.71, Kluber 7.68

And Sale’s performance in September has cast doubts in both areas.

Sale has thrown a quality start in only one of his three September efforts, mostly because he’s giving up homers in bunches (five in 16 innings). The strikeouts are still there, but opponents are having more success around them, hitting .292/.361/.554. He did toss six shutout innings against Tampa Bay in between a pair of duds, which has been characteristic of his pitching since August. Only four of his last nine starts have met the quality start criteria, but in those four starts, he’s allowed a total of one run.

It’s the other five starts that have raised concerns among the Boston media, which enjoys raising concerns. The Boston Herald:

Nope, the Red Sox are not at all hip-deep in unchartered territory with Chris Sale and David Price.

And what timing, too, with the playoffs beginning in a little over two weeks.

This is an unsettling state of affairs. It should leave the Red Sox and their fans concerned.

WEEI:

Chris Sale's late-season struggles are officially a concern

The Providence Journal took a different tack, treating the fade as fate:

Now that Chris Sale has embarked on a second-half fade in line with his career track record, the Red Sox look upon it with a kind of resignation. [...]

That’s were that resignation comes in: The Sox don’t exactly know what they could have done better.

“To me, it’s not about Chris and why this is happening,” pitching coach Carl Willis said. “I honestly think it’s the norm for guys who carry a workload like he does. Our challenge is to be able to put ourselves in the best position to finish off our first goal here (in the division) and still be able to have him maybe get an opportunity to catch his breath going into the next phase.”

Sale is throwing as hard as ever, and he’s just as tough as ever when it all clicks. The sudden increase of command lapses — something White Sox fans know well — is what those around the Red Sox are having a difficult time negotiating.

Following Sale from this distance still creates mixed feelings. In the long run, I want to see him make the Hall of Fame. It’s always cool when “Chicago A.L.” is on that plaque, Sale is on that track, and hardware and postseason credentials help toward that end. In the short term, it’s a little comforting that the trade to Boston didn’t magically solve all his shortcomings, and it makes his sometimes self-defeating conservation efforts of his last season with the White Sox a little more understandable.

As the first post-trade year nears its close, the scale still seems tilted the same. Sale is delivering a Cy Young-type season for a first-place team, while Yoan Moncada is showing flashes of his potential in the majors and Michael Kopech did everything he could during his first full season in the minors. Both teams gave up a lot to get a lot, and the question is whether you prioritize the present or the future.

But since Sale was supposed to solidify a postseason rotation, it seems like small samples from here on out might loom large when it comes to the perception of this trade. If Moncada can carry his September (.302/.373/.509) across the finish line while Sale stumbles into and through October, these few weeks could really alter the feel of the deal.