Chris Sale: How Should We Handle Him In 2021?
Throughout the offseason, we at FantraxHQ have been deep diving players’ profiles with an outlook on 2021. Every one of the players discussed actually played in 2020 and provided data to analyze. Chris Sale did not play in 2020 after undergoing Tommy John surgery last March.
It was a weird progression of events from 2018 up until the time of his Tommy John surgery. But we will talk more about that later. Sale is slated to begin the 2021 season on the IL. Full recovery from Tommy John usually takes 13-15 months, which would mean a return somewhere between late May and July. His current ADP on NFBC sits at 234.55 through 31 drafts. Can he justify that price pitching half of the season? Let’s take a look.
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Is Chris Sale Worth His Draft Price?
I mentioned an interesting progression of events leading up to Chris Sale needing the dreaded Tommy John surgery. After pitching to a career 2.89 ERA in 1482 innings, Sale posted a 4.40 ERA in 2019. His fastball velocity was down by nearly three miles-per-hour. He clearly was not right. But this all began at the end of the 2018 season.
In August of 2018, Sale’s average fastball velocity was 97.7 mph. Shoulder issues landed him on the Injured List, but his fastball averaged just 92.7 mph when he returned in September. The velocity never recovered in 2019, as it was obvious Sale was not himself. So just how interesting were the timeline events from late 2018? Let’s take a look.
Chris Sale Timeline
- Aug 18, 2018: Chris Sale was placed on the 10-day IL with left shoulder inflammation.
- Sep 11, 2018: Sale returns from IL and strikes out two in two scoreless innings. Velocity was down.
- Oct 5, 2018: Sale strikes out eight Yankees in 5 and a third innings in game one of the ALDS.
- Oct 14, 2018: Chris Sale looks rough, and his command was spotty in game one of the ALCS. He was admitted to the hospital with stomach issues that night.
- Oct 20, 2018: Sale reports that he had an issue with his belly button ring, which was the cause of his stomach issues.
- Nov 1, 2018: Dave Dombrowski reports that Chris Sale will not need surgery for his shoulder issues.
- Spring Training 2019: Chris Sale is dominant in nearly every start and is named the Opening Day starter.
- Opening Day 2019: Sale gets rocked for seven runs in three innings of work, and his velocity is down, topping out at 94 mph.
- April 9, 2019: Alex Cora reports Sale was dealing with an illness over his last two starts.
- May 15, 2019: Is Chris Sale back? He was dominant over his previous four starts, striking out ten, ten, 14, and 17 over those starts.
- Aug 17, 2019: After an up and down season, Chris Sale lands on the IL with left elbow inflammation. He will seek a second opinion from Dr. James Andrews. When you hear that name, it is never a good thing. Reports come back clean that he does not need Tommy John.
- Dec 1, 2019: Sale has a follow-up appointment with Dr. James Andrews and is cleared to begin throwing immediately.
- Feb 11, 2020: Chris Sale is expected to return to camp with a fully healthy elbow but will be delayed due to the flu and pneumonia.
- Feb 26, 2020: Chris Sale throws a successful bullpen session.
- Mar 3, 2020: Sale throws a simulated game and comes away with elbow soreness. He is sent for an MRI.
- Mar 4, 2020: Chris Sale is not expected to have Tommy John surgery.
- Mar 18, 2020: Sale resumes throwing at Red Sox camp.
- Mar 19, 2020: Reports surface that Chris Sale needs Tommy John surgery.
Wow, that was quite the timeline. Did you see Tommy John surgery coming from the beginning? Maybe not, but it was evident that Chris Sale was not right for over a year and a half before finally coming to the conclusion he needed the surgery.
In the previous section, we saw several of Sales injuries. But, here is Chris Sale’s full injury history in one chart. This comes from the great injury dashboard tool created by Derek Rhoads. If you want to dive more into a player’s injury history, you should follow the link and check it out.
It is concerning to see so many elbow and shoulder issues on this chart. The hope is that when he returns, he is fully healthy. Sale will be 32 years old next season, so durability is a concern, especially returning from injury.
Chris Sale’s velocity took a big dip before the injury, which was a red flag. Here is a chart, also from Derek Rhoads’ site. The blue dots represent his velocity by game in 2018 and the orange in 2019. You can see the drastic fall-off in 2018 before his shoulder injury. In 2019, his velocity never reached his normal standard.
It will be interesting to see where his velocity is upon his return. If his fastball velocity is still in the low 90s, how hittable will it be? Many questions are impossible to answer right now.
So, beyond everything that has happened, let’s look at what could happen. I previously mentioned that his ADP sits at 234 on NFBC. It is still early, and we have little news on Sale. The only things we really know are that Sale has resumed throwing and will not be ready to begin the 2021 season.
Chris Sale’s 2021 Projections
Chris Sale’s Steamer projections look quite intriguing! They peg Sale to pitch 103 innings in 18 starts. That is probably a high-end projection, but it is not unreasonable. Fifteen starts and 85 innings feels a little safer to project. Regardless, Steamer projects eight wins, 134 strikeouts, a 3.33 ERA, and a 1.07 WHIP. If he hits those projections, sign me up! Based solely on projections, Sale projects to be the 14th best starting pitcher for 2021. He is currently the 84th pitcher off the board in drafts.
The reality is, Fantasy Baseball players should be cautious with this projection on a guy like Chris Sale, who is returning from Tommy John surgery. He could easily have a setback and take longer to come back. The Red Sox, who may not be contenders, might decide to bring him back slowly. They likely see Sale as a long term investment, considering they have him under contract until 2025. There are so many scenarios and so many unknowns that come with the territory of drafting Chris Sale.
To Draft or Not to Draft
Hypothetically, let's say Chris Sale returns to the mound in mid-June and makes 16 starts in 2021. Is he worth his current 234 ADP to you?
— Chris Clegg (@RotoClegg) December 5, 2020
When I began writing this article, I put a poll on Twitter. I was curious about how many people felt Sale was worth his ADP if he could provide 16 starts, which is one more than Steamer projects. Over 50 percent of the respondents said they would draft Sale at his 234 ADP.
Even if you fill Chris Sale’s spot with a streamer for two months, it could be worth getting half of a season of starts from Sale. There is no questioning how good of a pitcher Chris Sale can be. It is more the question marks that surround his return from injury.
If Sale returns and pitches to even a 3.75 ERA, which is well above his career average, it will be worth the pick given his strikeout upside. But, what if Sale’s return is delayed, or he is not able to build up his arm strength to go deep into games?
My advice would be to take it on a league by league basis. In an NFBC format with no IL spots, it makes it extremely hard to draft and stash Sale for several months. In a deep draft and hold league, it becomes a little easier to stash him away. If you play in a league with several IL spots, it may also be a smart play to draft him and stash him on the IL until he returns.
There is no right or wrong answer when it comes to drafting Sale. People are split on him, as you can see in the Twitter poll. If you do draft him, buckle up, it is sure to be a wild ride.
The 2020 MLB season is over, but we are already preparing for next season. Keep track of all our 2020-21 MLB Offseason Analysis.
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