The Boston Red Sox went all in on the 2017 season, acquiring Chris Sale from the Chicago White Sox on Tuesday in exchange for highly touted infielder Yoan Moncada, the 2016 minor league player of the year and No. 1 prospect in Baseball America’s midseason top 100, pitching prospect Michael Kopech and minor leaguers Luis Alexander Basabe and Victor Diaz.
The 27-year-old left-hander finishes his career with the White Sox 74-50 with a 3.00 ERA and 1,244 strikeouts in seven years with the club and went 17-10 with a 3.34 ERA in a career-high 226 2/3 innings in 2016. He’s finished in the top 10 among American League pitchers in FanGraphs’ wins above replacement five times and produced more wins above replacement than any other player from the 2010 draft class, including Bryce Harper and Manny Machado.
Sale will now join a “super-rotation” that also features Rick Porcello, the reigning American League Cy Young winner, and David Price, who was voted the league’s best pitcher in 2012.
“That’s a big one. That’s a blockbuster,” New York Yankees General Manager Brian Cashman told reporters at baseball’s winter meetings. “It was a ‘Wow.’ Obviously, they gave up a lot and they got a lot. Boston’s like the Golden State Warriors now in baseball; they’ve got their [Kevin] Durant, their [Draymond] Green, [Klay] Thompson and [Stephen] Curry. It’s a big one.”
Sale is so good the Red Sox 2017 World Series odds went from 10-to-1 to 5-to-1 once the deal was announced, placing them behind only the reigning champion Chicago Cubs.
But there is a concern: How will Sale fare at Fenway Park?
Fenway, which has quirky features like “The Triangle,” “Pesky’s Pole” and the Green Monster, was the fourth-most hitter-friendly park in baseball last season. Guaranteed Rate Field, where Sale played his home games before the trade, ranked 21st. Moving from a pitcher-friendly park to one that is more beneficial to hitters has the obvious drawback: more runs scored against.
Sale has three starts at Fenway in his career. One was a disaster (he gave up seven earned runs and 12 hits in five innings in 2015) and two were gems (two one-run, four-hit outings in seven innings — one in 2014 and the other in 2016). But the short fence in left field might be a huge problem for Sale over the course of a season.
Since 2010, hitters produced a flyball against Sale on 35.4 percent of balls put in play — one of the highest rates among pitchers with at least 750 innings during that span. At Guaranteed Rate Field, a reduced number of those that made their way to the left-field fence wouldn’t leave the park, but at Fenway, things could get ugly. Below is a spray chart for flyballs hit against Sale at home in his career superimposed on Fenway Park. As you can see, many more of those benign flyballs (and doubles) would be home runs at Sale’s new digs.
Price ran into the same issue. Signed as a free agent last winter, Price had great numbers at Fenway Park — 6-1 with a 1.95 ERA in 11 career regular season starts — but eventually succumbed to the Green Monster in left. His rate of flyballs at home stayed relatively constant, but the percentage of them that left the park took a big spike once he signed with the Red Sox. His rate of home runs allowed per nine innings at home doubled from 0.65 to 1.34 in just one season, spiking his ERA from 2.45 to 3.99.
Price still won 17 games, but he also benefited from having the third-highest run support (6.6 runs per nine innings) among American League pitchers qualifying for the ERA title. With David Ortiz retired, the Red Sox might not sustain an average of better than six runs of support for their starters in 2017.
In addition to the questionable run support in Boston, Sale already is trending higher in home runs allowed per nine innings, which isn’t ideal. He allowed a career-high 1.07 home runs per nine innings and, per Baseball Info solutions, had his highest hardball hit rate against to date (31.7 percent) last season. His previous high was 27.9 percent in 2013. Sale also struck out the fewest percentage of batters (25.7 percent) since 2013, signaling perhaps the White Sox sold high on Price while they could.
But even a less-effective Sale is still a top pitcher. According to the latest Steamer projections, Sale is expected to go 15-9 with a 3.44 ERA for Boston next year, finishing a very close second to Cleveland Indians ace Corey Kluber in wins above replacement.
“Nothing is guaranteed in life,” Dave Dombrowski, Red Sox president of baseball operations, told Michael Silverman of the Boston Herald. “[B]ut I think you keep taking a chance and going for it as much as you possibly can and hopefully it works for you some day.”