Boston Red Sox

By Matt McCarthy,

If there were any lingering concerns about Chris Sale coming off his injury-plagued end to the 2018 season, his 2019 debut did nothing to alleviate those concerns.

Sale opened up the year with one of his worst starts in a Red Sox uniform: seven runs on six hits, including three home runs, in just three innings of work. He had little command on his secondary pitches and his fastball was batting practice for the Seattle Mariners.

He didn’t look anything like the real Chris Sale.

To be totally honest, we haven’t seen the real Chris Sale since August 12, 2018 in Baltimore, when he struck out 12 Orioles and went on the disabled list after that start with a still-mysterious shoulder ailment. He’s had trouble lighting up the radar gun ever since.

It’s a little unnerving, that’s for sure.

This isn’t an overreaction to one opening day start. This is a reaction to Sale’s last 10 appearances.

Sale’s velocity was an issue in September and October of 2018, just as it was in his first 2019 appearance. The life on his fastball was as non-existent as it’s ever been in a Red Sox uniform.

Similar to Sale’s postseason starts five months ago, his velocity dipped with every inning that he pitched Thursday in Seattle. He had trouble dialing it up again after every time he sat down, just like in October.

How can that not make you a little uneasy as a Red Sox fan?

Whether or not Sale’s velocity loss is a continuation from the end of last year remains to be seen. The Red Sox were careful with their ace entering this season, only having him throw nine innings in two spring training appearances. It is possible that Sale just simply isn’t ready for regular season action.

But it is also possible that this trend might continue. That’s a scary thought given the large and lengthy investment the Red Sox just made in their lanky lefty.

Oct 5, 2018; Boston, MA, USA; Boston Red Sox starting pitcher Chris Sale (41) throws the ball during the second inning against the New York Yankees in game one of the 2018 ALDS playoff baseball series at Fenway Park. Mandatory Credit: Paul Rutherford-USA TODAY Sports

Sale wouldn’t be the first wiry pitcher to lose his velocity quickly. Tim Lincecum, who was every bit as dominating as Sale in his prime, lost it overnight. Lincecum’s fastball disappeared between 2011 and 2012 and it never came back.

He was never the same.

Lincecum would easily be the worst case scenario for Sale, and it’s far too early to suggest that Sale is headed for that type of dramatic decline. But it’s not uncommon for pitchers to lose juice on their fastball as they age.

Can he make do without an overpowering four-seamer?

He didn’t have a heater on Thursday, and he got lit up unlike any game we’ve seen from him in a Red Sox uniform before.

History will tell us that Sale wears down as the year goes along. He faded in both 2017 and 2018, his first two years in Boston. But when the next year rolls around, he’s always looked sharp to start a new campaign.

Not this time. He looked like the same worn down version of Chris Sale from the year before.

Is it time to panic? Of course not. It would be way too reactionary to sound the alarm bells after opening day.

But should we be a little concerned about what we’ve seen from Sale dating back to last September?

You bet.

You can hear Matt McCarthy on 98.5 The Sports Hub’s own Hardcore Baseball podcast and on various 98.5 The Sports Hub programs. Follow him on Twitter @MattMcCarthy985.