For the second time in a little over a year, the Red Sox got back their ace. In 2021, Boston starter Chris Sale, a seven-time All-Star, returned to the mound after missing all of 2020 and most of the following season after arm surgery.
Sale returned on Aug. 14 of last season, and the Red Sox thought it was so significant that they held off on making any big additions to the roster at the July 31 trade deadline.
“It just feels that knowing Chris is coming back,” manager Alex Cora said after the deadline. “It’s the trade that nobody else can make and it’s the ace. Maybe one more team can trade for an ace like him. But I think that’s what makes it different.”
Sale promptly won his first three decisions back, and the Red Sox won six of his first seven starts. He seemed to run out of steam in the postseason, however, giving up 10 runs in nine innings over three very short October starts.
Now, Sale is returning to Boston at midseason again, after breaking a rib in spring training and missing three months, and the Red Sox aren’t sure what they’ll get from their ace this time around.
That highlights the problem with star players making their return. Injuries are part of the game in a marathon MLB season, and a team certainly can get an emotional boost from getting their best guy back in uniform. But when trying to account for a return from injury as a gambler, there are myriad factors to consider outside of emotion, including rust, fatigue and frustration.
Keep It Slow
Especially with a returning pitcher, teams will take things very slowly when a star returns from a long absence. Sale, who made his name by going deep into games and striking guys out, was put on a pitch count for his first few games back, meaning the team would pull him after 85 pitches, regardless of what was going on.
Marcus Stroman recently returned to the mound for the Cubs after missing a month. The former All Star looked good, but he was still pulled after four innings and 59 pitches, just to be safe.
Even if a star pitcher returns with his old dominating stuff, he’s likely to only be in the game a short time. That means a heavier workload for the team’s bullpen in his starts.
Looking for the Answer
Before Sale returned to the Red Sox this time around, he made four rehab starts for Boston’s minor league teams. He ended up walking five batters in a little over three innings in one of them and was then caught on video trashing the tunnel between the dugout and the clubhouse, ripping things off the wall and smashing them in a tantrum.
“I was just out there fishing today,” Sale said of his performance. “Nothing to hang your hat on, that’s for sure.”
That highlights another aspect of a returning ace—much of pitching is based on feel and minor adjustments to a pitcher’s delivery. A long absence can throw all that timing off, and it takes a while to get it back. That could mean shaky control, or it could mean that a pitcher gets lit up by opposing batters after making his return.
Stephen Strasburg returned after missing a year with injury and was knocked around, giving up eight hits and seven runs in 4.2 innings.
Of course, that’s not always the case. Max Scherzer, a former teammate of Strasburg’s, made his return after missing two months with injury and struck out 11 in six shutout innings. He followed that up with nine strikeouts and one run in seven innings.
Strasburg’s rough start highlights another risk with the return of injured pitchers. Pitching is a violent act, and, even if an arm feels back to 100 percent going into a start, it likely won’t feel that way on the other side. While Strasburg said he felt fine despite giving up all the runs, three days later, things were different.
“He didn’t feel right,” the team reported. He felt discomfort while throwing in a workout, went for an MRI, and the results put him back on the injured list with a relapse of the problem. Injuries can get aggravated by a return to the mound, or, a pitcher could overcompensate for the previously injured body part and wind up straining or damaging another part instead.
“He was coming along, and he was doing well and he felt good,” manager Dave Martinez said of Strasburg. “Now, all of a sudden, here we are again.”
Sports bettors know the feeling, and with other game-changing pitchers scheduled to return later this season, including the Mets’ Jacob de Grom, it’s a problem that will continue to crop up. Yes, it’s exciting to get back your ace, but temper the excitement and expect short outings and uncertainty.