As far as returns from Tommy John go, Chris Sale's should be classified as a qualified success.
The history of pitchers dominating in Year 1 isn't particularly robust, and even though Sale faded down the stretch and in the postseason, the Red Sox don't reach the playoffs without winning seven of his nine starts.
Sale showed enough glimpses of his old self to leave the Red Sox feeling cautiously optimistic about his future, whether it was striking out eight in his return vs. the Orioles, topping 98 mph in August, or winning his first five decisions with a 2.57 ERA.
As the season wore on and the stress of pitching not just for the first time in two years but in the heat of a pennant race took its toll, Sale faltered. His slider lacked its usual back-foot bite, he didn't fire fastballs with his trademark fearlessness, and he served up home runs to inferior hitters like Minnesota's Willians Astudillo.
By the time the playoffs rolled around, Sale looked cooked. He got drilled in his first two starts before rallying in what turned out to be the team's Fenway finale in Game 5 of the American League Championship Series vs. the Astros. Sale carried a 1-0 deficit into the sixth before a walk, error, and double by series MVP Yordan Alvarez chased him in a 9-1 loss.
"I had to leave everything out there," Sale said right after. "I told myself coming into this game I had a job to do, obviously didn't get it done, but I left my nuts out there on that mound tonight, that's for damn sure."
From the day Sale entered the big leagues, no one has questioned his testicular fortitude, and that's not about to change now, a couple of months shy of his 33rd birthday. What is fair to wonder is what the Red Sox might expect from him in his first full season back from Tommy John, because if history is any indication, that's when pitchers of similar track records make the leap back to All-Star -- or more.
Take the procedure's namesake. John led baseball in winning percentage in 1974 before blowing out his elbow. He returned to go 10-10 with the Dodgers in 1976 before winning 20 games for the first time in 1977 and finishing second in the National League Cy Young race. That started a run of three 20-win seasons in four years and all four of his top-10 Cy Young finishes. That renaissance came in his mid-30s, and he pitched another decade until age 46.
He's not alone. New Hampshire native Chris Carpenter had already returned from labrum surgery to win a Cy Young with the Cardinals in the early 2000s when we went under the knife again for Tommy John at age 32 in 2007. He returned a year later to make four solid appearances before exploding in 2009 with one of his best seasons, going 17-4 with a 2.24 ERA and finishing second in the NL Cy Young race to Tim Lincecum. He followed by winning 16 games and making his final All-Star team, at age 36, in 2010.
Then there's Tim Hudson. Like Sale, he was durable until he wasn't. Tommy John sidelined him at age 32 in 2008, and like Sale he returned at the end of the following season, going 2-1 with a 3.61 ERA in seven starts. He delivered his best start in his final turn, limiting the Nationals to one run in seven innings, and then returned with a vengeance in 2010, going 17-9 with a 2.83 ERA and making his first All-Star team since 2004. He won 16 games in each of the next two years in Atlanta before making his final All-Star team with the Giants in 2014 at age 38 and winning his first World Series.
And lest we forget, Red Sox fans should remember what bulldog John Lackey meant to the 2013 World Series, although he's the exception who delivered in Year 1. After sitting out the entire 2012 season, Lackey won 10 games in 2013 before going 3-1 with a 2.77 ERA in the playoffs, including a win in the World Series clincher. He pitched to a 3.58 ERA over the next four years and won another World Series with the Cubs before retiring in 2017.
Other talented pitchers never regained their previous heights -- from Blue Jays Cy Young Award winner Pat Hentgen to Twins All-Star Eric Milton to old friend Daisuke Matsuzaka -- but unlike Sale, none of them delivered even a partially promising season to provide hope for Year 2.
If we consider Sale's 2021 a step in the journey back from Tommy John, it's reasonable to expect he'll enter 2022 on much more stable footing, maybe even enabling him to do the kind of Chris Sale things we've come to expect -- front a rotation, set the tone, contend for a Cy Young Award.