The world had bigger problems last February and March than the fate of a trio of All-Star pitchers. But in a roughly one-month span, three hurlers gave baseball the unique opportunity to measure how standouts with different body types, arm angles, and ages would respond to the same surgery.
On Feb. 27, Yankees right-hander Luis Severino underwent Tommy John surgery, followed exactly one month later by Mets horse Noah Syndergaard. Three days after that, on March 30, Sale celebrated his 31st birthday by going under the knife.
A little over a year later, we know a lot more about each pitcher's health and each team's approach. The Mets acted most aggressively and it may have backfired. The 28-year-old Syndergaard was pulled after just one inning of Tuesday's Single-A rehab assignment because of a sore elbow, short-circuiting a process that had him on track to return in early June.
Meanwhile, across town, the Yankees have taken things a little slower with the 27-year-old Severino. He recently threw his first simulated inning, tossing 23 pitches, including fastballs, sliders, and changeups. He's nearing a rehab assignment and is most likely looking at a July return.
That leaves Sale. He only recently began throwing off a mound after suffering a pair of road blocks this winter -- a sore neck that briefly shut him down in December, and then a bout with COVID that cost him two weeks in quarantine. He is not yet ready to face hitters, but he's at least able to envision a future that involves him pitching for the Red Sox this season.
"He's building up and he feels really good about it," pitching coach Dave Bush said recently. "It's a really important step for him to be able to get on the mound and as he said, he feels like a pitcher again. That's a really big step, that he feels like he's getting close and he's going to be a part of the team sometime soon."
How soon remains to be seen, but the team's slow-and-steady approach appears particularly wise in light of Syndergaard's setback. While both Sale and the long-haired hurler known as Thor stand 6-foot-6, Sale is listed at only 180 pounds vs. Syndergaard's positively equine 242. The Mets felt comfortable with Syndergaard's accelerated return until the moment he had to ask out of Tuesday's start in Port St. Lucie after just 16 pitches.
He had been scheduled to throw four innings and then possibly make one more rehab start at Triple-A this weekend, with an eye on an early-June return. But according to Trackman data obtained by Baseball Prospectus, Syndergaard's velocity dropped from nearly 96 mph on his first pitch to 91 by his final offering, prompting his removal, which the Mets tried to brush off as "preventive," in the words of manager Luis Rojas.
Leading into Tuesday's start, it would've been natural to question how Syndergaard and Severino were on track to return sooner -- significantly so, in the case of the former -- than Sale. Now it feels like the Red Sox are taking things at the right speed, since the goal of any Tommy John rehab is to ensure that when a pitcher returns, it's for good.
What looked like a July comeback before his minor setbacks this winter has probably been pushed to August. With four years remaining on a five-year contract extension (barring an opt-out after the 2022 season), Sale is still being treated like someone whose greatest impact will come no sooner than next year.
"He's throwing. He's getting off the mound," Bush said. "It's a couple of times a week right now, and definitely a shorter number of throws, but he's on the mound as part of a throwing program. And he's building up strength and building up intensity."
It will be fascinating to see if the Yankees push Severino given the fact that Corey Kluber, fresh off a no-hitter, departed Tuesday's start vs. the Blue Jays after just three innings because of shoulder tightness.
The Yankees are already operating at a deficiency in the rotation, especially with veteran Jameson Taillon yet to hit his stride. They can ill afford to lose Kluber, who had emerged as a legitimate complement to ace Gerrit Cole, and will undergo an MRI on Wednesday.
Meanwhile, the Red Sox are staying the course with Sale. They have no plans to rush his return because the last 24 hours have reminded us that little good comes of that.