Red Sox

Red Sox hope Chris Sale is Justin Verlander, but what if he's Tim Lincecum?

Red Sox hope Chris Sale is Justin Verlander, but what if he's Tim Lincecum?

In 2014, Tigers ace Justin Verlander underwent abdominal surgery to address a lingering core muscle issue. He returned in time for Opening Day, but posted the second-worst ERA of his career. Shoulder and triceps injuries took a bite out of his production, limiting him to 20 starts in 2015. Many wondered if he could transition from power pitcher to whatever came next without entering a permanent decline.

By that same season, a two-time Cy Young Award winner just four months younger than Verlander already had his answer, and it was a resounding no. Tim Lincecum burned bright, burned fast, and then burned out. After winning consecutive Cy Young Awards with the Giants despite a violent delivery considered a ticking time bomb, Lincecum's fall came swiftly. At age 28 in 2012, he led the NL in losses. By 2016, his career was effectively over after he posted a 9.00 ERA with the Angels.

Just days after Verlander's third career no-hitter put him in elite, Hall of Fame company, why are we comparing him to a contemporary who hasn't thrown a pitch in three years?

Because Verlander and Lincecum, respectively, feel like Chris Sale's best- and worst-case scenarios.

With Verlander favored finally to win his second Cy Young Award at age 36 after three second-place finishes, there's no question that 2014-15 represents a blip in his career and not a major point of inflection.

We can only hope we're saying the same about Sale at this time next season, though there are reasons to worry.

Since returning to full strength in 2016, Verlander is 64-31 with a 2.88 ERA in 130 starts. The 6-foot-5, 225-pounder is your classic right-handed horse. He's on pace to make at least 30 starts for the 13th time in his 14 full seasons, and at 17-5 with a 2.56 ERA and 257 strikeouts, he'll win his second pitching Triple Crown if he can catch teammate Gerrit Cole in K's (266). He may not be as historically dominant as Sale, but he has proven more durable.

It also turns out that reports of Verlander's power-pitching demise were greatly exaggerated, because he's still throwing gas. Three of his five hardest fastballs came in the final at-bat of Sunday's no-hitter, when he was still throwing 97 mph at pitch No. 120.

From a velocity standpoint, Sale experienced a clear drop in 2019, averaging 93.8 mph on his fastball, down from 95.6 last year. He was all over the place, though, barely breaking 92 in April, and then maxing out at 98 in June, July, and August, per Brooks Baseball.

A case can be made that Sale pitched a lot better than his 6-11, 4.40 numbers suggest. He still averaged over 13 strikeouts per nine innings, and his career-worst home run rate of 1.5 per nine innings could simply be the product of some fluky fly balls that didn't stay in the park. A 3.40 FIP suggests he may have outpitched his defense, too.

But chalking up Sale's 2019 to bad luck also means willfully ignoring some red flags. His average exit velocity jumped more than three mph to 88.1, and his hard-hit percentage soared from an elite 26.8 percent to a more pedestrian 36.3 percent, which is basically the same as teammate Rick Porcello (36.4). Despite all the strikeouts, Sale struggled to find put-away pitches in key at-bats, especially with runners on base. The old Sale could blow away hitters with his fastball or slider. The 2019 Sale didn't consistently command the former or shape the latter. It was never clear on any given day which one he'd have or if it would be both.

That brings us to Lincecum. If Verlander represents the physical ideal of a No. 1 starter, Sale and Lincecum are two extremes. The former stands only an inch taller than Verlander, but it feels more like a foot because he's so wiry. He's lucky to pack even 180 pounds onto that 6-foot-6 frame.

Lincecum hails from the Tom Gordon/Marcus Stroman school of big things in little packages. Generously listed at 5-11, 170, he generated power with a delivery that no one would teach, rocking back like Sidd Finch, tilting his head towards first base, and then firing to the plate with one of the longest strides in the game.

He fell to 10th in the 2006 draft despite overwhelming numbers at the University of Washington because his delivery scared teams that he wouldn't hold up over the long haul. He proved them wrong for five brilliant seasons, winning Cy Young Awards in 2008 and 2009 and a World Series in 2010. He contributed to two more World Series in relief (2012, 2014) before undergoing hip surgery in 2015 that officially robbed him of the fastball that had once hit 99 mph. He did not crack 92 mph in his final two seasons.

It's hard to imagine Sale experiencing a similarly precipitous drop, except scouts have used Lincecum-like language — "unorthodox," "awkward," "high stress" — to describe Sale's delivery for years. He pitches with the dreaded "inverted W," which is often a harbinger of Tommy John surgery, though that finding has been disputed.

What's indisputable is that injuries have curtailed each of Sale's last two seasons, be it the shoulder that basically limited him to one effective start after July 27 last year, or the elbow that shut him down last month and forced a visit to Dr. James Andrews.

While manager Alex Cora noted that Sale has been playing catch, he is still scheduled to be re-evaluated at the end of the month. If he needs elbow surgery, he will not only miss next season, he'll take one giant stride closer to the Lincecum end of the spectrum than the Verlander one.

It turns out only one of those pitchers was built to last. With a five-year, $145 million extension kicking in next season, the Red Sox can only hope that Sale is, too.

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Curt Schilling on Hall of Fame: 'If I'm outside the Hall of Fame with Luis Tiant, I'm all right'

Curt Schilling on Hall of Fame: 'If I'm outside the Hall of Fame with Luis Tiant, I'm all right'

Curt Schilling is in his eighth year of eligibility for the Baseball Hall of Fame. Is this the year that he'll finally get in?

The former pitcher spent 20 years in the major leagues with the Baltimore Orioles, Houston Astros, Philadelphia Phillies, Arizona Diamondbacks, and Boston Red Sox. He went 216-146 record, a 3.46 ERA, and 3,116 strikeouts (good for 15th most all-time) in his storied career. 

It's his postseason dominance (11-2, 2.23 ERA) that elevates Schilling's Hall candidacy. He's a three-time World Series winner, two of which came with the Red Sox, was a co-Series MVP with Randy Johnson in 2001 with the Diamondbacks and was named an All-Star six times.

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Despite his numbers, Schilling hasn't gotten into the Hall yet. While he may be inching closer to making the cut, he isn't counting on getting in with the 2020 class.

"I don't think I'm going to make it this year," Schilling told MLB Network's Bob Costas in a recent interview. "The trend has usually been that players will drop a certain amount of percentage between the public and the private ballots. And I don't think I'm high enough above that 75 [percent needed for election] for the tail-off not to get me."

Though Schilling doesn't think he'll get in, he's not worrying about it too much. And he's focusing on the fact that there are plenty of great players who never made the Hall of Fame, including another former Red Sox ace.

"There are also some pretty good people who aren't in the Hall of Fame," Schilling said. "If I'm outside the Hall of Fame with Luis Tiant, I'm all right."

Schilling does have a good point. There are plenty of great, deserving players that haven't made the cut for the Hall of Fame. He still has three more chances to get in, so perhaps his time will come.

And speaking of Tiant, there surely is a case for him to be a Hall of Famer. He went 229-172 with a 3.30 ERA in a 19-year career and also struck out 2,416 batters. Had the Red Sox gotten him a ring in 1975, perhaps he would've had a stronger case to get in.

Red Sox add LHP Matt Hall via trade with Tigers, designate Travis Lakins for assignment

Red Sox add LHP Matt Hall via trade with Tigers, designate Travis Lakins for assignment

The Boston Red Sox made their second trade of the week Friday.

The Sox acquired left-handed reliever Matt Hall from the Detroit Tigers in exchange for minor league catcher Jhon Nunez.

Hall appeared in 21 games for the Tigers the past two seasons. He was 0-1 with a 9.48 ERA, 32 strikeouts, 18 walks and a 2.07 WHIP in 31 1/3 innings in that span. Hall made his major league debut for Detroit in 2018.

To make room for Hall on the team's 40-man roster, the team designated right-handed pitcher Travis Lakins for assignment, per Jen McCaffrey of The Athletic.

Lakins, 25, made his major league debut in 2019 and logged 16 appearances for the Red Sox. He went 0-1 with a 3.86 ERA, 18 strikeouts, 10 walks and a 1.41 WHIP in 23 1/3 innings of work.

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On Wednesday, the Red Sox traded first baseman/outfielder Sam Travis to the Texas Rangers in exchange for left-handed reliever Jeffrey Springs, while also designating lefty pitcher Bobby Poyner for assignment.