If less Chris Sale is the answer, then baseball has lost its way
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I want no part of a sport in which Chris Sale is pulled after four-plus innings of a World Series game.
I don’t care if the analytics say it was the right move, and I don’t care that, after the left-hander gave up three runs Tuesday, the Red Sox went on to beat the Dodgers 8-4 in Game 1.
The Red Sox won. Baseball lost.
The former White Sox pitcher is so much fun to watch. You wouldn’t expect there to be menace in a 6-6, 180-pound man who looks like he needs to poke extra holes in his belt to keep his pants up. But it’s there in the way he uncoils his windup. It’s there in the way the ball leaves his hand during his sidearm delivery. His fastball will singe your eyebrows, and his breaking ball seems to come out of right field. God help you if you’re a left-handed hitter.
He’s the show. When the plug is pulled on that show, as it was after Sale walked the first batter of the fifth inning, with the Red Sox leading 3-2, you’re left with a halting, lurching parade of relievers. It’s about as enjoyable as reading mortgage documents.
The goal is to win the game. The analytics people make that pronouncement, drop the mic and walk away. But there is no proof the Red Sox wouldn’t have won the game if Sale had pitched into, say, the seventh. There is no proof Sale, who had thrown 91 pitches to that point, wouldn’t have gotten stingier.
There is proof that Sale, who might go down as one of the best pitchers in history, was being treated like a disposable wipe. It didn’t make for good television.
We’re being deprived of possible greatness here. In Sale’s case, we might be in the process of being deprived of Randy Johnson, vintage 2001. Johnson went 5-1 in the playoffs for the Diamondbacks that season, never pitched fewer than seven innings (except in a Game 7 relief appearance in the World Series), averaged 114 pitches, had a 1.52 ERA and was named the World Series MVP.
Other than Johnson’s 4-inch height advantage, he and Sale are the same guy. Same left-handed nastiness. Same fear-inducer.
Same guy, different world.
I couldn’t tell you one person who was in the Diamondbacks’ bullpen in 2001, and I’m a better person because of it.
In three playoff starts this season Sale has pitched 5„, four and four-plus innings, respectively. When I order wine, I don’t expect it to come in a shot glass. That’s what this is.
More and more, baseball seems oblivious to the idea of stars and star-making. In today’s game, numbers and the people who use them are the stars. Cubs manager Joe Maddon, known for his ever-changing lineups and worn-out path to the mound, is as big a star in Chicago as any player on his team. That’s not good.
I’ve been running away from math my entire life, and I won’t pretend that hasn’t played a role in my aversion to what baseball has become. Analytics are a language, another way of describing what we see. I don’t happen to speak it.
But this is more about beauty than it is about whether you’re for or against the explosion of stats in baseball. Red Sox manager Alex Cora used six relievers after pulling Sale. Never mind how taxed his bullpen will be if the World Series goes seven games. How a viewer is supposed to latch on to a game as choppy and interrupted as Game 1 was is beyond me.
The game Tuesday lasted three hours, 52 minutes, which is an eternity in most sports but business as usual in the baseball playoffs. The typical postseason game lasts as long as the conflict between North Korea and South Korea.
Can a starting pitcher go down in World Series lore anymore? I don’t see how. If the Red Sox can’t stand by Sale, who has finished no lower than sixth in American League Cy Young Award voting the last six seasons, then something is wrong with the sport.
How to rein it back in is the issue. A limit on how many relievers a manager can use per game? I don’t know. I’m not sure baseball even knows it has a problem.
‘‘The strategy part of it — I think that that’s very exciting for a baseball purist that loves to see what managers think and how you can kind of match up against the opposition,’’ Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said.
On his radio show Tuesday, Dan Patrick asked if analytics would have deprived us of watching pinch hitter Kirk Gibson’s game-winning home run against Dennis Eckersley in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series. Maybe an analytics-minded manager would have said that going with an injured slugger on two bad legs was a strategic disaster.
Or maybe Tommy Lasorda going with his prodigious gut was better than what any numbers could have told him. We’re certainly better off because of it.