The Beat | Red Sox Reporter Chris Smith Talks Chris Sale, Boston's Poor Start, and Closer by Committee

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After winning a World Series, the Boston Red Sox have suffered one of the worst cases of a championship hangover in the last decade. The Big Lead brought in MassLive Red Sox beat writer Chris Smith to talk about Chris Sale’s struggles out of the gate, how closer-by-committee is working out, and the chances of Dustin Pedroia resembling himself again. 

Liam McKeone: Hey, Chris. I’ll start with the most obvious question from Boston’s shaky start: how concerned should Red Sox fans be with Chris Sale?

Chris Smith: Yeah, I think that it’s a strange situation. I mean, I don’t think there’s anything structurally wrong with his arm because they took MRIs when he was signed to the 5-year, $145 million extension. The Red Sox wouldn’t be that foolish or do something like that where they would sign someone knowing there was potential for structural damage with the arm just because of what he’s done or what he means to the organization. But I don’t think he’s strong right now, I think they didn’t build him up in spring training. They only had nine innings with him in spring training. I mean, he has a weird delivery, he’s been pitching for a long time now, and we didn’t see the velocity come back after the shoulder inflammation last year. I’m sure it’ll pick up eventually here, but is he going to be the type of pitcher who  tops out at 95 in a game instead of topping out at 100? Will he have to develop into more of a finesse pitcher as his contract goes on? I think there should be concern long-term about what he can be as a pitcher going forward. I think the Red Sox… I wrote in January they should take the year to evaluate, and then, if they didn’t feel comfortable, if he wasn’t durable again, then they shouldn’t re-sign him.

McKeone: It seemed like Sale was shaken by his performance post-game after only lasting four innings in the home opener. Do you think he’s questioning the viability of the long-term view vs. short-term view in terms of how many pitches he throws and how hard he throws them?

Smith: I think that he summed it up best: that he should be able to get up on Christmas Day and throw a strike, and that’s true. So he’s not blaming the program  they did in spring training, he’s taking accountability himself. I think that the program didn’t make him strong coming into the year, and it’s funny that they want him strong at the end of the year, but they’re off to a 3-9 start, are they going to be playing at the end of the year for a division title? It’s interesting in that respect. 

I think he wants to be a power pitcher more than a finesse pitcher. We saw it last year when he said he’s taking out “the Ferrari”… he was throwing in the low 90s, but he was topping out in the higher 90s in these early starts, so it was different from this year, where he was probably topping out at 94, 95 instead of a higher 90… He wants to be a power pitcher and he probably would’ve preferred to get more innings in his spring training, like anyone would.

I think that he’s got to learn and he’s got to see what’s best for him because when he turned on the Ferrari, things didn’t work out. He topped out at over 100 in four different starts, he was throwing with the best velocity of his career… and he ended up having shoulder inflammation twice and ended up pitching 29 innings in the second half, and I think that was a direct result of him going from where he was to throwing 100 miles per hour. So I think there needs to be a middle ground with him.

McKeone: What other factors do you think have contributed to the Sox’ shockingly slow start?

Smith: The starting pitching overall hasn’t been good, and I think that has to do with the lack of innings that they had in spring training. David Price threw fewer innings than Chris Sale. The starting pitching has just been horrendous, where last year, when they went 17-2 to start the season, over [that stretch] they had the best ERA by a Red Sox team in the live ball era, which dates back to 1920. So we’re seeing totally different starting pitching than we saw last year at the beginning of the year. But you can go back to everything right now. Nothing’s working. Their OPS is at the bottom of the league, they’re making errors. In the outfield, even!

They don’t have their heads in the game at all, and it’s strange. They didn’t have a great spring training, and, you know, spring training results don’t matter, but they did matter last year, as Cora said because that helped them get off to a good start. They didn’t look good in spring training, and they haven’t looked good this year, and it’s been everything. It hasn’t just been the starting pitching. The offense has been inconsistent, the defense has been some of the worst in major league baseball, everything is not clicking. That steal of home [at the home opener] kind of shows you that their heads aren’t in the game. They’re just not doing anything right.

McKeone: How much of an effect did the lengthy road trip to start the year have on this poor start?

Smith: [The Red Sox players] say that going to Arizona for two games to play the Cubs [before Opening Day] was actually good because it helps them get used to the time zone and everything, but that still adds two more days on to the West Coast trip. It’s a long time away. They started spring training early, [many of them] were away from their families, and they have to start on the West Coast which is never easy.

But I wouldn’t totally blame it on the West coast. They stay in five star hotels, and I covered the Oakland and Arizona series and I had crazy travel day the first day of that series. I usually travel the day before, but I didn’t this time, and it was the day that the airports were shut down. I didn’t get into Oakland till wicked late, and I’m not the one staying in five-star hotels, you know. We do work hard as sports reporters, we’re in the ballpark as early as [the players] and we’re there two hours afterwards.

I’m not saying my job is as grueling as theirs, but I kind of adjusted to the time zone pretty quickly even though I had a rougher day than anyone and they were already on the West Coast and had two weeks to get used to it. So I wouldn’t blame the West Coast, I just think their heads aren’t into it.

McKeone: If their slide continues, do you anticipate Red Sox management making any moves?

Smith: I’ve already thought of that, and [maybe a change could come at] pitching coach? Especially the way the pitching has been to start the year, but [Red Sox pitching coach] Dana LeVangie has a lot of respect with the organization, He’s been with the organization for 20-something years, and look at what he did last year. In 2015, they fired the [pitching coach] really quickly after they got out to such a bad start. So they could do something. I just don’t see it, really. Alex Cora really supports his staff, he really likes Dana, and I just think he wouldn’t be the type of person to want to make that kind of move and he’d defend keeping Dana.

In terms of transactions, I don’t think anything would come down until June or July, especially with [the way] they’re playing right now. The only weak spot in their team, that you would think, is the bullpen, and the bullpen is doing the best right now. So what do you fix? You can’t add a starter, because they’re supposed to be the strength of the team. The offense should be hitting well. So in terms of coaches, I think everybody stays, and obviously coming off a World Series year, it would have to be really drastic, really prolonged for anything like that to happen.

McKeone: Has what you’ve seen so far given you confidence about the ‘closer by committee’ approach they seem to want to employ?

Smith: I like it, because if it works it could change the way GMs and presidents of baseball operations do things going forward. Because they’re gonna say to their closers, ‘Well, look at what the Red Sox did. You don’t just have to pitch the ninth inning here, your closer can pitch the eighth, your closer can pitch the seventh. Your best reliever should pitch the highest leverage situation.’ And I think that’s the way things are trending in baseball. People are thinking progressively. I think that this way works as opposed to 2003 when the Red Sox tried closer by committee, I don’t think they had the personnel to do it at that time. But I also think you need to keep it to a couple guys to close. If you keep it to Ryan Brasier and Matt Barnes, and Barnes is the guy that has the highest-leverage inning, and he ends up closing some days, and Brasier closes when Barnes pitches the highest-leverage inning if it’s 7th or 8th inning, I think it works.

Does the bullpen continue on this path? If you look at it, the bullpen would have an ERA in the lower 2s if it wasn’t for Brian Johnson’s 7-run inning and a third the other day… The bullpen has been the trick. Will that continue? I don’t know. They might have to make an addition as they go forth, but I’ve always said that bullpen acquisitions are the easiest to make as you get closer to the trade deadline. you don’t have to give up as much…You can give up a [top] 20-prospect or a 25-prospect and get the deal done.

I like Barnes. I know he’s had his ups and downs in Boston, but he’s a former first-round pick. I know he can throw strikes. There have been times in his career where he couldn’t throw strikes but I think it’s really the direct result of him being in high-level spots and really likes to pitch carefully to hitters, and he’d rather walk a guy than give up a home run. He said to me the other day,  ‘If I walk a guy, I’ll take my chances that he can’t score, he can’t go 270 feet to home plate. I’d rather walk him than give up that home run’. And if you look at his batting average against, it’s so good. So even though the walks have been high, he doesn’t give up many hits, and I think he can be that high-leverage inning guy. Brasier, I really think he’s a really good arm that I don’t think is a one-year wonder and I think Colton Brewer is gonna help out the team. His stuff is pretty good, I’m just really surprised he’s been through a couple organizations…We’ll see if he can, but I think he’ll stay on the [25-man] roster the whole year.

McKeone: Can Dustin Pedroia work his way back to being a starting-level player?

I wouldn’t count him out in being back this year as a good .300 hitter this year… I like him in the 7 spot. They’re going down the plan with him, and they haven’t really revealed it or won’t reveal it… Dave Dombrowski said early in spring training that if he’s on the roster for the full year, he’d play 100-125 games, that range. It’s difficult because this thing can flare up at anytime with him, and I think he understands that. He’s almost 20 months out of the [first] surgery, and I think there’s a chance he could come back and hit .290, .300.