What happens when you break the glass because of an emergency, and it turns out your emergency gets even worse? The Boston Red Sox might be about to find out.
The Sox made the seemingly desperate move of recalling veteran catcher Sandy Leon from Triple-A Pawtucket on Tuesday, all but ending Blake Swihart’s difficult, stop-start tenure with the organization. Red Sox decision-makers decided a split with Baltimore over the weekend that dropped the club to 6-11 was the relative low point and played its trump card by calling on Leon, a veteran backstop heralded for his handling of the pitching staff but who also represents a virtual automatic out at the plate.
“By no means, am I saying that we’re putting this on Blake,” Red Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski told reporters Tuesday, per The Athletic, in the Bronx before the Sox opened a two-game series with the New York Yankees. “It’s just, our guys haven’t pitched very well. There’s a combination of factors. But we just felt at this time it was better to bring up more of a veteran type catcher to handle a veteran starting pitching staff, so that’s what we decided to do.”
It’s only been one night, sure, but recalling Leon didn’t flip the proverbial switch … at least not for Chris Sale.
The Yankees on Tuesday pounded Sale, who doesn’t look like he’ll be waking up anytime soon from this early-season nightmare. The perennial Cy Young Award contender actually lowered his ERA by a half-run by allowing four earned runs on seven hits over five innings. He’s now 0-4 with an 8.50 ERA on the season and is talking about how he’s embarrassing his family by how poorly he’s pitching. His family!
Sale’s stinker went to show that Boston’s pitching issues have far more to do with the staff’s inability to make quality, big-league pitches than it does with the big leaguers calling those pitches.
Coincidentally, Sale’s stuff looked as good as it has all season Tuesday night. His early-season velocity dip looked like a thing of the past, with Sale topping out at 98 mph with an average fastball velocity of 95.4 mph, which has nothing to do with who’s behind the plate. Where velocity was a bit of an issue through the first three starts, Sale looked strong — with Leon behind the plate — and still got tagged.
So, what gives? Sale’s problem is the same problem that’s plagued just about every other Boston starter not named David Price. He can’t hit his spots on a consistent enough basis. And you know what? Even if you’re facing an injury-decimated lineup like the Yankees feature right now, you’re still going to give up hits even to guys like Mike Tauchman when you leave pitches here.
The Yankees had five batted balls with exit velocities of 103 mph or more. Three were merely singles, and two went for outs. Four out of five of those pitches caught the middle of the plate which is to say things could have been even worse for Sale. That type of thing wasn’t on the catcher last week, and it was not on the catcher Tuesday night. Even if the pitch-calling is suspect, it’s still on the pitcher to not leave the offering middle-middle.
The most concerning thing for the Red Sox, assuming full health for all involved, is that there really isn’t an easy fix. The pitchers just have to pitch better, which sounds like such a simpleton observation, but what other options are there? At this point, the hope has to be that Sale and the starters eventually will come around after a relatively laissez-faire spring training. Sale’s spike in velocity Tuesday night might have been an indication that he’s finally starting to feel like the regular-season version of himself after playing catch-up for the first three weeks of the season. Maybe.
No one was harder on Sale than himself, so we can at least applaud him for his accountability, but the playoff field isn’t determined by accountability. If he’s truly healthy, we have to assume he’ll eventually pitch better. We’ve seen it too much to believe he won’t. But you can only say that about him or any other pitcher on the staff for so long. At some point, they just have to be better.
And if they aren’t, it’s going to be a very long summer.
Thumbnail photo via Brad Penner/USA TODAY Sports Images