The 2020 MLB season is in jeopardy due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, but Chris Sale's campaign is over before it even began, as the Boston Red Sox left-hander was told he requires Tommy John surgery.
Despite putting together a remarkable career so far, a Cy Young Award has somehow eluded Sale. Now the ace will miss his age-31 campaign, and his rehab will likely endanger a full 2021 season, too.
Sale's career isn't over by any means, and he's certainly capable of being named the best pitcher in his league during his mid-to-late 30s. But his window is narrowing.
Let's take a look at some factors that could make him the best pitcher of all time to not add a Cy Young to his mantle:
There's no doubting that, since becoming a starter in 2012, Sale has been one of the premier pitchers in baseball. In fact, since then, only Clayton Kershaw and Max Scherzer have been worth more WAR than Sale, according to FanGraphs.
However, this past season was the first over that span when Sale didn't make the All-Star team and didn't get a single Cy Young vote, and it's not hard to see why.
The 2019 campaign marked the first time Sale didn't throw 150-plus innings as a full-time starter. It was also the second season he's posted a losing record, and the first time his ERA finished over 3.50 (it was a whopping 4.40). And in 2018 Sale managed to throw merely 158 innings, though he was undoubtedly elite, posting a career-best 2.11 ERA and 1.98 FIP.
Some of those struggles are perhaps attributable to his injury surfacing earlier than it was diagnosed. But that's not necessarily a good sign either, as Sale's health isn't assured going forward.
Let's not go too far back in history due to the advancements in medicine and treatment. After all, Tommy John himself didn't undergo the surgery until his age-32 season, but that was 55 years ago.
During the past decade, over 1,000 pitchers have undergone Tommy John surgery, according to research from Jon Roegele of The Hardball Times and FanGraphs. Of those, only 51 - including Sale - underwent the procedure for the first time after celebrating their 30th birthdays. Getting the surgery beyond that age is incredibly rare.
Looking deeper at recoveries, let's omit any pitcher who underwent the surgery in 2018 or later, and then also those who did it after turning 35 years old. Now we're down to 32 across the majors and minors.
None of the pitchers remaining on the list have ever been as good as Sale, but there are a couple of standouts. Let's chart them and look at their ERA+ pre- and post-surgery.
|Pitcher||Age*||pre-surgery ERA+||post-surgery ERA+|
* - age at the time of surgery
Josh Johnson's fate provides the bleakest outlook. He never pitched in the majors again after going under the knife. Johnson showed impressive promise early in his career too, finishing fifth in NL Cy Young voting in 2010 after pacing the Senior Circuit in ERA. McCarthy also declined, but at the typical rate of a veteran.
Meanwhile, Hochevar and Lackey both improved slightly while aging, which bodes well for Sale. Vargas stayed pretty much the same, which should be considered a step in the right direction. Hill became much, much better, but that's largely due to remaking his career in independent leagues.
While it's rare for a pitcher to require the surgery at Sale's age, there's some optimism the seven-time All-Star will return to form based on these cases.
Even if Sale does bounce back, there's a chance he joins an incredibly talented though dubious group of great pitchers who never added a Cy Young to their mantle.
Seven Hall of Famers and two other legends come to mind: Bert Blyleven, Curt Schilling, Juan Marichal, Jack Morris, Mike Mussina, Phil Niekro, Andy Pettitte, Don Sutton, and Nolan Ryan.
Here's how Sale ranks among those pitchers through his age-30 season:
Considering the innings discrepancy when sorting by WAR, Sale already has a claim to being the best pitcher to never win a Cy Young. If we take his WAR and prorate it to match Blyleven's massive workload, the Red Sox hurler would have already accrued approximately 81.9 WAR.
If Sale can't recover fully and secure that precious hardware, he could easily find himself among - or even atop - this legendary list of pitchers.