Inside Chris Sale’s third act: From considering walking away to an MLB superteam’s missing piece

Inside Chris Sale’s third act: From considering walking away to an MLB superteam’s missing piece
  • Jeff Passan, ESPNMar 7, 2024, 07:00 AM ET


      ESPN MLB insider
      Author of “The Arm: Inside the Billion-Dollar Mystery of the Most Valuable Commodity in Sports”

CHRIS SALE IS in a new clubhouse, a new uniform, a new city, all part of his third act. He’s content, a far cry from where he’s been in recent years. He’s also not ready to call this newest phase of his career a rebirth, even if that’s how it might look to a baseball world that seemed to have forgotten him in recent years.

“That sounds like a Disney movie,” he says. “I’m not, I guess, sentimental as that. I’m just playing baseball.”

Maybe it’s that simple. Playing is something he’s done far too sparingly over the past half-decade, and it eats at him, this notion of fragility, of unfinished business. Sale has always been at his best when he has something to prove. First, with the Chicago White Sox, who took him with the 13th pick in the 2010 draft when other teams thought he was too skinny, his delivery too unorthodox. Then with the Boston Red Sox, who introduced him to a bigger stage — and playoff baseball — and two years later moshed around him when he secured the final out of the 2018 World Series.

Now, too many injuries later, it’s with the Atlanta Braves, arguably the best team in baseball. They turned to him this winter to fortify their latest championship run, betting on Sale’s makeup and pedigree as much as the left arm that might well have some dazzle left in it.

To avoid excessive Disneyfication, perhaps it’s best to characterize Sale’s present state as a new beginning. His body is finally right. He is pumping fastballs at 97 mph and spinning sliders like the most dominant version of himself and competing like few in the game do. The disappointment, the disillusionment, the dismay — the stuff that prompted him to question if he even wanted to play anymore — is slowly fading into the ether, leaving Sale room not to rediscover who he was but to figure out who he intends to be at 35 years old.

“It took its toll on me,” he says, “but I’m here now and we’re rolling.”

IT’S IMPOSSIBLE TO appreciate the present without reconciling the past, and that’s where Sale finds himself today. He’s still processing the past five years and everything that happened in them. Following the slider that brought then-Los Angeles Dodger Manny Machado to one knee and ended a 108-54 season with a championship, Sale signed a five-year, $145 million contract extension. He struggled in a 2019 season that ended in mid-August due to elbow inflammation, tore his ulnar collateral ligament in 2020 and never felt like himself upon his return in 2021. He suffered a fractured rib, broken pinky and broken wrist that waylaid his 2022, and endured a stress reaction in his left shoulder blade in 2023. Misfortune has chased him relentlessly.

“It’s a double-edged sword for me,” Sale says. “The whole reason I got traded [to Boston] was to help them win a World Series. And I feel satisfied in doing that. It’s just obviously what happened after that. That’s just one of the bigger regrets in my life. It’ll always be. They made a commitment to me, and I didn’t live up for that. We made a deal: ‘We’re going to give you this because you’ve done this and you’re going to continue to do that.’ Well, I didn’t hold up my end.

“It consumes you at the time. When everything’s good, everything’s great, right? And when everything’s bad, it’s never going to be good. Now I know … you have to do the same things whether you’re successful or not successful. And I think sometimes I can get lost.”

In the midst of the injuries, Sale felt positively nomadic. The game had given him so much: seven All-Star Game selections, six top-5 Cy Young finishes and a 185-gemstone ring with 4½ carats of diamonds. Now it was taking away. He struggled without baseball, and he struggled with it, and it made his mind race to the point where he broached the possibility of leaving it altogether. His wife, Brianne, and their three sons convinced him to stay the course.

“Just the fact that they’re bought in,” Sale says. “My kids absolutely love it. They love it. And my wife — she’s like, ‘Listen, I want you out to do this. You’ve been doing it for so long, what’s a few more years?’ She’s still in my corner for now. She’s not saying, ‘Hey, you need to get home.’ She’s embracing it, and she’s enjoyed it, and we’re doing it for now, and we’re going to keep doing it until we don’t.”

Even with Sale’s checkered health, teams had inquired about acquiring him. The Texas Rangers broached the possibility at the trade deadline in 2022. Nothing materialized. Same went for Atlanta at the deadline last year. This time, though, the conversations continued into the winter, after the Red Sox replaced chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom with Craig Breslow.

Atlanta was casting a relatively wide net for starting pitching. Following their World Series win in 2021, the Braves had bowed out in the division series twice against a Philadelphia team that had finished behind them in the National League East. President of baseball operations Alex Anthopoulos tried to engage with free agent starter Aaron Nola, who opted to return to the Phillies early in the offseason. Anthopoulos discussed trading for right-hander Tyler Glasnow, who would go to the Los Angeles Dodgers, the other NL powerhouse. He broached a deal for Chicago White Sox right-hander Dylan Cease, though the price in players proved too rich.

Anthopoulos kept returning to Sale, and once Boston agreed to send $17 million to help cover Sale’s salary this season, the deal had legs. Not only could Sale bolster Atlanta’s rotation, his club option for next season would provide insurance against co-ace Max Fried‘s impending free agency and right-hander Charlie Morton‘s possible retirement. Further, Anthopoulos believed Sale’s competitiveness could positively influence the growing army of young, talented arms in the Braves’ system that would benefit from modeling themselves after Sale.

“His experience, who he is as a person, a teammate, a competitor, the ability on the field — he’s a perfect fit for us in every way,” Anthopoulos says. “It’s hard for us to find a better fit talent-wise. He checks all the boxes. With him and Charlie Morton both as high-quality people and veteran playoff-caliber starters, they’re ideal for our team now and to set an example for our younger pitchers.”

Eventually, Atlanta agreed to send the talented Vaughn Grissom — who had been blocked from the majors by the Braves’ hearty core of position players — to Boston in the deal. The Red Sox, coming off their third last-place season in four years, jumped at the opportunity to secure the 23-year-old infielder and shipped off Sale.

In his first meeting with Braves brass during spring training — a session in which the team outlines expectations and endeavors to understand where players are mentally — Sale validated the instinct to acquire him. He said he would pitch any day in any role. Starter, reliever, whatever. Boston had taught him the distilled joy that comes with winning. He wanted to replicate that. As much as he needed to look into the past to remind himself what it felt like, he was laser-focused on the future and the opportunity a team as talented as Atlanta presents.

“The whole point of this is to win, be the last team standing,” Sale says. “Nothing else matters in this game. And I am not going to say I can guarantee it, but I’d like to think that there are guys that have all the accolades in the world — Hall of Famers with no ring — and if you ask them, would you trade some of this, most of this, all of this for that? I’d like to think some of them would. Most of them maybe. I’m not taking away from individual accolades. You go out there and win MVP or a Cy Young or a Silver Slugger or a Gold Glove, that’s awesome. That’s great. And you should be very proud of that. Absolutely no question. I’m not taking away from that. But in a team sport, the ultimate goal is to win something together. And that moment, I’ll never forget that. Never.”

OVER THE WINTER, Sale had aimed to put himself in the best possible position for that pursuit. The ball still sizzled out of his hand, but he craved the sort of consistency that the injuries hadn’t allowed him. Even if Sale’s numbers and peripherals in 2023 foretold a better future, wear and tear had done a number on him, so he resolved to long toss almost every day, stick to the plan and build back what had melted away in recent years.

“I know what it’s going to take for me to be successful and some of the things that I might’ve thought were good for me might not have been good for me and vice versa,” Sale says. “You figure out a lot more when you have failure, right? When you’re sitting there with a math test and you got a 52 on it, there’s a lot to work on, and you learn a lot more going through and saying, ‘This is what I’m missing,’ and you just try to correct it.

“I just needed reps. I needed to play long toss. I needed to get my arm and my body prepared for what’s going to happen. I wanted to show up more prepared to spring training. I’d rather get to spring training and have to back off, because pushing that pedal harder [there] is never a good thing. So if I show up a little bit ahead of where I’m at, it’s easier to adjust that way as opposed to showing up and saying, well, I need to do this, I got to do that, I got to do that, because you can’t buy time.”

In his first two starts, he has done more than show up. Sale threw 4⅔ scoreless innings, striking out nine and hitting 97.1 mph with his fastball. Though spring training statistics are notoriously unrepresentative, the quality of Sale’s stuff has validated Atlanta’s decision soon after acquiring him to pick up Sale’s option for 2025 and tack on another club option for 2026. Rather than the $20-$21 million in present value that Sale’s extension with Boston guaranteed, he will make $38 million over the next two years and could reap another $20 million if the Braves pick up the 2026 option.

Sale yearns for this contract to wind up better for his team than the last one. And that manifests itself not just through the work Sale has put in long tossing and doing shoulder maintenance but in the wisdom he provides and the behavior he models.

Sale doesn’t necessarily actively lead. This group naturally follows him. Whether it’s Fried, co-ace Spencer Strider, any of the other live arms that populate the Braves’ system or even position players, they glean a single-mindedness from Sale the moment they meet him. They feel his hatred for his opponent on the day he pitches and don’t want to disappoint by not matching it. Culture that grows organically is the best kind, and emulating Chris Sale — or, at very least, learning from him — provides Atlanta an element it lacked in recent years. He is an indisputable alpha, his word treated as if it were shouted from a mountaintop.

“He’s a fiery competitor,” Atlanta catcher Sean Murphy says. “You wonder if that guy is who he is, and yeah, he’s exactly who he is. He just wants to win and he just wants to pitch. He just wants to go compete. That’s what makes him go. He just loves competition. He’s much more interested in mano-a-mano, that kind of baseball. He’s got the stuff, the delivery. Everything else works for him, so it just allows him to go out and try and dominate.”

After too many seasons feeling sidelined, Sale wants to be everything in Atlanta: pitcher, coach, advisor and motivator. In that sense, it is something of a rebirth — a fresh start with a particular end in mind. Whether it’s as a starter or reliever, Sale wants to win another championship, and now he’s on a team in position to do it.

“I got one in the AL,” Sale says. “Let’s get one in the NL.”


‘I’m just itching to get another chance at it’: Why Blues star Robert Thomas is ramping up his defensive game


Libertarian Party chair says RFK Jr. nomination could be ‘mutually beneficial’