On paper, Chris Sale and Bryan Mata have little in common.
The former is an almost-34-year-old lefty with 12 years in the majors under his belt. Thirteen, if you include 2020, when he was under contract, but on the Injured List all season. The latter is a 23-year-old righty on the precipice of his major-league debut.
Sale is the highest-paid pitcher on the roster; Mata is the highest-ranked pitcher in the Sox pipeline (6th overall).
In, for lack of a better word, “normal” years, the two would have little to do with one another until Mata makes his major-league debut. But these are unprecedented times, and over the last several years, the veteran and the prospect have overlapped due to the most unfortunate of circumstances:
Tommy John surgery.
And, in Sale’s case, a slew of other injuries. After left elbow inflammation ended his 2019 campaign in mid-August, the seven-time All-Star finally had the surgery in April 2020. Mata followed almost exactly a year later, but didn’t play in 2020, either, as the coronavirus pandemic shuttered the entire MiLB season.
For pitchers, the procedure carries an average recovery time of 9-12 months, so normally, Sale and Mata wouldn’t have overlapped too much. The southpaw was activated from the Injured List on Aug. 14, 2021, almost exactly two years after his previous big-league game, while Mata didn’t pitch until June 4, 2022. However, because Sale also sustained a rib stress fracture, a pinky fracture from a line drive, and broken wrist (all in the last year), he’s spent significantly more rehab time with the minor-league affiliates than the average TJ case.
Once upon a time, the surgery was an experiment, performed by Dr. Frank Jobe on Dodgers starting pitcher Tommy John in 1974. Even though the surgery proved successful, it didn’t take off right away; it wasn’t until 1978 that Brent Strom became the second player to put his arm — and career — in Jobe’s hands.
Today, the eponymous procedure has become so commonplace that some players go under the knife as early as high school. Several players have gone under the knife twice or even three times; Jose Rijo allegedly went through it five times. Between the maiden voyage in ’74 and Bryce Harper’s surgery in late November, 2,274 TJs have been performed across the majors, minors, college, and high school. Over 560 MLB players have gone under the knife, including 28 in 2022, and 32 in 2021.
“Tommy John” has become one of the most deflating phrases in the game, but for Sale and Mata, it sounds like some good will come from their long roads back. Before Sale became “Humpty Dumpty” — his own self-characterization at Winter Weekend — he was one of the most formidable pitchers in the game. Prior to 2019, he had the highest SO/9 and second-lowest ERA against the New York Yankees of any starting pitcher (minimum 100 innings) since the Live Ball Era began in 1920. One night in 2019, he struck out 17 batters and didn’t issue a single walk. His ninth-inning closer appearance in Game 5 of the 2018 World Series, specifically the crescendo of a pitch thrown so hard that it drove Manny Machado onto one knee to clinch the championship, will go down as one of the most epic moments in franchise history. Who better to prepare Mata for big-game pitching?
It sounds like Sale has embraced the mentor role. At Red Sox Winter Weekend on Saturday, he singled out Mata as the minor-leaguer who excites him the most: “I love watching Mata throw. I was there with him [in Fort Myers, Fla.] during his rehab process during Tommy John. We rehabbed together, and I saw him really turn a corner. The power he possesses, the ease that it looks like he’s throwing with. Not for nothing, man, that dude’s smile can light up a room. He’s a fun guy to be around. He’s a good teammate. You can tell, just how he operates, he really wants it.”
While Sale was in Springfield, raving about Mata, the pitching prospect was arriving at Fenway Park for the first Rookie Development Program since 2020. When he and the other 10 participants (three ’22 debuts and eight top prospects) fielded questions from the media on Monday, Mata was moved to hear that not only had Sale singled him out, but had been so effusive in his praise:
“I’m really grateful for it to have spent that time with him. You know, he attended some of my bullpens. I attended some of his. He had a lot of great advice, and to have a pitcher of his stature be there advising you is a big deal for me, and I don’t take it lightly.”
He went on to note that it motivates him to be surrounded, not only by veterans like Sale, but also by a growing number of promising pitching prospects.
In the past, emotional storylines — the Curse of the Bambino, Boston Strong, Do Damage/Damage Done — have elevated underdog Red Sox seasons from surprising to mythic. But it would be excessive to go so far as to liken Sale and Mata to a partnership such as Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker or Murtaugh and Riggs.
Still, they are an unlikely pairing, and like so many movies about mismatched duos, the Red Sox season hinges on both of them. Not one or the other, both.
As Sale acknowledged at Winter Weekend, the Sox need him to be the pitcher they’re paying more than any other arm on the roster. And they need Mata — and other top prospects — to continue to progress, debut (MLB Pipeline anticipates it will happen this year), and then stick at the big-league level.
Mata also revealed that the best piece of advice Sale gave him was “to put in an honest day’s work and to let the results speak for themselves.”
Good results from these two could make the difference for the 2023 Red Sox.