Has impressive 2024 with the Braves put Chris Sale back on track for Cooperstown?

After five straight injury-riddled seasons, it looked like the book had been closed on Chris Sale's Hall of Fame candidacy. Has his incredible 2024 with the Braves changed that?

Atlanta Braves v New York Yankees
Atlanta Braves v New York Yankees / Luke Hales/GettyImages

Over the first ten seasons of Chris Sale's career, it looked like he was destined for Cooperstown. He had already accumulated 44.6 bWAR and 44.5 fWAR. He was the fourth-best pitcher in this time span, behind only Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer, and Justin Verlander, all of whom are destined for the Hall of Fame.

But then, injuries came. From 2020 to 2023, the lefty only made 31 starts and pitched in 151 innings, which wouldn't have made him a qualified pitcher in a single season, let alone four. It looked like these injuries had completely derailed any chance of Sale joining his peers in the Hall of Fame.

This season, however, Chris Sale has completely reverted to his pre-2019 dominance. Is this second wave enough to get him back in the Hall of Fame conversation?

How strong was Chris Sale's Hall of Fame candidacy before the injuries?

For the first ten years of Sale's career, Cooperstown seemed like a given. He was the fastest pitcher to 2000 strikeouts, achieving the feat in just 1,626 innings. This bested the previous record set by Pedro Martinez by 85.1 innings.

Of course, Sale wasn't just a strikeout pitcher, he was one of the most dominant pitchers in the league. He made seven straight All-Star games, finished within the top six in Cy Young voting each of those seasons, and received MVP votes in four of those seasons.

At the end of 2019, Sale's 44.6 bWAR ranked ranked 61st among all pitchers in their first 10 seasons. This was better than 52 Hall of Famers's first 10 seasons, including Randy Johnson, Jim Palmer, Gaylord Perry, and Braves legend John Smoltz.

Additionally, the lefty already had his legendary moment, coming into Game 5 of the 2018 World Series to secure the championship.

2019 was the first season he struggled as a starter, both with success and with injury. He pitched just 147.1 innings with a 4.40 ERA in 25 starts andsuffered an elbow injury in August that shut down the rest of his season.

Still, Sale was only 31 when he entered the 2020 season. To stay on Hall-of-Fame track, Sale just needed to have half the success he had in his 30s than he did in his 20s, and to do that, all he needed to do was stay moderately healthy.

Unfortunately, that was not the case.

The injuries that derailed Sale's Hall-of-Fame track

Sale didn't opt for Tommy John immediately. After getting shut down at the end of 2019 with elbow inflammation, the lefty hoped that the rest would heal the issue.

It did not and in March 2020, Sale underwent surgery to repair his UCL, knocking him out for 2020 and most of 2021. The then 32-year-old returned in August of 2021, starting nine games with more or less the same level of success he had pitched with from 2012 to 2018, albeit without the innings. He only averaged 4.2 innings per start.

The 2021 season ended healthy, but the 2022 season did not begin that way. As soon as the lockout ended, news came out that he had fractured his rib cage. This knocked him out until July, not making his season debut until the 12th.

He pitched five scoreless innings in his season debut, but unfortunately, he wouldn't even complete another full inning before being knocked out again for the year.

With two outs in the bottom of the first against the Yankees, Aaron Hicks hit this line drive right off of Sale's pinky.

Just weeks after fracturing his pinky, he broke his wrist riding a bike, which ended his 2022 season at just 5.2 innings.

The lefty's final season with the Red Sox was similar to his 2019 season. He didn't avoid injuries, even seeing a 60-day IL stint, but he did cross the 100-inning plateau for the first time in the new decade. He had a 4.30 ERA, but a 3.80 FIP indicated a bit of bad luck.

In his first five seasons as a 30-year-old, Sale cumulated a total of just 4.7 bWAR, nearly a fifth of the WAR he had accumulated in the previous half-decade. He sat at just 47.1 entering his age-35 season. Cooperstown seemed nearly impossible given his age and his substantial injury history.

But then, he joined the Braves.

Has Chris Sale's performance with the Braves put him back on the path for Cooperstown?

Chris Sale hasn't just been healthy this year, pitching more innings this year by the end of June than he had in four of the last five seasons on the whole, he's also been vintage Chris Sale.

This season, the 35-year-old already has 2.5 bWAR and 3.0 fWAR. From 2020 through 2023, Sale had accumulated just 3.1 fWAR total.

He has a 2.79 ERA, a 2.31 FIP, and is striking out 32.3% of batters he's faced while walking just 4.7% of them. Sale is back among the top pitchers in baseball, looks like a lock for this year's All-Star game, and is an early front-runner for the NL Cy Young.

However, is this resurgence enough to put Chris Sale back in the conversation for the Hall of Fame? Maybe, and it might depend on replicating the success of a current Brave.

If not for the Pirates coaching staff, Charlie Morton might have been one of the greatest pitchers of all time.

For the first eight seasons of Charlie Morton's career, he was a terrible pitcher. He had a negative career bWAR and a 7.2 fWAR. Frankly, he might have been fortunate to still be a major league starter.

In 2016, he became a free agent and signed with the Phillies. Although he only started four games before being knocked out by injury, he started throwing harder and using his curveball slightly more.

The Astros saw this, signed him, and completely transformed his career. In the eight seasons since signing with the Astros, Morton has had a career that'd you expect from someone ten years younger. He has a 22.6 fWAR and 20.1 bWAR. Morton has a 3.58 ERA in 1153 innings and has struck out 1337 batters.

839 of those innings have come since turning 35. He's averaged around 2.7 fWAR per season since turning 35, which includes the shortened 2020 season. His career-best season came in 2019, where he had a 6.0 WAR season. Chris Sale, in his age-35 season, is on pace for a 6.0 fWAR season.

While Morton has been above-average as a pitcher, the most notable part of his success has come with his health. Aside from the 2020 season, Morton's fewest innings since signing with Philadelphia has been 146.2, which came in his first season in Houston. In every full season since, he's been a qualified starter by innings.

If Chris Sale can replicate Morton's health and longevity, which is admiringly a big ask for someone who has not been a qualified starter since 2017, Sale could easily surpass the 60 WAR plateau, which has seemingly been the threshold for starting pitchers over the last 60 years (only Jack Morris and Catfish Hunter have not surpassed this mark and been elected).

Sale would need to average roughly 2 WAR over the next five seasons to hit this mark and would likely need to surpass the 3000 strikeout mark, which he's only 693 punchouts away from doing so to be in the conversation.

Of course, even passing the 60 WAR mark doesn't guarantee election, but it certainly helps. There have been 11 pitchers to achieve 60 or more bWAR since 1980 who are not in the Hall. Of those 11 pitchers, four are active, one is not eligible for voting, two are steroid-stained, and one is Curt Schilling.

Although getting elected to the Hall of Fame still hinges on four or five more predominantly healthy seasons, Sale's 2024 has certainly moved the needle back into it being a possibility at all. Thankfully, with Alex Anthopoulos' savviness, the Braves could see two more seasons of Sale dominance after this season.

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