He doesn’t have the dazzling repertoire of Yu Darvish, or command the buzz of a hot young pitcher like Jose Fernandez. He wasn’t a can’t-miss no. 1 pick like Stephen Strasburg; in fact, he was passed over by an additional 8 teams after he was supposed to be drafted. He can only dream of Felix Hernandez‘s track record. He doesn’t have the hardware of Justin Verlander, nor anywhere close to belonging in Clayton Kershaw‘s tax bracket. None of that really matters, because even without such typical acknowledgement, Chris Sale belongs in the conversation with those aforementioned peers as one of the very best pitchers in the game.
Since finally being drafted out of Florida Gulf Coast by the Chicago White Sox 13th overall back in 2010 (he had been projected to go no. 4 to the Kansas City Royals after the surefire top three picks of Bryce Harper, Jameson Taillon, and Manny Machado, but they instead took Christian Colon in a perfect illustration of #RoyalsbeingRoyals), Sale has become, as described by Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports, “one of baseball’s unquestioned aces, a high-inning, high-strikeout, high-groundball, low-walk, homer-scarce, left-handed monster.”
Now admittedly, there were legitimate concerns over Sale when he was coming out explaining his fall in the draft; with a painful-looking contortion act also known as his pitching mechanics (see Ben Lindbergh’s excellent 2012 post if you want to be truly grossed out by the lefty’s delivery), and his 6-foot-6, 180-pound, 82-inch wingspan, there were literally no player comps for teams to go off, and significant worry about his ability to stay healthy. As a result, despite his impressive college stats, many teams saw him strictly as a future reliever.
Sale would in fact, debut in such a role for the last two months of 2010 and stick in the pen the next season, before making the transition back to being a starter for the 2012 season. Since then, quite simply he’s been a man on a mission to prove the teams that doubted his ultimate durability that they were very, very wrong in doing so; since becoming a starter (to the start of the 2014 season), “The Condor” has made 59 starts and thrown 406.1 innings, and aside from a brief dead arm scare been the picture of health. More than simply making it out onto the bump every fifth day though, Sale has been dominant too, further rubbing salt into the Barret Loux– (Arizona), Karsten Whitson- (San Diego) and Deck McGuire– (Toronto) shaped wounds of those that passed on him; since moving into a starting role, he has racked up 10.5 WAR, an ERA+ of 140, and posted not just the third-highest K/9 (9.3) of any major league starter, but the highest strikeout-to-walk ratio (4.3) in that time.
He might just be getting better too. Sale is throwing harder than ever, with every one of his pitch types so far in 2014 having picked up velocity after jumping up last year, and maintaining his mid-90s heat deeper into games. Additionally, he’s also throwing smarter; having originally been highly dependent on his fastball/slider combination when he moved into the rotation, Sale has continued on the usage alterations which he made last year, relying on his killer changeup much more this season – a good move considering how over the last two years and change, it rates as the 4th best in the American League by Fangraph’s Pitch Type Linear Weights. It’s probably at this point too I should mention how Sale is signed to an extremely team-favorable five-year, $32.5 million contract that also gives Chicago a 2018 option for $12.5 million and a 2019 option for $13.5 million.
If any Sale skeptics could possibly still remain at this point, all they need to do is go watch his performance against the potent Red Sox offense at Fenway Park last night; going toe-to-toe with Jon Lester, the ace of the Pale Hose took a no-hitter into the sixth before ceding the only hit he would allow – a solo jack by Xander Bogaerts – eventually striking out 10 over seven innings of work**. It marked yet another great start for Sale, who has so far allowed just 16 hits in his four starts (27.1 innings), and currently has a career-low (as a starter anyway) 2.30 ERA. Even more encouragingly for Sox fans, especially considering their anemic offense’s inability to put runs on the board behind their ace, and the team’s dismal record over the past couple of years, their ace has also picked up 3 wins already as the Pale Hose have jumped out to a surprisingly hot start.
Whether Chicago keep it up or not, Sale deserves to finally get his in terms of national recognition. After two full seasons of flying under the radar, quietly putting up effectively the same numbers of his flashier – and better-compensated – peers, “The Condor” should this year finally grab the unbridled attention of more than just worried doctors and opposing hitters.
*I’m sorry, but it’s not a Sale piece without at least one pun. I promise that will be it.
** We can talk more fully about how Robin Ventura left him out there for 127 pitches some other time, but given his ace’s mechanics, how IT’S EARLY APRIL (!), and the recency bias of so many pitchers going down injured, it didn’t seem an especially prudent managerial decision – regardless of the 14-inning game the night before, which taxed the bullpen to the point of utility man Leury Garcia being forced to pitch.