As strikeouts mount, Sale joins elite company
CHICAGO - Now they see it; now they don't.
Chris Sale insists he's a pitcher, not a magician. But the White Sox left-hander keeps making baseballs disappear into the catcher's mitt after hitters swing and miss -- at a rate rarely seen in the Major Leagues.
Sale has made himself a must-see attraction with a run of great starts that have tied his name to Hall of Famers like Sandy Koufax, Pedro Martinez and, especially, Randy Johnson, who was Sale's idol as a kid growing up in Lakeland, Fla.
He'll go to the mound Sunday at Tropicana Field facing the Rays with a chance for his fifth consecutive double-digit strikeout performance. He's already the first pitcher since 1900 to strike out at least 10 in four consecutive games with increasing stirikeout totals in each outing. He's had 12-plus strikeouts while allowing one run or fewer in each of his past three starts, something only Koufax had done in the modern era.
Sox manager Robin Ventura hasn't hesitated to compare his 26-year-old ace to Koufax and Johnson, although that seems to almost embarrass Sale.
"I'm just a pitcher," Sale said earlier this year. "I'm a baseball player. I want to go out and play baseball and do the best I can. That's all I've ever done and all I'm ever going to do. All the extra stuff is cool and fine, but I'll stick to being a baseball player."
Sale is 6-2 with a 3.04 ERA that would be much better had he not gotten hit hard by the Twins and Tigers in back-to-back starts on April 30 and May 6. But he's bounced back with one of the most remarkable stretches of dominance that any pitcher has had since Johnson was in his prime.
This isn't coming out of nowhere, either.
About this time last year, Sale had a crazy five-start stretch in which he held batters to five hits and six walks in 29 innings while striking out 44. That's right -- five hits, 44 strikeouts.
We'll understand if you missed it, because that stretch was sandwiched around a trip to the disabled list and included a rehab start at Triple-A, where he struck out 11 in four innings.
In his past five starts, Sale has gone 3-1 with a 1.16 ERA with 56 strikeouts in 38 2/3 innings. A true three-pitch master who has added some velocity after an offseason devoted to strengthening his lower body, he's had hitters swinging and missing at ridiculous rates.
Sale has gotten at least 20 swing-and-misses in each of his past four starts: 25 against the Astros, 26 against the Rangers, 25 against the Orioles and 20 against the Twins. No pitcher had done that since Johnson in a stretch from July 31-Aug. 15, 2002 -- the best of several great seasons he put together after turning 30.
Sale throws a high-90s fastball, a mid-80s changeup and a low-80s sweeping slider from a three-quarters delivery. He works fast, fields his position well and, for some reason, still pitches like he's trying to gain the respect of his teammates, not show the world how flashy he is.
Astros manager A.J. Hinch said Sale has "one of the fastest arms out of one of the most unique arm slots you can find.'' Hinch cites "the explosiveness of his pitches'' for leaving so many hitters walking back to the dugout.
Chris Carter, the Astros' power-hitting first baseman, agrees that Sale gains an advantage because of the unorthodox motion.
"I think the toughest thing is just finding the release point from him, because he has that sidearm release,'' Carter said. "He's throwing from second base and it's tough to see, tough to pick up. The angle is tough on hitters.''
But Evan Gattis doesn't buy it. He said Sale would be one of the nastiest pitchers around even if the lefty had a cookie-cutter delivery.
"I don't think he gains anything because of how he comes at you,'' said the Astros' outfielder/DH. "I think his 97-99 straight up is hard enough. [The delivery] might help him, but I don't think he's extra tough because of it. His stuff just plays. … He's tough, got three plus pitches. Velocity. Hard in, soft away. Changing speeds with his heater. His slider is the probably the best left-handed slider I've ever seen.''
Like a young Justin Verlander, Sale has an extra gear that allows him to reach back and get additional velocity when he needs it.
Facing Carter with runners on second and third Monday, Sale struck him out with a fastball that was clocked at 99.3 mph, according to Brooks Baseball. It was the fastest pitch he'd ever thrown, and Carter conceded later that "yes, it felt like it.''
Sale was bitterly disappointed when his Spring Training was sabotaged by an avulsion fracture in his right foot, which he suffered while unloading a truck at his Arizona residence. He's not the type to talk about himself any more than absolutely necessary, but it's clear he felt the offseason work had built the foundation to improve on his past three seasons, all of which included trips to the All-Star Game.
He's one of baseball's best pitchers. The question is: How can great can he become?