Is this the year for Chris Sale? He's made himself the early front-runner for the American League Cy Young Award. Sale is 5-0 with a 1.66 ERA and a staggeringly low 0.68 WHIP in five starts.Sale, who last season set the White Sox franchise record with 274 strikeouts, worked eight
Is this the year for Chris Sale? He's made himself the early front-runner for the American League Cy Young Award. Sale is 5-0 with a 1.66 ERA and a staggeringly low 0.68 WHIP in five starts.
Sale, who last season set the White Sox franchise record with 274 strikeouts, worked eight strong innings in a 10-1 victory at Toronto on Tuesday night, with Edwin Encarnacion's solo home run one of only four hits he allowed.
Shutting down the Blue Jays' collection of right-handed bashers is an impressive feat for a left-handed starter. But it was Sale doing what he does, which by now should surprise no one.
Outside of Clayton Kershaw, no Major Leaguer is pitching as consistently at a high level as the White Sox left-hander from Florida Gulf Coast University. The skinny guy with the three-quarters arm angle and devastating selection of pitches.
Just check the AL Cy Young Award voting. Sale was sixth in 2012, fifth in '13, third in '14 and fourth in '15. Only David Price has been in the AL top six three of the past four years, and Felix Hernandez is the only other guy to finish there twice.
Sale hasn't put everything together for 30-plus starts in a season like Price in '12, Max Scherzer in '13, Corey Kluber in '14 or Dallas Keuchel last year. But this might just be the one.
Sale has some things going for him in his age-27 season he didn't have in the past. Among the ones that seem significant:
• Sale has become the White Sox team leader, not just their best pitcher.
He stuck out his neck in Spring Training to support Adam LaRoche, who retired rather than accept the team's request that he limit his teenage son's presence in the clubhouse. Sale strongly criticized management, especially executive vice president Ken Williams, but he vowed that he would put aside his feelings to deliver for the White Sox, like always.
Sale is certainly been doing that, and the extra motivation isn't hurting.
• The White Sox have made massive improvements defensively from this time last season, thanks mostly, but not entirely, to the addition of third baseman Todd Frazier, center fielder Austin Jackson and Adam Eaton's move from center to right field.
Baseball Prospectus' defensive efficiency rankings had the White Sox at 28th last season. They are currently second, behind only the Cubs. This has had a major impact for the Sox pitching staff, which is leading the AL with a 2.35 ERA and a .210 opponents' batting average.
It's hard to imagine Sale ever pitching to contact. But he's pounding the strike zone (five walks in 38 innings) and trusting his fielders this season.
Sale's ratio of strikeouts per nine innings is down from 11.8 to 7.6. His fastball is down about two mph from the end of 2015 and he's throwing two-seam fastballs more than ever (20 percent, according to Brooks Baseball). It'll be interesting to see if Sale continues this approach or if he dials up the velocity as he gets deeper into the season.
• The White Sox are playing better than they have since 2012, when they collapsed late to miss the playoffs.
Sale is a team-first guy who spends more time analyzing the standings than his own statistics. He lusts to get his first chance to pitch in the postseason. The White Sox haven't been there since 2008.
As a 23-year-old in his first season as a big league starter, Sale wasn't quite ready for the stretch run in 2012.
The Sox were three games up on the Tigers with 15 to play, but they went 4-11 down the stretch. Sale was 2-4 with a 4.62 ERA in his last seven starts, including a loss in a great battle against Justin Verlander. He'd love another chance to try to finish off a run to the postseason.
Sale isn't the only AL starter off to a fast start. His teammates Mat Latos (4-0, 0.74) and Jose Quintana (2-1, 1.82) are also on early rolls.
The Tigers' Jordan Zimmermann (4-0, 0.35) has been the AL's most effective starter. He finished seventh in National League Cy Young Award voting in 2013 and fifth in '14, a pedigree that says he should be taken seriously. Don't overlook King Felix, who is 1-2 but has a 1.80 ERA, or Sonny Gray (3-1, 2.73).
But everyone knows what Sale is. He's a Cy Young Award winner in waiting.
Sale's April performance suggests he might not have much longer to wait.
Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com.