CHICAGO -- The uniform is new, sure. But when Chris Sale walks to the mound in his Red Sox gear on Tuesday night, he's going to look awfully familiar to White Sox fans.Sale has been the most electrifying pitcher in the Major Leagues this season -- just as he was
CHICAGO -- The uniform is new, sure. But when Chris Sale walks to the mound in his Red Sox gear on Tuesday night, he's going to look awfully familiar to White Sox fans.
Sale has been the most electrifying pitcher in the Major Leagues this season -- just as he was for long stretches each of the previous three seasons. He's earned American League Cy Young consideration each of the past five campaigns, yet he's never finished higher than third, which he did in 2014.
When Sale can make this season really special for himself is in August and September -- and if things go well, then October, too. He trains to run marathons, but on the South Side, both he and his teams were prone to running out of steam.
Sale has built excitement by going 53-20 with a 2.69 ERA before the All-Star break. But after the break, his career marks are 26-32 and a 3.31 ERA.
The four best stretches of his career, including the current one -- 5-2, 2.34, .177 opponents' batting average, 12.5 strikeouts per nine innings -- have come before the All-Star team was named. That's a big part of why he's on his way to being named an All-Star for the sixth consecutive time this season.
One thing that has made Sale so fascinating to watch is that his development has come in completely transparent steps.
When Sale arrived from Florida Gulf Coast University, the White Sox felt his changeup was his best off-speed pitch. But he didn't need it working out of the bullpen in 2010 and '11, and it was in that time that he developed his wipeout slider.
In an attempt to regain the feel he once had on his changeup, Sale threw changeups even when he played catch in the spring of 2012. But it wasn't until the middle of '13 that he became truly comfortable with the changeup again.
It was at that point he became almost unhittable when he's at the top of his game. The likes of Joe Girardi and Torii Hunter gushed about how Sale became a run of Cy Young Awards waiting to happen once he started throwing 20-30 percent changeups.
"That's not fun,'' Hunter said. "You've got a guy who throws [in the high-90s], that hard, with all the deception he has, and next thing you know, a parachute comes out. He throws a changeup, a Bugs Bunny changeup. It's no fun. It's an uncomfortable at-bat.''
Armed with three pitches that grade out near the top of scouts' scales, Sale has now put together stretches of dominance in each of the last four seasons. None of them lasted as long as Jacob Arrieta's historic 20-start run to finish 2015 (16-1, 0.86, .150 OBA, .410 opponents' OPS, 147 strikeouts in 147 innings) but the bursts were stunning.
Over six starts early in 2014, Sale was 5-1 with a 1.18 ERA over 38 innings. He held hitters to a .111 average in those games, with a minuscule .339 OPS. He had 44 strikeouts to go with only seven walks.
But it was the following season, after a lot of offseason work to strengthen his legs and core, when he started to throw harder than he had since he moved from the bullpen into the rotation. His fastball averaged 96.9 mph in one start against the Blue Jays in July 2015, during a stretch in which he struck out 131 hitters in 92 innings.
Sale was 6-3 with a 1.76 ERA over 12 starts in a run from May 12 through July 11, the best extended stretch of his career. He held hitters to a .171 batting average and a .484 OPS, and used those strikeouts to send him climbing to a White Sox record of 274, breaking a club record that Hall of Famer Ed Walsh had set in 1908.
Working to pitch deeper into games, Sale went through a pitch-to-contact phase in 2016. It was laughable how he missed bats even when he tried to hit them. He ran off a seven-start string (April 15-May 19) in which he was 7-0 with an 0.99 ERA -- albeit with a measly 48 strikeouts -- in 54 1/3 innings.
This season he's back to letting it go, averaging 1.8 mph more on his fastball than he did last season (95.4-93.6). He's throwing his four-seamer less often, however, with more sliders and changeups. The result is that his fastball is more effective than ever (.151 opponents' batting average).
Sale has gotten 20-plus swings and misses from hitters in four of his 10 starts this season, including 25 in eight innings against the Yankees on April 27. That's impressive. But it pales to what he did in six consecutive starts in 2015, when he was at his absolute best.
Facing the Twins, Orioles, Rangers, Astros, Rays and Rangers again, Sale produced whiffs like clockwork -- 20, 25, 26, 26, 26 and 21.
That's the kind of success he'll be looking for when he faces the White Sox. It should surprise no one if he achieves it. The test will be how he does if he gets them for a second time this season, as the White Sox won't visit Boston until August.
Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com.