Will this ace among aces finally win a Cy?

Sale has record seven straight top-six finishes without a win

February 24th, 2019

The 2018 season ended with Chris Sale reaching the ultimate team goal.

It was the ninth inning of Game 5 of the World Series at Dodger Stadium, with the Red Sox leading, 5-1, and needing three outs to close out a championship. Sale emerged from the bullpen. He whiffed Justin Turner, Enrique Hernandez and Manny Machado in order, putting an exclamation mark on the Fall Classic as Boston's celebration erupted around him.

But on a personal level, for all that he has accomplished in his career, something is missing from Sale's resume as the 29-year-old enters the final year of his contract.

A week after the left-hander closed out the World Series, Cy Young Award finalists were announced. Sale was not among the three named in the American League and wound up finishing a distant fourth behind Blake Snell, Justin Verlander and Corey Kluber.

For the seventh consecutive season since becoming a starting pitcher in 2012, Sale had placed in the top six in that voting without actually taking home the trophy. It's a run that is unprecedented in the history of the Cy Young or MVP Awards.

Perhaps that changes in 2019. While left shoulder inflammation hampered him late last season, Sale is apparently in good shape with Spring Training underway.

"Chris looks great. He has gained some weight," Red Sox manager Alex Cora told reporters when Red Sox camp opened last week. "And he's been throwing with no setbacks."

Sale once again will be a popular preseason pick, health permitting. According to the Steamer projections available at FanGraphs, he is forecast to lead all American League starters in ERA, FIP, strikeouts and wins above replacement (WAR), by wide margins.

Should he finally claim the prize, Sale would smash Dennis Eckersley's record of four top-six Cy Young Award finishes before his first win. Eckersley came in fourth in the AL as a Red Sox starter in 1978, then placed second, sixth and fifth as an A's closer between 1988-90, before finally winning in '92. When it comes to MVPs, Miguel Cabrera finished in the top six in the National League or AL five times between 2005-11 before winning back-to-back AL MVP Awards in '12 and '13.

Sale remains empty-handed. His seven total top-six Cy Young Award finishes are the second most for any pitcher who has never won, and that streak of seven straight already is a record.

Most top-six Cy Young Award finishes with no career wins

1. Mike Mussina: nine (Longest streak: four, 1994-97)

2. Chris Sale: seven (Longest streak: seven, 2012-18)

3-T. Nolan Ryan: six (Longest streak: two, 1973-74)

3-T. Roy Oswalt: six (Longest streak: three, 2004-06)

5-T. Don Sutton: five (Longest streak: five, 1972-76)

5-T. Dan Quisenberry: five (Longest streak: four, 1982-85)

5-T. Jack Morris: five (Longest streak: two, 1991-92 )

5-T. Kevin Brown: five (Longest streak: three, 1998-2000)

5-T. Andy Pettitte: five (Longest streak: two, 1996-97)

5-T. Mariano Rivera: five (Longest streak: two, 2004-05)

In the history of MVP voting, Eddie Murray and Manny Ramirez are the only players to manage as many as seven top-six finishes without a win. Murray has the longest streak -- six straight from 1980-85.

Another way to look at where Sale stands is through Cy Young Award shares, a Baseball-Reference.com stat that credits a player for the percentage of total possible vote points he received in a particular year, with a unanimous winner at 100 percent. For example, in 2018, Snell got a 0.80 Cy Young share by collecting 80 percent of the maximum vote points in the AL race, while Sale got a 0.28 share for receiving 28 percent of the maximum vote points.

Among pitchers without a Cy Young Award, Sale's 1.88 career shares rank just behind Adam Wainwright for the most, with Sale having passed Curt Schilling (1.85) last season.

Even extending the search to pitchers who already had won a Cy, nobody but Sale has ever gone through a stretch of seven top-six finishes without a win. Roy Halladay, Greg Maddux, CC Sabathia and Verlander are tied for the most (four).

Only two MVP winners have gone on such a run, and both are legends. Between MVP Awards in 1954 and '65, Willie Mays finished in the top six on nine occasions, including eight straight from 1957-64. And Hank Aaron, after capturing his only trophy in '57, went on to finish somewhere between third and sixth another seven times.

Here is a breakdown of Sale's year-by-year results:

2012: Sixth place (9 percent vote share)
Winner: David Price, Rays
In his first year as a starter, at age 23, Sale threw 192 innings with a 3.05 ERA (140 ERA+).

2013: Fifth place (21 percent vote share)
Winner: Max Scherzer, Tigers
Sale had about as good a case as anyone but went 11-14 for a 99-loss team, while Scherzer went 21-3 for a 93-win team.

2014: Third place (37 percent vote share)
Winner: Kluber, Indians
Sale led the AL in ERA+ (173) and strikeout rate (30.4 percent), but an early-season arm injury left him with eight fewer starts than Kluber or runner-up Felix Hernandez.

2015: Fourth place (14 percent vote share)
Winner: Dallas Keuchel, Astros
This time Sale topped 200 innings and led the AL with 274 strikeouts but his other surface-level numbers (13-11, 3.41) weren't flashy.

2016: Fifth place (19 percent vote share)
Winner: Rick Porcello, Red Sox
Sale set a career high in innings (226 2/3), but pitched more to contact, as his strikeout rate plunged. Future Boston teammate Porcello went 22-4 to edge Verlander.

2017: Second place (60 percent vote share)
Winner: Kluber, Indians
In his Boston debut, Sale led the AL in innings (214 1/3), FIP (2.45), strikeouts (308) and strikeout rate (36.2 percent). Seemingly in the lead for much of the season, he slipped in August and September (4.09 ERA) while Kluber (1.42) shot past him.

2018: Fourth place (28 percent vote share)
Winner: Snell, Rays
Once again, Sale was in the driver's seat, starting the All-Star Game after producing a 2.23 ERA and 188 K's in the first half. But then the shoulder issue limited him to 17 innings after the end of July as he slipped in the race.

In any of these seasons, Sale was good enough to win under slightly different circumstances. But something always has come up to prevent it -- an injury, bad luck, lack of talent around him or another pitcher having a spectacular career year.

Perhaps 2019 is the year when it all comes together and Sale puts an end to this impressive yet frustrating streak.