For Chris Sale, It's About Team and Winning Above All
For the purpose of this tale, let's look at the excellence of Chris Sale through the scope of horse racing vernacular.
It really isn't that far of a stretch when thinking about Sale always being a couple of lengths ahead of the hitters while flashing his first-rate stuff on the mound, or the fact that much like American Pharoah, Sale someday also could win the Triple Crown. In Chris' case, of course, it would be the American League pitching version with the most wins and strikeouts and lowest ERA. Allow White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper to take this comparison and run with it from here.
"He's a thoroughbred, and we are kind of the jockey," said Cooper of his ace southpaw. "Every five or six days we are going out to run a Kentucky Derby.
"We want our horse rested and ready to go. That's our job. Make sure that continues to happen, so he can go out there and do the things that we've seen him do this year."
What Sale has done to date during the 2015 season is put together one of the more amazing performances in the storied history of the organization. He was named an All-Star for the fourth straight season, meaning he has been chosen for the Midsummer Classic every year as a starter.
His strikeout numbers put him in rarified air, as Sale's eight straight games with at least 10 from May 23 to June 30 tied Hall-of-Famer Pedro Martinez for that particular Major League mark. As of July 25, Sale had fanned 170, walked a mere 24 and allowed 108 hits over 132 2/3 innings.
And remember, Sale accomplished this feat basically without Spring Training after suffering an avulsion fracture in his right foot at the end of February in Arizona. In fact, Sale featured a 5.93 ERA on May 6 after five starts.
It's an exercise in dominance worthy of discussion, but not for the low-key 26-year-old. Let's go back to the horse racing comparison once again, with Sale taking the reins in talking about his work approach.
"This season it's kind of like a horse race. You put the blinders on and keep running," said Sale, recounting a recent conversation he had with his father and wife. "You don't want to turn around or see what's going on behind you.
"If you look too far ahead, you will trip up. During the season, I just try to kind of stay going in the same direction and not worry about anything else."
Translation: talk to Sale about personal accomplishments some time in November or December, not during the season. It's still fair to ask what makes Sale so tough to beat, what has transformed him from a very talented starter in 2012 to fellow AL All-Star Jason Kipnis of Cleveland, who has a .235 lifetime average against Sale, took a stab at explaining that success.
"What do you want? His 98-mph fastball that comes from behind me? Or his slider that starts from behind me and ends at the belt away?" Kipnis told MLB.com columnist Anthony Castrovince. "It's tough, because you want to eliminate one of his pitches and think all-fastball, but it takes a second to see it coming, it's funky and it's also 98 mph. So not only do you have to guess right, but then you have to execute against it. It's not fun.
"He's even pumped it up a little bit and stepped it up a notch. He battles on the mound, too. It's not just stuff with him. It's almost angry pitching. If you get a hit, he's going to make sure you don't get another one. The way he competes is outstanding."
That competitive level for Sale has changed a bit over time. A smiling Sale admits there were times where the edge transformed into "a few good ones" in terms of blowups that the veteran is now trying to avoid.
"I called myself an idiot more than probably anybody else has," said an amused Sale over past heightened reactions. "When you have your adrenaline going and you are in the spotlight, if you will, the night that you are pitching, you are in the spotlight, and your adrenaline is going and it doesn't go your way, you are going to get upset. It's hard to think with a level head when you are not on level ground.
"I've done some things to try to get away from that and not be that guy. But sometimes you can't help it. It just happens. You see guys strike out the side and they say something or are grunting. I don't think it's premeditated. That's just stuff that sometimes you have to get off your chest."
Competing continues for Sale when he's not in a game, another sign of why he has risen to elite status.
"Working out hard, making sure you come in here and get your shoulder program and stuff like that done," Sale said. "Working hard in between days, that all goes into the finished product and that's on the fifth day when you go out there and compete as hard as you can. If you worked hard leading up to that, it should work out all right."
Changes have been made over the years in regard to Sale's repertoire and even delivery. He features the slider less and more of the changeup, which executive vice president Ken Williams predicted would be an important part of his arsenal when the White Sox selected him 13th overall in the 2010 First-Year Player Draft.
Sale has moved his hands down and has gone from the first base side of the rubber to the third base side per Cooper's request. But aside from the intensity, the overriding reason for Sale's excellence stands out as a fairly basic one in his mind.
"Just throwing strikes, I think. That's the most important part, especially being a starter throwing strikes," Sale said. "You can't afford to walk four or five guys because then you are leaving it out on your bullpen and they have to come and pick you up.
"You want to fill up the zone throwing quality strikes. I think we all have seen people are starting to swing earlier, they are getting off on the first few pitches. So you want to get ahead but you don't want to flip it in there either. Making purposeful pitches early in the count."
Sale has taken on a leadership role, although he laughs at the idea of the White Sox being his team now that captain Paul Konerko has retired. Even pitching every fifth day, though, Sale has become the face of the franchise.
The White Sox have Sale under contractual control through 2017 and then hold a $12.5 million option in 2018 and $13.5 million option for 2019. At five years, $32.5 million, without the options, Sale's current contract might be the greatest value in all of baseball.
Other big name pitchers have signed bigger deals since Sale-far, far bigger deals. Sale just smiles and confirms that if he had to do it all over again, he wouldn't change a thing.
He'll keep running his race every fifth day, and the White Sox will be happy to bring him to the post. Just don't ask him to talk about his excellence.
"If you ask anybody to go in depth about what they do and how they do it, it's just, it's always kind of just rubbed me the wrong way. It's kind of awkward really," Sale said. "I'll sit here and talk about everybody else.
"I've always heard that you don't talk about yourself, especially coming up in this clubhouse with guys that were in here. Do you think A.J. (Pierzynski) would let me sit there and have a parade about myself? Those guys taught me the right way and how to do it. You see other guys talk about themselves, and it's not always a good thing."
And don't look for Sale to give an impassioned, table-throwing speech to motivate the clubhouse. He's more of a leader by example, learning that skill from Mark Buehrle, Jake Peavy, John Danks and Konerko himself.
The essence of Sale is reflected in the following:
"I'm not very vocal. I'm not going to say anything that's going to get etched in stone. I would like to say that if you watch me pitch, you would know that I'm trying to win. I'm not going to give up.
"It doesn't matter if we are in the ninth inning or I'm in the fourth inning. If I gave up nine runs, I'm doing everything I can not to give up the next one. Crazy things happen. Guys score eight runs in an inning. Five runs in an inning. Home runs can happen like that. So you get out there and you give up four runs in the third inning, then all you are trying to do is fill innings and get deeper in the game so you can save your bullpen. Maybe they bring you back in the eighth or ninth inning and win it. I think those are the biggest things that I've learned and I'm going to try to duplicate going forward."