Sale has become a run of Cy Young awards waiting to happen
CHICAGO -- A Hall of Fame hitter, Paul Molitor was laughing on Saturday about one of the few times he was happy just to get a bat on the ball.
It was the summer of 1995, at the Kingdome in Seattle. Randy Johnson was en route to winning the American League Cy Young Award that season, and in this game, he already had 16 strikeouts when Molitor stepped up to lead off the ninth for the Blue Jays.
"I was the only guy he hadn't struck out,'' Molitor said. "I hit a weak grounder, and I felt pretty good about it.''
Molitor, who is in his first season managing the Twins, sometimes thinks about what it would be like to face pitchers who have come into the game since he collected the last of his 3,319 career hits. When Chris Sale enters his mind, he flashes back to what it was like to hit against Johnson.
Torii Hunter, who has faced both Johnson and Sale, says the White Sox lefty presents even more of a challenge for hitters because of his unorthodox delivery.
"Randy was tall, long, lanky,'' Hunter said on Saturday. "But he didn't have all the deception. Sale's just uncomfortable. Randy was uncomfortable, but you could pick [the ball] up. It's totally different against Sale. This guy, before you can see the ball, you can see his shoulders, his hips, his feet, everything, before the ball comes out. He's very deceptive. That's what he uses. Not just that, but he has great stuff. You have to fight all that stuff. That's what makes him one of the best lefties in the game.''
Johnson won 303 games and five Cy Young Awards. Sale is a run of Cy Young Awards waiting to happen.
Unlike Johnson, Sale has started his career with the ability to command the strike zone with three pitches -- a skill he showed in a five-outing stretch last season (including one rehab start in Triple-A) when he allowed only five hits over 29 innings while striking out 44.
This was one of the most dominant stretches of pitching ever, especially considering it came while there was concern about the health of Sale's elbow. It showed why the comparison to Johnson is a good one.
When Sale is at the top of his game, he can be more dominating than any pitcher in Major League Baseball. When he's merely in solid form, he is one of the game's best starters. The only hurdle Sale must clear to become a true king of the hill is to become more of a workhorse, and you know that is the one goal he brought with him to Arizona in February.
It's why Sale was so disappointed when he suffered an avulsion fracture in his right foot when he apparently jumped off the back of a truck while unloading boxes at the house he had rented for Spring Training. The injury delayed his 2015 debut until Sunday, in the White Sox sixth game.
General manager Rick Hahn says the Sox will be cautious with Sale, but they certainly aren't going to be shocked if he pitches a masterpiece. After all, he struck out 13 in a Minor League game before breaking camp, and demonstrated last season that he can handle a disruption in his routine.
Sale enters his fourth season as a Major League starter 44-29 with a 2.76 ERA, and it's safe to say that his team feels like it knows what to expect when he takes the mound. Any talk about sending him out on a rehab assignment ended on April 1, when he blew away hitters from a Reds' Class A team at Camelback Ranch.
"Knowing his stuff and what he's been through in the past, what he's done, I feel pretty confident,'' manager Robin Ventura said. "He's the guy I want out there. You get him back, you're happy. I don't care if he's faced a hitter or not.''
You can't blame Ventura for wanting Sale on the mound.
Sale has been one of the saving graces to a down period for the White Sox. They've gone 47-38 in his starts and 174-227 without him since the start of 2012. Put those respective winning percentages in the context of a 162-game season, and Sale has been the difference between a 90-win team and a 70-win team.
Hahn looks for the Sox to have a much deeper rotation this season, behind Sale, Jeff Samardzija, Jose Quintana and, at some point, lefty Carlos Rodon, whose slider is a weapon to behold. But there's always talk about facing Sale when a series against the White Sox appears on the schedule.
"Trust me, you talk to guys before the game, in the Tigers' clubhouse, this clubhouse, all you're going to hear is chatter about, 'Damn, we have Sale,''' Hunter said. "When you have that presence in the clubhouse, that respect, you're great.''
Sale, who declined all interviews about his delayed season opener, has compiled a 14.4 fWAR over the past three seasons. That ranked behind only Clayton Kershaw (20.4), Felix Hernandez (18.4), David Price (15.7), Adam Wainwright (15.6) and Max Scherzer (15.3), all of whom have thrown at least 42 more innings than Sale in 2012-14.
The baseball-reference.com WAR methodology doesn't weigh workload as heavily as Fangraphs. In its WAR rankings, Sale ranks behind only Kershaw over the past two seasons. That's how nasty he's been on the mound.
"Tough on lefties, tough on righties,'' Molitor said. "He's got that throwing motion [that makes it] hard to pick up that ball. [It's] hard for left-handers to stay on that slider. He's just got things to neutralize you whether you're a left-handed hitter or a right-handed hitter. You hope that you get a couple mistakes and maybe be aggressive and get something early in the count. He's got a lot of pitches to put you away if he gets ahead.''
Sale stands 6-foot-6 and is listed at 180 pounds, which might be a stretch. Hunter describes him as looking "frail'' but says it takes a hitter only one pitch to realize he's actually a beast.
"You see a slim guy out there, you think, 'He can't hurt me too much,' " Hunter said. "No, he can. This guy has great stuff. His slider is unbelievable. Me as a right-hander, you see it in the other batter's box, you take it, and next thing you know, it comes back and it's a strike. You give up on it because it's a ball.''
When Sale was pitching for Florida Gulf Coast University, he dominated with a fastball-changeup combination. He developed his put-away slider in the season and half he worked as a reliever. Sale's fastball averaged 96.5 mph in 2010, when he worked in small doses, and was down to a 94.9 mph average last season. But he's become a true three-pitch starter by using his changeup more every year. Sale threw it only about 15 percent of the time in 2012, but that increased to 19 percent in '13 and 29 percent in '14, when he threw it more often than his slider.
"He's throwing [the changeup] a lot more,'' Hunter said. "That's not fun. You've got a guy who throws 95, 94 -- at one point, he was throwing 97, 98 -- but he's throwing 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. It's not fun to face Sale, at all.''
Hunter loves the competition.
"We have this understanding,'' he said. " We look out at each other, he [makes a face], I [make a face]. We battle each other. He throws harder if I'm battling. If I get a hit, he looks at me, makes a face. If he strikes me out, I look at him and [shrug my shoulders]. We have a lot of fun. … He struck me out last year. I was like, 'Man, what's that?' He sort of laughs at me.''
Hunter has had his share of success against Sale. He's 7-for-27 with one home run, an opposite-field shot at U.S. Cellular Field, off a changeup.
"I've been lucky,'' Hunter said, looking forward to renewing the rivalry on Sunday.