CHICAGO — Mark Buehrle didn’t re-sign with the Chicago White Sox after the 2011 season, ending the veteran pitcher’s 12-year run in the Windy City. It marked one of the first times Chris Sale remembers being confronted by the business side of baseball.
“I know Coop [White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper] said it, but if Buehrle can leave, anybody can leave — anywhere,” Sale recalled Monday. “It’s hard to stay in one place for your whole career. Just part of it, I guess.”
It’s true. For every Derek Jeter, whose Yankees pinstripes might as well have been branded to his body during a 20-year career spent entirely in New York, there are dozens of All-Star-level players who change uniforms multiple times, either through trades or free agency. Sale joined that club in December, when the rebuilding White Sox dealt him to the Boston Red Sox.
What sets Sale apart, though, is the stage of his career during which he was moved. He’s 28, firmly in his prime and healthy. And after four consecutive top-five finishes in the American League Cy Young Award voting, even White Sox officials concede that the ace lefty’s best years might still be ahead of him.
So as Sale takes the mound Tuesday night and stares down his former team for the first time since the trade, nobody here is the least bit surprised by his smashing success with the Red Sox. In 10 starts, Sale has a 2.34 ERA and has held opponents to a .223 on-base percentage, lowest in the majors. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Sale has joined Pedro Martinez, Curt Schilling and Roger Clemens as the only pitchers to rack up at least 100 strikeouts in their first 10 starts of a season.
But as much as it might sting, the White Sox are here to say they never expected anything less.
“Oh, there’s no question he’s getting better,” said Cooper, who said Sale “was well on his way to being the baddest-ass lefty in the league” even when he was in the bullpen early in his career. “Listen, for his time here, he put up Hall of Fame numbers, other than maybe the win column. If you do that for a handful of more years, well, he’s going to put himself in position to possibly be a Hall of Famer someday, if he stays healthy, and I think he will. He’s one of the best pitchers I’ve ever had or ever seen.”
The White Sox didn’t have to trade Sale. He is signed through this season and has team options worth $12.5 million and $13.5 million for 2018 and 2019, respectively. It’s one of the most team-friendly contracts in baseball.
But the White Sox, perhaps inspired by what has occurred over the past five years on the North Side of Chicago, also are committed to a complete rebuild, and Sale was the best chip they had to play. They pried away the Red Sox’s No. 1 prospect (infielder Yoan Moncada) and top pitching hopeful (right-hander Michael Kopech) among a package of four minor leaguers. Moncada, 22, entered the week batting .322 with six homers, 10 stolen bases and a .903 OPS for Triple-A Charlotte. Odds are that he will get called up later this season.
The fact that Sale might be the most likely American League pitcher to win a Cy Young Award over the next few seasons was just part of the pain the White Sox know they must endure until they’re ready to be a World Series contender again.
“Absolutely, I think it very well could be that he’s still getting better,” said White Sox amateur scouting director Nick Hostetler, who scouted and signed Sale in 2010. “He still has ceiling available, and I don’t think by any means he’s reached it yet. I have no doubt in my mind that he’s going to hit that ceiling.”
How can Sale possibly get better than this? Allow Cooper to explain.
Last season, Cooper persuaded Sale to change the way he pitches. Rather than trying to strike out everybody with maximum velocity, Sale took a little off his fastball, pitched more with his two-seamer and looked to induce more contact in an attempt to lower his pitch count and stay in games longer. And if he needed that extra velocity or a key strikeout, he always had it in reserve.
Cooper called it “pitching hybrid.”
This season, Sale is back to “striking out the world,” as Cooper said. His average fastball velocity is back up to 94.4 mph after dipping to 92.8 last season, according to FanGraphs. He is back to using his changeup 25.7 percent of the time, often as a strikeout pitch, after scaling back to 15.7 percent last season.
And sure enough, Sale is averaging 12.45 punchouts per nine innings and recently tied his own major league record with eight consecutive starts with 10 or more strikeouts, a streak that ended last week when he fanned only six Texas Rangers.
“He’s in a new environment, new place, wants to show everybody what he can do,” Cooper said with a smile. “And he’s been doing that.”
But Cooper said Sale also knows that he can have success with the “hybrid” approach, an asset that will come in handy as he gets older and naturally begins to lose some velocity.
“He’s got the ability to sink it at 90 to 91 [mph] and get ground balls quick,” Cooper said. “He had it in his back pocket whenever he needed it.”
Hostetler noted that Sale was a “late developer” in the sense that he wasn’t a highly recruited pitcher out of high school. When the White Sox brought him to the big leagues only a few weeks after drafting him in 2010, they used him as a reliever until the 2012 season. As a result, there might be less mileage on Sale’s arm than the typical 28-year-old pitcher who spends years as a starter in the minor leagues.
“I think he’s going to continue to get better, only because I think he’s going to get smarter; he’s going to have more experience,” White Sox assistant general manager Buddy Bell said. “I think he’s able to subtract and add [pitches] better than he did early on. He’s always had a good changeup. I think he has a really good chance of being better.”