Chris Sale: Giving into Wishful Thinking
Sitting at the ballpark, you are inevitably going to hear a conversation between two 50-something-year-old men who haven’t seen each other in months. Their interaction tends to include sweeping generalizations about the players on the field as well as asinine predictions. If you have happened to watch a game at US Cellular field this year (and if so, kudos to you), you may have heard one of these stadium archetypes about the pitcher Chris Sale. Eventually, the 23-year-old hurler may have even come up in the same sentence as Randy Johnson or Pedro Martinez. While a seemingly outrageous comparison at this stage, there are Sox fans that nevertheless want to ask: can Chris Sale be the next Johnson or Martinez?
It’s obvious why any White Sox fan would covet such a comparison. How often do we get to see truly dominant starting pitchers on the south side? Every fan base likes to get over-zealous about their new, young arms, but you’d be hard-pressed to find an organization that has lacked such a pitcher as long as we have. Mark Buehrle was probably the best we’ve had in the past 15 or so years, and “dominant” isn’t quite the word most would use to describe him. Any other young pitcher we have been excited about either busted or was traded.
There are primarily two reasons why the Sox’ pool of strikeout-aces has come up barren. First, White Sox culture has shied away from developing power arms all the way to the majors. Just ask Gio Gonzalez and Dan Hudson.
Second, and probably more important, the team resides in U.S. Cellular Field, which has an obscene record of destroying pitching statistics. The last time a White Sox full-time starter had a sub-3.00 ERA was Esteban Loaiza’s short-lived success in his magical season of 2003 with a 2.90. To find another, you’d have to travel back to the 1993 season when Wilson Alvarez threw his way to a 2.95 ERA. And that’s it. In the 21 years since The Cell’s inception in 1991, those are the only 2 full starting campaigns to see an ERA under 3. Right now Chris Sale sits at 2.05.
Needless to say, neither of the previous pitchers went for a repeat performance. If Chris Sale is to indeed encounter the success that some think he can have, not only this year but for years to come, he’s going to have to do it where no one else has done it before. He will have to defy the odds and the breezy summer days on Chicago’s south side.
It’s old news that the American league is a hitter’s league. Pitchers have worse stats in the AL, period. Sure, there are those that have encountered prolonged elite success like Justin Verlander, Felix Hernandez and Jered Weaver. But even these guys pale in comparison to some of the things that Pedro and Randy did in their heyday. Both of these future Hall of Famers came up as relievers, and neither had near to the success Chris Sale has had in their first rotation stints. They also went on to have periods of sheer dominance in their careers that may never be seen from any pitcher again.
Yes, Sale has an illustrious pedigree in addition to being impressive in the bigs, but if we are so eager to compare the kid to the Big Unit, why not compare him to Tim Lincecum? Another dominating pitcher who came up amidst worries about both his build and his mechanics giving way to injuries, Lincecum has proved all those naysayers wrong… for four seasons. This year, the two-time Cy Young award winner is a train wreck, standing at a 6.07 ERA. The Freak still could go back to being that dominant ace again, but there is also a very realistic chance he will never be the same. And we are talking about a guy on the giants, not someone who calls The Cell his home.
Achieving prolonged success in any environment is difficult for a pitcher these days. With the never-ending scrutiny of a pitcher’s velocity, many blow their arms out before they realize their full potential. It almost seems like a right of passage for a young pitcher to have to go through a season ending injury before they can advance in their career, as sad as that is. There is no doubt Sale’s slim frame and motion (especially the stress on his shoulder joint) put him at risk for injury, something the White Sox made undeniably clear in shuffling him between the bullpen and rotation earlier this year.
Despite all of the above barriers, the man is a major reason the Sox are in first place right now. It’s going to be extremely difficult to cap this guy in any way down the stretch when we’re in the midst of a pennant race. The win-now approach has been a Kenny Williams maxim for just about his entire tenure. Yet, there really is no doubt that the Sox will take some precautions with the lefty down the stretch, skipping starts and capping innings when they are able to do so.
On the south side, we are lucky to have the expertise of Herm Schneider, backed by a training staff with an impeccable pedigree as far as injuries are concerned. We also must hope that Ventura doesn’t show any Dusty Baker tendencies and doesn’t push the kid too hard in the stretch run.
The prevention of devastating injuries while, at the same time, allowing the kid to grow even more as a pitcher will be the key to Chris Sale becoming the star it seems he can become. Thus far, he has been able to tame the beast that is US Cellular to the tune of a 2.91 career ERA there (with an immaculate 1.69 this year). Even so, this is in comparison to a 2.12 career ERA on the road! However, it is worth noting that Sale has yet to face a top 13 offense this year. Regardless, if he can continue pitching this way (even with a little higher road ERA) and keep his home ERA consistent, the sky’s the limit for this kid. Inducing groundouts will no doubt be a major key for Sale to maintain that consistency at home.
Even with these considerations in mind, there are plenty of reasons why Sale won’t develop into the monster we think he can be. After all is said and done, five years from now he may very well be a back-end bullpen guy, as many scouts predicted he would be after coming out of college. But the fact is, all of us Sox fans have a gut feeling when watching him that we may never have felt before. “This is going to be our ace,” we think, and we believe it. So until there is something to discourage us from believing in the kid, I’ll be damned if I let anyone else tell me that we don’t, finally, have something really special.