Chris Sale is having probably the best season by a White Sox pitcher since Esteban Loaiza’s 2003 campaign, for which he finished 2nd in that year’s Cy Young voting. Sale’s 2.72 ERA ranks 4th in the league, his 158 ERA+ (a stat which adjusts for league and stadium factors, his number basically means he has been 58% better than the average pitcher) ranks 3rd. He’s 4th in WHIP, and 6th in K/BB ratio. He’s just 23 years old, and I don’t think any other pitcher so young has been as good as Sale this year, not even Stephen Strasburg.
A couple weeks ago, when Sale returned from a missed start due to “dead arm,” I looked at every young pitcher in the last twenty years who’d made the kind of jump in innings Sale has made in 2012 and ultimately concluded that there should be a little added caution, but he need not be shut down. Other pitchers had been successful with that sort of increased workload, including some of today’s best pitchers.
Sale makes his fourth start since returning tonight and in the first three he’s compiled a solid 3.38 ERA. He went 8 innings in one of those starts, struck out 11 in another. He’s unintentionally walked just one batter over those three games (why he was asked to intentionally walk Jeff Francoeur twice in one game is another issue). It’s hard to take a quick look at his numbers from those starts and feel like he hasn’t been the same pitcher he was from April through July.
I am a little concerned about him though, as he heads into tonight’s start against the Yankees. In Sale’s first 18 starts of the season, he gave up just 7 home runs. His HR/9 inning ratio was 0.51, 2nd in all of baseball among starting pitchers. He hadn’t given up more than one home run in any of his starts. In the three starts he’s made since returning, he’s given up 2 home runs in each of them.
Two of the three games have come against the Royals, who are dead last in the American League in home runs, so it’s not as if Sale’s been victimized by the Miguel Cabreras and Jose Bautistas of the world. Sale is the eighth American League pitcher this season to give up multiple home runs in three consecutive starts, and almost without exception, they are bad pitchers (or pitchers having bad seasons).
I don’t mean to say Chris Sale has turned into a bad pitcher, this is a small sample of games and it’s certainly possible he’s just been a little unlucky. It’s also possible that he’s leaving a few extra pitches out over the plate each start, perhaps wearing down from the expanded workload. The Yankees have hit 192 home runs this season, 29 more than the #2 team (which is the White Sox), so it’s not going to be the easiest night for Sale to break this streak. The home runs have been mostly solo shots and if Sale continues to strike a bunch of guys out without giving up many walks, he may continue to mostly survive the long balls without horrible damage. Still, this seems to me a legitimate red flag that needs to me closely monitored and that may require disappointing action, such as more skipped turns. We’ll know a bit more in a few hours.