Exit Interviews: Chris Sale

Sale, seen here focused as all hell on this high-five. // Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

These “exit interviews” will be going over the entire 40-man roster and looking to see how each player does or does not fit into the White Sox future.

The term “exit interview” is usually used when an employee is leaving the company. I took that into consideration…and kept it.

Chris Sale - Gangly, wonky-looking, all-consuming monster of a franchise pitcher.

Age by 2014 Opening Day: 25

Contract: Owed $3.5 million in 2014. White Sox are obligated to pay him $32.5 million through 2017 (buyout included). Club options for 2018 and 2019 at $12.5 million and $13.5 million, respectively.

Relevant stats: MLB: 30 games (all starts),  214.1 IP, 3.07 ERA, 184 H,  23 HR, 226 K, 46 BB, 4.91 K/BB, 140 ERA+.

Interpretation: He didn’t win the Cy Young, but he could have, and it would not have been a bad choice. And he would have won it, if not for those meddling Indians!

Emblematic split: Left-handers hit .135/.205/.155 against Sale, struck out in 29% of their at-bats and didn’t hit a single home run. It was not fair. It was indecent. And we just all sat by and watched it happen.

Pre-season expectations: The pre-season was spent contemplating how effective and healthy Sale would be in 2015 and 2016 and beyond. Dominance was so assured after his breakout 2012 campaign that we were all just airing quibbles, as if being able to find them proved our expertise:

“Chris Sale is obviously a much more enjoyable watch, but whether his strength and endurance improves or whether the injury bug finally catches up to him determines whether he’ll add to the anxiety or supply the rippling exhilaration of untouchable greatness.”

Quote of the year: After spinning out of control shortly after having to issue an intentional walk to Miguel Cabrera during a late-July start, Sale struck a blow for run matrices everywhere while also sounding like a mean cuss.

“I don’t like giving people stuff,” Sale said. “I like people to earn getting on base. But at the end of the day that’s his (Ventura’s) call.” 

Chris’ story: If Sale’s only job was to make the White Sox look good during the few times the national audience deigned themselves to glance at South Side baseball–and perhaps it is in an awful 99-loss season–then he would perhaps the most efficient employee in the nation.

He provided a sparkle to Opening Day by throwing 7.2 shutout innings and taking attention away from a Tyler Flowers-dependent offense. On the White Sox only Sunday night game of the year, Sale took a perfect game into the seventh inning, and the ground ball up the middle he allowed was the only baserunner in his complete game shutout. As the only member of the team to appear in the All-Star Game, he threw two shutout innings and humiliated the best and brightest of the Colorado Rockies organization. And when the nation’s media horde descended on U.S. Cellular Field for Alex Rodriguez’s return in early August, Sale threw 7.1 shutout innings and plunked A-Rod to keep things interesting. For a surly Floridian prone to violence against inanimate objects and verbal self-flagellation, he sure loves the camera.

Conversely, Sale couldn’t seem to get up for the mundane and regular task of dealing with the Cleveland Indians. His 0-4 record and 8.61 ERA against the Tribe ensured him of a losing record and an ERA that crept up over 3.00 right at the end of the season for the second-straight year. He actually maintained a K/BB ratio over 4.00 against Cleveland and a .406 BABIP was probably the culprit, but given the Sox 2-17 record against the Indians on the year, there likely would not have been much help.

That one moment where the delivery looks normal. // Mandatory Credit: Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports

Sale was certainly familiar with the concept of abandonment. He finished with the third-worst run support among all American League starters, and sat at the absolute bottom for much of the year. After starting out the season 5-2, Sale lost two-thirds of his decisions over the last four months of the 2013 campaign despite a 3.29 ERA during. In June alone he went 0-5 with a no-decision while posting a 3.19 ERA and a .571 OPS against. He lost a 14-strikeout game against the Astros despite not allowing an earned run, he lost an 11-strikeout performance in Detroit in July. The shoddy defense surrounding him opened the door to eight unearned runs after he yielded just one in his previous three seasons. In September alone, his bullpen blew two games where he handed over three-run leads in the eighth inning.

All of which helped obscure Sale’s improvement in every meaningful category from 2012. His strikeouts went up, his walks went down, seemingly unnecessary work to involve his changeup for the seemingly unnecessary task of improving his approach versus left-handers produced unthinkably dominant numbers. He didn’t open the season cracking 98 mph on the radar gun, but his pacing reduced the velocity concerns of 2012 to mere whispers in 2013. He wound up averaging 1.5 mph more on his fastball for the season, and skipped his turn in the rotation only once. The seemingly frail and injury-doomed hurler finished the year tied for fifth in the AL in innings.

His lack of exposure and the ugliness that surrounded him stamped out any chances of having award-winning moments or distinguishing himself from the top-five pitchers in the league, but this was a Cy Young-caliber season. If he does this for a non-awful team and peppers it full of dominant performance in meaningful games, it will win him the award some year.

Getting to face the White Sox offense would probably help.

Assessment: There’s not a lot of room to ponder about Sale’s role in the future of the franchise. He could be under team control for the rest of the decade if they choose, and they have made outward displays that they intended to reap the value of an affordable ace rather than shop it as an asset.

Every player should have a price for which they can be moved, but this is certainly talent to get persnickety about. Aces are special: neither shilling out dollars for players who have reached free agency or selecting at the top of the draft are trusty ways to acquire them, and flipping Sale for a bounty of prospects puts the burden on the White Sox development staff to raise them up to something more valuable than six years of a No. 1 starter producing at well, well under market value. That’s a challenge for any team, let alone a franchise with the offensive struggles of this one.

If Sale actually stays healthy enough to produce that kind of value, he’ll be well on his way to a historic career. It’s an unlikely fate, simply because he’s a pitcher and the wear and tear of a No. 1 starter workload is bound to compromise his skill and endurance over time. What he will soon start moving beyond is concerns about his delivery and build being crippling handicaps on his ability to start. 10 AL starters have logged over 400 innings over the last two years, and Sale is one of them.

If he can maintain the status quo, his number of peers will continue to dwindle.

 

Follow James Fegan on Twitter @JRFegan

Topics: Chicago White Sox, Chris Sale, Cy Young

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