It’s hard to sell the casual baseball fan on pitcher’s duels. The average seat at a ballpark gives a less than fantastic view of the movement on every pitch, and the most common instance of a pitcher doing his job (a batted ball out) bores a lot of people to tears.
So the best way for a pitcher to be termed as exciting is to have velocity (combing our love of speed, danger, and high numbers!) and strikeouts (the clearest example of individual dominance). Essentially, the ability to blow away the competition to the point where everyone has to take notice.
Chris Sale has that. He’s lost a few miles on his fastball since joining the rotation, but still sits 92-94 mph, and has hit 97 at points this year. More importantly, through 4 starts and 26 innings, Sale is striking out a better-per-frame.
That rate is yanked up by an April 20th start against the Mariners–who clearly weren’t having a great weekend–where Sale whiffed 11 batters, but that was also the only time his slider flashed its full force and capability. Another one of Sale’s charms is hes a work in progress.
While the White Sox have fielded some pretty beastly rotations in the past few years, starters with that skill set rarely find their way to the South Side. High-velo strikeout pitches are rarely undervalued in trades, or milling about as unwanted reclamation projects for Don Cooper. Jose Contreras led the much-revered 2005 rotation with 6.8 K’s per 9 innings.
Part of this issue is that the league average for strikeouts has risen by one a game since the Sox won a World Series, and everyone looks like a soft-tosser in retrospect, but the formula is still there. While they’ve stopped short of becoming the Twins, Chicago starters have gotten by limiting walks, finding out some way in hell to keep the ball within U.S. Cellular Field, and other unexciting things.
The last Sox starter to eclipse 8 K/9 for the season was Edwin Jackson’s final 11 outings after being traded for in 2010. For an actual full season, Javy Lopez met the mark every year throughout his tenure on the South side, but was only regarded as appointment viewing by masochists. Freddy Garcia and Jose Contreras both delivered strikeouts in droves in 2004, but those were also partial-season bursts.
Esteban Loaiza’s improbable 2003 season that saw him post a career-year at 30 and start the All-Star game featured 8.2 K/9 and waves of cutters is the standout, and it’s safe to say he was must-watch during to his Cy Young pursuit.
Due to the offensive explosion of the 90’s, the next example doesn’t come until the early years of Jason Bere, and drawing parallels between Sale and Bere might be neat if it weren’t terrifying.
To bring the comparisons back to friendlier territory, Sale offers the first chance that Sox fans have had since John Danks to see a first-time major league starter grow and mature. And he’ll do so with much of the franchise’s weight rested on his already over-stressed shoulders.
Under control through 2016 and not eligible for arbitration till after next season, Sale offers one of the few immediate chances for this prospect-starved organization to get top-level production for under market value. The expensive and soon-to-be outgoing Peavy might be flashier right now, but Sale growing into a dominant starter means more for the long-term health of the club.
Sale’s biggest challenge as a starter is, and will continue to be neutralizing the platoon split. His slider and funky delivery make most at-bats vs. lefties a futile enterprise, but his treatment of hitters has been fairly equal so far. Nevertheless, the Cleveland lineup should offer plenty of opportunities for Sale to face southpaws on Tuesday.
RF Shin-Soo Choo is out with a hamstring injury, but that only means that CF Michael Brantley can’t be benched from the lefty starter now. 1B Casey Kotchmann, DH Travis Hafner, 2B Jason Kipnis, and 3B Jack Hannahan are all lefties, but to hide them the Indians would need to provide at-bats to far inferior infielders Jason Donald and Jose Lopez, or slide Carlos Santana to 1st base and play the all-glove Lou Marson behind the plate. Johnny Damon could make his debut; Johnny Damon is still–according to all reports–left-handed.
It could be a good night to see Sale at his best.