Sale’s 2013 season’s place in White Sox history


As Chris Sale‘s 2013 season comes to an end and I unwittingly take warnings that he’ll never hold up with his arm action and build, I’m trying to put his year–so great in its own right even if nothing follows it–into historical context by seeing how it holds up among the greatest years for a White Sox starting pitcher, going back 50 years.

More than questions of who provided the most value–since Wilbur Wood‘s crazy workload puts everyone to shame–I wanted to see who was the most dominant pitcher in relatively recent Sox history: who prevented runs at the most absurd rate compared to league-average, and who simply overwhelmed hitters?

As expected, Sale existence in the new strikeout era means no one, even more successful pitchers, is going to be able to match up with his whiff rates. Jason Bere posted three seasons with strikeout rates over 20%, which would make him the most comparable to Sale besides Esteban Loaiza, and even he is a clear step behind.

While Sale has been very, very good, it’s encouraging to see that just one borderline Cy Youngworthy season is not enough to vault someone into the upper echelon of franchise lore. Mark Buehrle‘s highest highs were just as good, and with a bigger workload, though workload is obviously an area where Sale’s era works against him, even in comparison to guys from just 15 years ago. Perhaps eight major league pitchers will crack 217 innings pitched this season. The 1996 White Sox had three players do it.

Aug 12, 2013; Chicago, IL, USA; Chicago White Sox starting pitcher Chris Sale (49) throws a pitch against the Detroit Tigers during the first inning at U.S. Cellular Field. Mandatory Credit: Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

What’s more notable is that for as much as it’s derided as an obvious flash-in-the-pan, Esteban Loaiza’s big year is clearly the best White Sox campaign of the past 40 years. Of course, that means that the best White Sox pitching campaign of the last 40 years included a mild swoon over the last two and a half months where Loaiza sported an ERA over 4.00 and blew up and failed to make it out of the third inning in a crucial matchup with the eventual division-winner, but who is bitter? No one is being bitter. No one was just witnessed being bitter.

Even though Wilson Alvarez was injured for part of 1997, I included it just to emphasize how consistently great he was. Along with Alex Fernandez–whose 1996 is a bit less splendorous than Sale’s year but 258 innings!–it was surprising to see how much names that I assumed were only remarkable because they were prevalent when I was first discovering the White Sox as a fan, really held up historically as great pitchers. Jack McDowell on the other hand, while a horse, looks like someone whose fame was propped up by Win-Loss record and had the third-highest ERA+ on his team’s starting rotation when he won the Cy Young in 1993.

Tommy John‘s one sub-2.00 ERA in the new dead ball era, and the first of Wilbur Wood’s four 300-plus inning seasons (also a sub-2.00 ERA year) make this list from a stretch where just not allowing any runs at all was the only way to be remarkable. Joe Horlen and Gary Peters both posted multiple seasons better than Sale’s current 2013, but Peters has the added novelty of his relatively mundane strikeout percentage in 1963 actually represented the fifth-highest rate in baseball at the time, and he was part of the 1963 rotation that had three members pitching at better than Sale-level quality. That team won 94 games and sat at home for October.

Since it’s obviously the next question on the tip of any Sox fan’s tongue, yes, Billy Pierce had three seasons with an ERA+ of 141 or better across more than 200 innings. In one of those seasons, he led the league in strikeout rate.

Follow James Fegan on Twitter @JRFegan