By James Fegan
Friday night found Chris Sale in New York City, easily, almost sleepily dancing his way through another major league lineup. He took miles off his fastball, he threw a weird, loopy slurve-like pitch that isn’t supposed to be effective at the major league level, and the pitcher who forced his name into every baseball-watching household in the country by leading the American League in strikeout rate the past two seasons, was content to collect just six over nine innings against a struggling Yankees lineup.
As dominant and overpowering as Sale’s career has been, it has been punctuated by a hint of frailty, or at least fear of it. His unusual delivery has had every amateur observer counting down the days until his elbow explodes, he needed to fight his general manager to stay in the rotation in 2012 due to durability concerns, and his stint on the disabled list in 2014 is the only thing that interrupted a trend of waning performance down the stretch of every season. Sale is captivating, but demands an eye toward how he is doing as much as what he is doing.
Reduced velocity and an absence of his best stuff would be a red flag if Sale didn’t seem so at peace, so purposeful and in control. Playing on perhaps the best team he’s been on in his entire career, Sale is 8-0 (which is the best mark in baseball), his ERA is a minuscule 1.67 (second only in baseball to his teammate, Jose Quintana) and his less-than-max effort approach has allowed him to glide to a MLB-high 59.1 innings.
Meanwhile, reigning AL Cy Young Winner Dallas Keuchel is missing a mile off his fastball and looking like the pre-2014 breakout version of himself. David Price is racking up more strikeouts than ever but has a 6.00 ERA through eight starts, Corey Kluber‘s stuff still looks sharp but he’s also off to a slow start results-wise and has somehow already been charged with five losses. Old divisional foe Max Scherzer is blowing away hitters in the National League these days, and Felix Hernandez, who is still just 30 years-old despite being in his 12th year, and was once the standard bearer for greatness in the American League, is pulling a far more high-wire act to succeed with diminished stuff than Sale, and likely not by choice.
From this view, the year where Sale has finally found the wisdom to ease his foot off the gas, the road to his first Cy Young Award has cleared in front of him. He always had the necessary talent, now he has every intangible skewed in his favor, a huge head start on the field, and could be holding back his best bullets for the stretch drive.
In the midst of his laid-back Friday night start, where Sale recorded just five swings-and-misses, the lowest total he’s had in any start since September of 2014, he still found it in him to blow a 96 mph fastball by Carlos Beltran, and even if his slurve looks bizarre, it’s still so unhittable when he uses it to dot the outer half that most do not even offer.
Save for some shakiness in a blowout win over Baltimore, Sale hasn’t been tested, or had his approach of showing just enough of his best stuff thrown back at his face. Until it happens, it can’t be certain that all the fury he’s uncorked the last four years is still lying in wait. But even right now he’s the best pitcher in the league, and that’s a pretty good place to start a Cy Young case.