By James Fegan
Chris Sale’s insane plan looks like it’s working.
Holding back his best fastball for innings or even games on end, forgoing his bloodlust for strikeouts, and even excluding his backbreaking changeup have all been confusing or downright aggravating foibles of his 2016 season.
And by the time Sale had staggered to a 5.24 ERA over his last seven starts of the first half, capped off by an eight-run, three-homer demolition at the hands of the hapless Braves, his plan to conserve strength for the stretch run looked like a flat-out mistake.
“I’m looking for efficiency,” Sale told Sports Illustrated’s Ben Reiter in May, “You can throw 100 miles an hour and punch out 12 guys. But if you’re going five innings, it’s a waste. I want to do everything I can to be as good as I can once a week.”
Not sure if anyone has ever mentioned this before, but it’s a long season, and after eight more strong innings against Detroit Tuesday, Sale’s 3.07 ERA would fit along very nicely with the rest of his excellent career, and he just pulled into tight race for the American League lead in innings pitched despite missing a start to pursue his interests in improvisational clothing alterations.
More importantly, for the first time he’s having the stretch run befitting an ace of his stature. Not once, not once, has Sale had a season with a lower ERA in the second half than he had in the first. Be it velocity loss, control issues, home run spikes, the 2015 Twins being able to read his mind, something has hampered him, and since it always was camped alongside the Sox falling completely out of race, Sale burned to improve.
Sale’s 2.49 ERA in the second half is close to run better than where he stood at the All-Star Break. He’s back to striking out over a batter per inning, and after giving up 17 home runs in the first half, he’s only given up four in the second (no thanks to Miguel Cabrera). As far as efficiency, with 25 games left, Sale could conceivably find five more starts in his season–especially if his manager is interested in facilitating his push for hardware–but with his average start nearing 7.1 innings, Sale might match his career-high for innings with just three more days on the mound.
Once again, the impossibly lean and awkward lefty who once seemed too frail to start, or doomed to injury, or just maxed out in terms of ability and durability, has found some way to deliver more Cy Young-quality innings.
So naturally, he’s bristling.
“Top to bottom, no one’s happy about it,” Sale told Scott Merkin Tuesday, “It falls on us, mostly…We have to find a way to be better next year. Hold your head up high, but we’ve got to change something.”
It’s hard for any pitcher to be a clubhouse leader, but Sale at least publicly presents as the ultimate win-obsessed, team guy. As a win-obsessed player on the White Sox in the 2010s, his view is fittingly tortured. Nearly every season, he not only turns out a world-class performance, but finds some unforeseeable way to improve upon it. And then the season ends, and he is forced to wonder what more he could have done.
It’s not fair, and no analysis of what went wrong with the Sox even includes Sale, but this is what he is, this is the impossible situation that forged him. Without it, would he still be Sale?