Chris Sale racked up a dozen strikeouts against the Cardinals in a 2–1 White Sox win in 11 innings on Tuesday night. That’s impressive enough on its own, but more importantly, with those 12 whiffs, Sale joined Pedro Martinez as the only two pitchers since 1914 (which is as far back as the game data goes) to strike out 10 or more in eight straight appearances.
Martinez, who finished his otherworldly 1999 season with a streak of eight such games, technically struck out 10 or more in 10 straight appearances. However, the final two games in that streak came at the start of the 2000 season, with not only the off-season and spring training but three playoff appearances—“only” one of those saw Martinez accumulate 10 or more strikeouts—in between. Sale has thus tied Martinez for the longest single-season streak of appearances with 10 or more strikeouts and will have a chance to break that record in his next start, scheduled for Sunday afternoon in Chicago against the Orioles.
Over the course of his current streak, Sale has struck out 97 in 60 innings—a rate of 14.6 strikeouts per nine innings—getting strike three on 42.5% of the batters he has faced over those eight starts. He has also posted a 1.80 ERA, 0.77 WHIP and a 10.78 strikeout-to-walk ratio over that span, having walked just nine in that span. The last-place White Sox, however, have scored more than three runs in just one of those games, leaving him with an underwhelming 3–3 record. In the process, he has made clear to anyone who might have doubted it, or simply failed to notice, that he is the most dominant strikeout pitcher among all current major league starters.
Consider for a moment the full list of pitchers to have strung together six or more double-digit performances since 1914. In chronological order, they are: Nolan Ryan (twice), Pedro Martinez (thrice), Randy Johnson (five times) and now Sale. That’s not just three Hall of Famers; that’s the top three men on the all-time strikeout percentage list (minimum 2,000 career innings) and Chris Sale.
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Sale belongs on that list. Despite making his major league debut just two months after being drafted 13th overall out of Florida Gulf Coast University in 2010, Sale struck out 111 in 94 1/3 innings of pure relief in his first two big-league seasons. Moved to the rotation in 2012, he struck out exactly one man per inning over 192 frames, which remains the lowest strikeout rate of his still-young career. In the three seasons since, he has struck out opposing hitters at a rate surpassing that of any other full-time starting pitcher in baseball.
Since the start of the 2013 season, in which Sale set career highs in starts, innings pitched and strikeouts (226), he has struck out 29.35% of the batters he has faced. Among pitchers with 400 or more innings pitched over that span, that outdoes Clayton Kershaw (29.33%), Max Scherzer (28.8) and Corey Kluber and Stephen Strasburg (26.5). Sale also leads on a per-inning basis over that span, as he has struck out 10.5 per nine innings since the start of the '13 season compared to Scherzer’s 10.3%, Kershaw’s 10.1% and Strasburg’s 9.7%.
Better yet, among pitchers with 700 or more innings pitched in major-league history, Sale’s 28.2% strikeout rate ranks sixth, behind Johnson’s 28.6% and four relievers (Billy Wagner: 33.2%; Francisco Rodriguez: 29.3%; Armando Benitez: 29.1%; and Octavio Dotel: 28.4%). Just 26 and thus far limited in his workloads by a collection of thankfully minor injuries—shoulder fatigue in 2012, shoulder inflammation in '13, a flexor strain in his pitching elbow which cost him a month of last season and the avulsion fracture in his right foot that delayed his start to this season—Sale has a while to go before he can be properly held up against greats such as Martinez, but it doesn’t take much imagination to see him as this generation’s Johnson.
A tall (6'6"), scrawny lefty with a low, three-quarters delivery, a blazing fastball, a wipeout slider and a severe, scowling, scraggly and pale countenance, Sale can’t help but evoke Johnson given his dominance of the strike zone. The 6'10" Johnson was known for his long arms, which made it seem as though he was reaching half way to the plate before releasing the ball. Sale has become known in some circles as “The Condor,” in part for the “inverted W” in his delivery, but also for a similarly long wingspan. The biggest difference between the two at this stage is that Sale has another pitch that’s even better than his slider (his changeup), while Johnson’s slider was so good (it was arguably one of the best pitches in baseball history) that he didn’t really need a third pitch in his prime (though he would throw a two-seamer to give a third look to opposing hitters).
Exactly how long Sale’s streak will last remains to be seen, but there is more history within his reach. Sale’s eighth straight start with 10 or more strikeouts was also his ninth such start on the season, which came in just his 15th turn. If Sale can double that total in Chicago’s remaining 87 games, his would be one of just 11 pitching seasons to feature 18 or more 10-strikeout games. The only other pitchers to do that: Ryan (thrice), Martinez (twice), Johnson (four times) and Sandy Koufax.
If Sale can compile 20 games with double-digit strikeouts, he would do something even Martinez never did in a single season (he had a career-high 19 such games in 1999, adding a second streak of seven in a row earlier in the season). Meanwhile, at his current pace, Sale projects to be the first pitcher to strike out 300 men in a season since Johnson (of course) in '02 and the first American Leaguer to do it since Martinez in '99. It might be too early to call Sale one of the greatest strikeout pitchers of all-time (though it’s worth noting that, even in this age of increased strikeouts, no one else is doing what he’s doing), but it’s not too early to point out that he is in the midst of what could well be one of the greatest strikeout seasons in major-league history.