How White Sox ace Chris Sale learned to do more (and be better) with less
Chris Sale only ever wanted to do one thing: “To out-stuff people,” he says. The method was simple. “It means, ‘I’m gonna max out, I’m gonna throw the living crap out of every pitch, and that’s how I’m gonna beat you,’” says Don Cooper, who is now in his 15th season as the White Sox’ pitching coach.
This was Sale’s approach even when he was young and so slight that his teammates in Florida called him Splinter. He wanted to play pro baseball, and he knew that stuff was all the scouts who curled their fingers through the fence at Lakeland High cared about. “You could throw seven pitches straight to the backstop, but if you throw 95, you’re getting drafted,” Sale says. He couldn’t throw nearly that hard, but he was drafted anyway, though only in the 21st round, by the Rockies. He went to college instead.
At Florida Gulf Coast University, where he acquired the tougher skinny-guy nickname of Slim—he is now listed at a spindly 6' 6" and 180 pounds—he kept trying to out-stuff people. And it started working. He developed a fastball that he could throw 100 miles an hour with his left arm as well as baseball’s most gorgeous or most hideous delivery, depending upon your point of view.
To opponents and most experts in the science of pitching mechanics, it’s an unsightly whirl of limbs, and the ball seems to emerge from somewhere up the first base line. “It’s like they’re trying to find the body part he’s gonna throw with,” says Robin Ventura, the White Sox’ manager. To the White Sox? “It’s some sort of mysterious, kinetic thing of beauty, is what it is,” says general manager Rick Hahn.
The White Sox selected Sale with the 13th pick of the 2010 draft, after his junior season. They summoned him from the minors to Chicago, for good, 60 days later. In 2012, when the Sox converted him from a reliever to a starter, Sale made the first of his four straight All-Star Games and earned the first of his four straight top six finishes in the AL Cy Young voting. Last year he struck out a league-high 274 batters, buoyed by an early-summer stretch in which he had double-digit whiffs in eight straight outings, something that only Pedro Martinez had ever accomplished. In Sale’s final start he broke Big Ed Walsh’s 107-year-old club record for strikeouts in a season. Big Ed had set the mark in 464 innings in 1908. Sale worked 208 2/3.
At 26, Sale had done it. He had out-stuffed as many batters as he possibly could, and he loved it. “Strikeouts are cool,” he says. As he looked back on the season, though, he felt as if he had reached a false summit.
Now that he has gone from the best pitcher on one of the worst clubs in the American League to an even better pitcher on one of the league’s current leaders, both the White Sox and their opponents are experiencing the result of Sale’s winter epiphany. He realized that out-stuffing hitters isn’t the only thing he can to do them.
At first glance, many of Sale’s peripheral statistics so far this season suggest that something is wrong with him. His strikeout rate has plummeted by more than 30%, from an MLB-best 11.8 per nine innings to 8.0. His average fastball has dropped too, from 94.5 miles an hour to 92.4. You might imagine a UCL that, after all those contorted deliveries, is finally on the verge of snapping, or a shoulder that is fraying. But Sale feels fine. In fact, he feels better than he ever has. That is confirmed by his ERA of 1.67 and by his skimpy WHIP of 0.76, and, if you still care about such a stat, by his eight wins in eight starts.
Says Cooper, who grew up in Queens and hasn’t lost that borough’s brogue: “I kinda screw up the English language a little bit, but I used this word the other day: It’s a metamorphosis.”
Though Sale’s limbs can make him seem insectile, his Kafkaesque transformation has seen him change from a pitcher who throws, albeit astonishingly well, to a pitcher who thinks. Last year, he says, “I was throwing it as hard as I can, and wherever it goes, it goes.” That produced a lot of wasted pitches and long at bats, even if they often ended with a strikeout. “I’m falling off to the side. I got my glove way up here, my arm’s over here. I just had s--- going everywhere.”
This year? “I’m looking for efficiency,” he says. “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.” For Sale, that no longer means racking up as many strikeouts as possible, but as many outs. It also means that he is no longer pitching himself out of his shoes. Sale wasn’t exactly wild when throwing at maximum effort, but he had trouble controlling the ball within the strike zone. “It [came] in belt to belly button, which is right in the hitting zone,” he says. Now, “if I take a little off, I get more movement, and it’s down in the zone, which creates more ground balls, more weak contact. I can strike him out and use five pitches. Or I can throw a couple sinkers, and he’s out in two.”
Sale can still out-stuff people when he has to, but he hasn’t often needed to. The result is that the average number of pitches he requires to complete an inning has dropped from 15.9 to 14.4. It might not seem like a lot, but it represents the difference between the game’s 39th most efficient starter in 2015 and its ninth in ’16—and, often, the difference between Ventura’s tapping him for one more inning instead of reaching for the bullpen phone.
Cooper has seen such a transformation before. “It’s a characteristic of the top, top guys,” he says. “They’ve got stuff in their tank when they need it, but they’re managing the game, handling the game, knowing when to add, when to subtract. I do believe this is pitching at the highest level.”
Sale likes to explain the difference metaphorically. “You have a Ferrari, right? You put the gas pedal to the floor. Driving fast. This is great. I’m doing what I always wanted to do. Then you go to hit the brakes, and there are no brakes. You’re going to run into something, crash and burn, and it’s gonna suck. Why not take a couple steps down?”
Like many people who grew up dreaming of owning something red and loud, Sale, upon settling into adulthood, decided that safety and fuel economy were more likely to get him where he wanted to go.
If Sale has discovered a new efficiency, so has his club. After a winter during which Hahn committed $132 million to free agents, the 2015 White Sox finished 76–86. This year, expectations were low. Yet the team was 24–14 through Sunday, the AL’s second-best record and the third best in baseball. (The ascendant crosstown Cubs have the top spot.)
A significant portion of the White Sox’ improvement stems from their offense, which scored an AL-worst 3.8 runs per game last season and is now averaging 4.4. But more of it comes from their newfound capacity for run prevention. They gave up 4.3 a game last year, and are yielding 3.4 currently. The pitching staff has a 3.17 ERA, the AL’s best, and Sale happily admits that technically he hasn’t even been its top starter. That would be Jose Quintana, whose ERA of 1.54 trails only Jake Arrieta’s 1.29 and Jordan Zimmermann’s 1.50.
The 27-year-old Colombian southpaw’s lone middle initial is G., for Guillermo, but in the White Sox clubhouse he has long had two: N.D., for No Decision. Over the last two seasons Quintana made 46 quality starts, but he emerged with only nine wins each year.
Quintana is already 5–2 this season, and a central factor has been his club’s fielding. After last year’s team finished dead last in advanced fielding metrics such as Ultimate Zone Rating, Hahn overhauled it to such a degree that only first baseman Jose Abreu and leftfielder Melky Cabrera spent Opening Day 2016 in the same position they had for the previous one. Hahn acquired defensively gifted players like third baseman Todd Frazier and centerfielder Austin Jackson, and shifted Brett Lawrie and Adam Eaton to second base and rightfield, respectively. Now, the Sox are seventh in UZR, and Quintana isn’t the only pitcher to have benefited. “Last year, I think we all understood that Chris felt the burden to carry the water,” says Hahn. “He felt that given some of our limitations, he couldn’t give up two runs.” In other words, one reason Sale wanted to strike everyone out was that he feared the result if he didn’t.
Hahn had the wherewithal to reboot his club for the second straight off-season because he has two cornerstones cemented in, at bargain rates, through 2019. Sale’s contract means that he will be in Chicago until then at an average of $12 million a year. Abreu’s, signed in 2013 after the slugger defected from Cuba, calls for him to earn $11.33 million a year. “It has two impacts,” says Hahn, of his submarket stars. “One, obviously, is that it frees up more cash to acquire premium talent around them. The second thing it does is, it creates an urgency in your mind. You have this special opportunity, this special talent, and you don’t want to squander that. While we have the benefit of Chris Sale in his prime, we gotta find a way to get him into the postseason.”
That the White Sox have turned out to be one of the game’s most cohesive clubs seemed unlikely only two months ago. Then, they were embroiled in an embarrassing story that leached out of sports media and into the nation’s morning shows and tabloids: Their well-liked designated hitter Adam LaRoche retired—and gave up $13 million of salary—after Chicago’s team president, Kenny Williams, told him he could no longer bring his 14-year-old son, Drake, into the clubhouse every day.
The situation in the White Sox’ spring clubhouse, in Glendale, Ariz., was genuinely fraught. But even as the ladies on The View were debating the value of bringing children into the workplace (“What if mommy is a hooker?” asked Joy Behar), the Sox had moved on. “It was a two-day period of ruffled feathers,” says Sale, “but everyone else was still talking about it when we were working.”
Many White Sox still regularly communicate with both LaRoches and report that they are pleased with the team’s early success. “I talk to Drake more than Adam,” says Eaton. “Social media stuff. Drake loves to fish, and I love to fish. He’ll just send me a picture of a fish he caught, and I’ll send him a picture of what I caught.”
L’affaire LaRoche might be forgotten, but Sale’s memory is otherwise as long as his limbs. Last year he couldn’t seem to figure out the Minnesota Twins. In six starts against them, his ERA was 7.36; it was 2.66 against everyone else. That history loomed large in Sale’s mind as he prepared for his first 2016 start against them, on May 7, as did the events of the night before. “One of our guys got hit, and there was some disgruntlement about that,” says Cooper.
Sale came out firing. To the first six Twins batters he faced, he threw 10 pitches that exceeded 96 miles an hour. The results were familiar, at least against Minnesota: In the first inning he yielded two runs on two hits, a walk and two hit batsmen. The Ferrari’s engine was growling again. Cooper visited the mound, and then Lawrie did, from second base. “Use us,” Lawrie said. “Trust us.”
“I know this,” Sale says. “I know it. But sometimes it’s hard to do.” He took a deep breath. Over the rest of the game, Sale threw only two more pitches that topped 96. He also retired 19 of 20 batters, and completed seven innings. The White Sox won 7–2.
It is far too early to anticipate a Crosstown Classic against the Cubs in late October, but Sale will allow himself to entertain the prospect. “We’ll be waiting for them,” he says. “It’s a long way out. But, yeah, it’d be fun, no doubt. Travel days would be not so bad either.”
He’s not certain which version of himself would show up. “I couldn’t even tell you,” he says. “That is a scenario I’ve never been in, so we’ll see when we get there.” Don Cooper, though, has some idea. “Stuff gets ’em out for only so long,” Cooper says. “Stuff, location and change of speeds? That gets ’em out forever.”