Chris Sale is approaching a milestone. He has already been all the Red Sox could have hoped for, and then some, when they sent a package headlined by Yoan Moncada and Michael Kopech to the White Sox to solidify their rotation with one of the premier aces in all of baseball. Sale has made seven starts thus far, amassing a 1.92 ERA, 1.43 FIP, 0.79 WHIP and 73 strikeouts against 11 walks in 51 2/3 innings. It’s not the totality of what he has done, but rather his performance within those outings that has him on the brink of history.
Sale has struck out at least 10 batters in six straight starts, dating back to the second time he took the ball in a Boston uniform. He fanned 10 Tigers on that day in a tough-luck loss to Detroit. The next time out, he struck out 12 against the Rays. Next up were the Blue Jays, who Sale victimized 13 times in eight shutout innings. In his first taste of the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry, Sale racked up 10 strikeouts while picking up another hard loss. He then sent down 11 Orioles in eight innings in his first start of May before whiffing 10 Twins while picking up his third win of the season earlier this week.
Six starts, 66 strikeouts total, with at least 10 in each one. One more will tie him for the second-longest 10-strikeout streak of all time with Nolan Ryan, Pedro Martinez and Randy Johnson. If he can do it twice more, he’ll be tied for the longest streak ever. Two pitchers in MLB history have fanned at least 10 batters in eight straight starts. The first to do so was Martinez, who achieved the feat between Aug. 19 and Sept. 27 of the 1999 season. The other was ... any guesses?
Spoiler alert: It's Sale.
From May 23 to June 30 of 2015, Sale fanned at least 10 batters in eight straight starts for a bad Chicago team. All told, he struck out 97 batters in 60 innings during the streak and compiled a 1.80 ERA, but went just 3–3 thanks to the general ineptitude of that season’s White Sox. It was one of the best eight-start stretches in MLB history, and he somehow has a chance to surpass it over the next two weeks.
Sale is already one of four pitchers in MLB history to have two six-start, 10-strikeout streaks. The other three, as you can probably guess, are Ryan, Martinez and Johnson. Ryan did it twice in his career, topping out at seven starts. Martinez, the co-holder of the record, did it three times. Johnson struck out at least 10 batters in six or more consecutive starts a ridiculous five times, once in every season from 1998 through 2002. In fact, Sale, Ryan, Martinez and Johnson own 12 of the 13 such streaks in history. The other belongs to Clayton Kershaw, who did it from mid-April through mid-May last season. Just for the record, he tossed a two-hit shutout in the game that broke his streak, but struck out a measly seven batters in that one. What a bum, right?
Through seven starts, three of the four offerings in Sale’s repertoire—his four-seam fastball, changeup and slider—are on pace for new high marks in whiff rate. He has notched a 16.3% whiff rate with his four-seamer, which is unheard of for a fastball, 25.3% with his changeup, and 19.2% with his slider. How about we take a look at all three?
We’ll start with the fastball. This one came in his most recent start, a six-inning, 10-strikeout win over the Twins. Miguel Sano was one of Sale’s 10 victims in this game. It’s worth noting that Sano is having a phenomenal season, slashing .300/.421/.640 with eight homers in 123 plate appearances. That doesn’t matter when you can command 97 mph, though.
Next up is the change. Sale has thrown 173 of them so far this season, and 44 have resulted in whiffs. That is outrageous. If we isolate just for changeups hitters swung at, Sale’s change has a whiff rate of 44.8%. This is one of those many whiffs, courtesy of Mikie Mahtook.
Finally, we have the slider. This has long been Sale’s go-to swing-and-miss pitch that he can use against hitters from both sides of the plate. We’re going to look at him getting a righty, Starling Marte. This was Sale’s first strikeout with the Red Sox, and it was a beauty. Once you fully appreciate the way the slider starts on the outer third before darting so far to Sale’s glove side that it ends up within a few inches of Marte’s back foot, check out the pitch location graphic provided by NESN. Sale had Marte so fooled for this entire at bat that he got a strikeout despite no pitch being in the zone.
Sale’s next scheduled start is Saturday against the Rays. Should the Red Sox' rotation hold steady next week, he’ll then take the ball on Friday in Oakland. The Rays have the highest strikeout rate in the majors at 26.5%. Against lefties, they’ve fanned in a league-high 26.8% of their plate appearances. Remember, Sale already got them on his streak, fanning 12 batters in seven innings. The A’s, meanwhile, are sixth in the league with a 24% strikeout rate. They’ve been slightly better against lefties, but their 22.9% strikeout rate with southpaws on the mound is still the ninth-highest in baseball. Sale has a very real chance to match the record he already shares with Pedro Martinez. Should he do it, he will be on the doorstep of history.