Back when the White Sox confirmed their plans to move Chris Sale to the rotation, I wrote that, even in relief, Sale had already contributed more wins to the White Sox than any of their other top picks over the past 21 years.
Seeing names like Jason Stumm and Kris Honel in the post about Tommy John surgeries reminded me to follow up on Sale's value after starting. As good as Sale was out of the bullpen, he simply couldn't accumulate enough innings to contribute a single season that was worth more than any of his fellow first-round picks' White Sox careers.
Starting gave him the chance to really rub it in, and he only had to outpace whatever Gordon Beckham could muster in 2012 to make that bittersweet mark.
We're going to need a bigger boat. After going 18-7 with a 3.05 ERA over 192 innings, Baseball-Reference.com says Sale's 2012 season alone was worth 5.7 WAR. Beckham, three years into his career, has amassed just 3.5 WAR total.
Of course, WAR may be underrating Beckham a little bit, because his defense grades out as slightly below average according to the metrics, and I think many people would disagree with that assessment. Even if you awarded him eye-test credit, though, it still wouldn't be enough to push him to 5 WAR, much less 5.7.
Hey, maybe metric forces are conspiring against Beckham for the benefit of the narrative. B-Ref reconfigured its WAR formula since that post was written, so I went down the line to revisit the last 21 first-round picks, 12 of whom made the majors besides Sale. Here's what their White Sox WAR totals now look like:
- Gordon Beckham, 3.5 (2008)
- Mark Johnson, 1.9 (1994)
- Kip Wells, 1.0 (1998)
- Aaron Poreda, 0.4 (2007)
- Lance Broadway, 0.2 (2005)
- Brian Anderson, -0.5 (2003)
- Matt Ginter, -0.6 (1999)
- Jason Dellaero, -0.9 (1997)
- Joe Borchard, -0.9 (2000)
- Jeff Liefer, -1.2 (1995)
- Scott Ruffcorn, -1.2 (1991)
- Josh Fields, -1.7 (2004)
Now, add all those up, and what do you get? Exactly 0 WAR, which is incredible for a lot of reasons, and none of them good. Sure, it makes it incredibly convenient for me that I can say that the White Sox have gotten replacement-level production across 21 years of first-round, non-Sale picks, but that's probably not what the Sox intended. Hell, I wasn't even blogging for 14 of them. Obviously, giving Sale some help in this category is one of the chief goals of Rick Hahn's tenure.
The good news: There's nothing more to add about this particular discussion, at least relative to Sale. He's pushed himself beyond comparison with this motley crew. After 2½ years, he's at 9.0 WAR and counting, which is a tremendous pace that places him on a far more ambitious track.
For instance, if we go back to the franchise-redefining drafts from 1987-1990, Sale fits in quite nicely:
Alex Fernandez (1990): Contributed 1.3 WAR over his first 2½ seasons; reached 9.2 WAR after his fifth.
Frank Thomas (1989): Contributed 15.8 WAR over his first 2½ seasons.
Robin Ventura (1988): Contributed 12.9 WAR over his first three seasons.
Jack McDowell (1987): Contributed 7.6 WAR over first three full seasons; 12.9 WAR after his fourth.
Let's get this out of the way: Holy crap Frank Thomas.
Big Hurt aside, this gives Sale something to strive toward. McDowell's a hard guy to put in context because his workload was insane/unnecessary. He threw the most innings in the American League from 1990-1994, and he was on pace for 245-250 innings during the strike year, too.
Fernandez had a couple big-IP years himself, but his progression is far more reasonable. If Sale could manage to even put together something like Fernandez's best five years, that would push the Sale selection into "jackpot" territory. That's easier said than done for pitchers, but that's what it would look like if Sale established some staying power, which is the goal in all of this.
He's well on his way after his first full season, during which he showed that he has the stuff and the drive to succeed. Now he just needs the conditioning and the luck.