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The Chris Sale Project Isn't A Schooner

Condor?  Condor.
Condor? Condor.

Lost somewhat in all the entirely deserved praise of Philip Humber's perfect game was Chris Sale's own breakout performance last Friday. In case you've already forgotten, Sale struck out 11 over 6 1/3 IP while giving up 3 runs on 7 hits. And yes, it is the Mariners and they still managed a decent number of runs, but that kind of swing-and-miss number has a whiff--intended--of league ace to it. For all the White Sox success on the mound during the Cooper Era, they've rarely had the kind of guy that strikes fear into the hearts of opposing batters. Kenny's philosophy has been to have a staff full of number 2's; good but not unbeatable.

It's in that sense Sale's 11 really gives us something to dream on. For comparison, Sox starters managed just one start with more than 10 Ks last season, for which we may thank Edwin Jackson. On April 7 2011, EJax took down 13 Rays on strikes and looked every bit the world beater SSS thought he might be. But, for one, we were pretty sure he was gone after the season was over. And two, it's not like Edwin hadn't been around the block. As a fan, there was just not great reason to get invested in much beyond the result he provided that day. Except maybe to keep score in any debates over, say, whether he was better than Philip Humber.*

Sale is different. Like the respective early days of Gordon Beckham and Carlos Quentin before him**, the Sale-as-starter experience is excitement enough whatever the records say. There's just so much that we don't yet know. And it's this that gets to what's so intoxicating and repulsive about being a sports fan. I watch with a happy-queasy feeling that only caring too much about sports seems to provide. It's a weird mix of dread that everything will go wrong and hope that for once everything will be perfect, I guess? I like thinking about it in terms of recent Sox history. Perhaps he's 2005, writ small, a savior rather than The Savior. Maybe he's 2007. Or '08. Or '09. Perfect happens but you can't tell it is until it's over. And until we know we get/are forced to watch.

Sale's slider was the big story of his start and he was far more like his start in Cleveland in terms of usage. Of the 110 pitches recorded by Brooks PFx, just under half were sliders. He threw about that number of fastballs and just 8 change-ups. If it wasn't authoritatively settled last year ("LALALALALACANTHEARYOU," said Keith Law), it's clear that Sale is no longer a fastball-change pitcher. He throws the slider in all counts at any time and has a really good feel for it. Arguably he's placing it better than his fastball right now. Considering Montero's bomb, Kelly's double and (iirc) Ackley's two hits were all off heaters, you could actually make the argument he should have thrown it more.

The other interesting bit about Sale's slider is that its movement is pretty slurvy, which is generally regarded as not a good pitch in the majors. There's a surprising amount of both horizontal and vertical movement for a pitch that usually has a little of one or the other. I still don't have a good grip on what passes for good or bad movement, but it's hard to argue with the results. Which, now having totally buried the lede, I should tell you about. Batters are whiffing on almost half their swings. It's a ridiculous number that's sure to come down and we should definitely keep the competition in mind, but the early returns on Sale's breaker are astounding. It's all the more impressive considering how much he's thrown it against RHB and more all the more that his whiff rate with it against RHB is exactly 50%.

His fastball looks good too, though like I said he seems to be having more trouble locating it than the slider for whatever reason. The whiff rate is solid and he gets so much horizontal movement due to his arm angle that batters from both sides are having trouble getting lift when he locates. Unfortunately against the M's it seemed like he got burned pretty much every time he left it in the zone at all. I'm fairly sure that won't be true as he goes forward, but it's not going to keep him from nibbling until he realizes that it's okay to miss on the plate. It probably won't matter, but it'd be nice if he could be as efficient as possible. Every pitch he can save now is one he can use if the Sox end up in the hunt.

*I nailed the hell out of that one.

**Who was before that? Joe Borchard? Brian Anderson? Josh Fields? It's hard to even remember feeling that hopeful about those guys, if ever I did.