The last couple of nights, White Sox fans have been treated to some amazing talent on the mound, and in terms of sheer physical ability, the difference is narrower than it may appear.
Carlos Rodon didn't match Chris Sale's 14-strikeout masterpiece from the day before. Sale has posted game scores of 83, 82, and 81 over his last three starts, while Rodon set a personal best on Tuesday ... with 65.
But they're at different stages in their careers. Sale has three consecutive top-six Cy Young finishes, and he's trying like hell to get into the picture a fourth year after the broken foot hampered him in April. Every starts seems to have a few new first-since, whether within the context of franchise history or across Major League Baseball. Sale's standards for excellence were high. He keeps raising them.
Rodon, on the other hand, is six starts into this jam. He was was drafted one year and five days ago, and he still has another month until he celebrates his one-year anniversary as a signed-and-sealed member of the White Sox organization.
Yet here he is, starting in the big leagues. And here he is, excelling in the big leagues -- maybe not to Sale's level, but certainly relative to the rest of a major league rotation.
Rodon threw six scoreless innings against the Astros, picking up his second victory and lowering his ERA to 2.66. After walking five Cleveland Indians over six innings on May 20 and skipping his next turn, he has walked just five batters total over his last three starts.
Moreover, this was the first time an opponent got a second look at Rodon. He faced the Astros just 11 days before, and they were no more successful against him, even while armed with first-hand knowledge:
You can debate which start was better on its own merits. On the side of May 29, Rodon recorded one more out on 24 fewer pitches, and the hit and run columns were inflated by poor defense. Tuesday has scorelessness going for it -- and scorelessness with Dallas Keuchel posting zeroes of his own on the other side.
Robin Ventura would have had a case to lift Rodon after five innings. A couple of tight spots ran up his pitch count to 98, so a shorter leash would be a responsible move for a rookie. But Ventura gave him the sixth, Rodon stranded a runner on second with an 18-pitch frame, and Jose Abreu fell Keuchel with a two-run homer soon afterward.
That inning put Rodon's pitch count at a career high ... and yet he wanted to go out there in the seventh.
"He got in some tight spots, and for him, it's just nice to see a guy go out and battle at that level, with that [opponent] and to kind of gut his way through it," said White Sox manager Robin Ventura. "He wanted to go back out, but it's at a point where he was with the pitch count, high leverage that it was, you didn't want to let him go back out. But to get through it like that, with a lot of traffic out there, it was pretty impressive for a young guy. He kept his composure."
It really is impressive at this stage in his career. While Rodon threw a career-high 10 changeups on Tuesday, that doesn't qualify as "third pitch" frequency over 116 pitches (he threw 41 sliders). So he's still an incomplete pitcher, facing a heavily right-handed lineup for the second time in a fortnight ...
... and he still throws six shutout innings, because his combination of arm and balls is that formidable. (Ventura probably shouldn't let Rodon throw 116 over six in the near future, but Thursday's off day builds in extra rest this time around.)
Rodon's line might not look that stunning a day after Sale took the Astros to the chop shop, but the day before that, Jeff Samardzija couldn't hold a 4-1 lead against a team that had lost eight of its last nine. That's not an indictment of Samardzija, but it does show that Rodon's results can't be considered anything close to a given.
Nor should we take Sale's start for granted, and Jeff Sullivan didn't, digging into the numbers and discovering that the Condor is in elite company -- and maybe even unmatched after further consideration -- with his ability to get swinging strikes with three pitches:
Sale qualifies because of his four-seamer, slider, and changeup. [Corey] Kluber qualifies because of his four-seamer, slider, and cutter. [Matt] Harvey qualifies because of his slider, changeup, and curveball. And that’s it. Those are the three names. And one could make the argument that Sale is the most impressive, here, because he so rarely has the platoon advantage, and because he’s thrown the slider 15% of the time. Kluber’s thrown 11% four-seamers; Harvey’s thrown 11% changeups. And Harvey, of course, is in the National League.
In a sense, Sale has peers, and in another sense, Sale stands alone. Whether he’s really alone doesn’t change the point — he’s absolutely terrific, and he’s joined the exclusive three-weapon club because of the improvement of his heater.
Deadspin notes that his two fastballs and two non-fastballs are all generating whiff rates between 25 and 51 percent:
Those numbers are insane, particularly the two attached to the slider and change up. For context, Stephen Strasburg had the whiffiest change up in baseball last year, racking up a whiffs per swing rate of 46.42 percent, and 2014’s most elusive slider (46.43 percent) belonged to Ervin Santana. So, basically, Chris Sale has spent his last 30 innings on the mound armed with not one, but two impossibly deadly out pitches.
Here’s another absurd statistic: opposing batters have swung and missed at over 20 percent of all the pitches Sale has thrown over his last four starts. Spend more time watching Chris Sale pitch. That is all.
MLB.com put together a video of all these swings and misses:
The Washington Post tried to do Sale justice, but here's one of those rare cases where one can say "get your nose out of a spreadsheet and watch a game" and not sound like a complete doofus.
His fastball has good velocity, but it isn’t one that he can simply blow past a batter (89.9 mph per PitchF/x).
To which I reply, pffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffft.