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Chris Sale is back, in more ways than one

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And it’s great, even if a little schadenfreude would be nice

MLB: Texas Rangers at Boston Red Sox Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

When recounting the accumulating overarching frustration that marked the end of the Chris Sale era of Chicago, July 8 is pretty underrated. It doesn’t compare to his juvenile tantrum after Adam LaRoche’s retirement or his disdain of throwback jerseys, but it’s manifestation of the disappointment that actually occurred on the field.

Facing the lowly Atlanta Braves in a series that had a chance to alter the tenor of the first half, Sale was bombed for eight runs on 10 hits -- including three homers — over five innings in an 11-8 loss. It wasn’t just that Sale flopped, but it was how. Lefties hit two of the three homers. Tyler Flowers contributed the other one, and with a double and an HBP in his other two plate appearances, Sale couldn’t retire his much-maligned former catcher. Jeff Francouer hit the decisive blow against him, a two-run double that turned into three bases when Sale forgot to back up home plate, as he often did when shell-shocked. Even Gordon Beckham picked up two hits against him as part of his last three-hit day in the majors.

Based on subsequent events — the team’s performance, the slashed 1977 uniforms, the White Sox’ inability to fire Robin Ventura until the exact moment such a move lost all meaning — a Sale victory probably wouldn’t have altered the overall outcome any. But it’s the game I’m thinking of* as Sale returns for his first start in Chicago since the trade that marked the start of the White Sox’ reconstruction.

(*OK, Sale made me think of another one when he told the media he’s never been inside the visiting clubhouse at U.S. Cellular Field/Guaranteed Rate Field. It wasn’t for a lack of trying.)

On the team level, the dud against Atlanta encompassed the team’s inability to find a second wind after getting the 23-10 start knocked out of them, no matter how favorable the matchup. Regarding Sale as a pitcher, it showed the cracks in a changed approach that was never explained to my satisfaction.

Sale gave up all three of his homers on energy-conserving fastballs, and he threw just eight of his 88 pitches for changeups. Both alterations were presented as part of a conscious strategy between Sale and Don Cooper. The first one only made sense if the high-90s fastballs were harder to find as the innings piled up. The other part didn’t make any sense, yet wasn’t particularly scrutinized outside of blog circles.

Smash-cut to a year later, and his fastball is back to 94-95 after dipping to 92-93, and he’s hitting the high-90s earlier and more often. I’d be more critical of Sale’s velocity reduction if he hadn’t set career highs in starts and innings. He wanted to establish a new personal standard of endurance in 2016, and perhaps meeting those goals gave him the confidence to find the higher gears.

The more jarring change is the changeup frequency, because now it just looks like a blip that achieved nothing:

  • 2014: 28.6%
  • 2015: 27.7%
  • 2016: 15.7%
  • 2017: 25.7%

With both elements back in place, Sale is back to overpowering hitters. He has a 2.34 ERA while leading the league in FIP (1.81), WHIP (0.81), and, of course, strikeouts (101 over 73 innings). He’s the front-runner for the Cy Young.

Perhaps it would’ve been nice to see him struggle out of the gate, forced to confront the failures he could’ve controlled in Chicago. I doubted — and still do -- that the ravenous Boston media would have any effect on him. He’s always been impervious to outside criticism. If he weren’t, he’d probably be more aware of the random BS he brought upon himself over the last few seasons. Still, I wouldn’t have minded seeing Boston’s often suffocating provincialism try to make him squirm a little, as maybe it would’ve yielded just a smidge of reflection and repentance.

But I also didn’t want Sale held responsible for all the things outside of his control in Chicago. He gave the White Sox several great seasons while being paid a pittance, and management couldn’t build up a winner around that. Nor could the front office give him a manager that deserved the job in any of his full seasons. Maybe Sale’s fastball reduction is yet another one of the White Sox’ poor decisions over the last few seasons, but if Sale is only able to dial it up because he’s pitching for a contender and its energized fan base, it’s the kind of support he’s long deserved.

Either way, it’s ultimately nice to see him succeeding. He’s the White Sox’ biggest draft success since Frank Thomas, he was appointment viewing for five seasons, and for all his flare-ups with management, he never showed that side to fans. He started a Hall of Fame track with the White Sox, and I’d like to see him finish it, even if he ends up wearing another team’s cap. At the very least, he should get a Cy Young season since they don’t hand out awards for cumulative bodies of work before Cooperstown.

All this being said, I hope the White Sox give him hell for one night, if only to make that Flowers-Beckham-Francouer barrage just the slightest bit more explicable. We have to take closure wherever we can get it.