When Chris Sale takes the mound to start the All-Star Game, some announcer will tell us that he’s 11-4 with a 2.75 ERA. The baseball-watching public will recognize that he’s a Cy Young candidate having an excellent year. Those of us who have been watching every fifth day know that these stats undersell the historically dominant season Sale’s Boston debut has been.
Since coming to Boston from the South Side of Chicago in an offseason trade, Sale has made 18 starts. In these 18 starts, he’s pitched 127.2 innings, an average of more than seven innings per start, something unheard of in today’s game. Tampa Bay’s Chris Archer is second in the American League with 123 innings, which means Sale has retired 14 more batters than any other AL pitcher despite having taken the mound one fewer time than Archer. In the National League, only Max Scherzer has averaged seven innings per start and Scherzer gets an easy out against an opposing pitcher two to three times per game.
Even more impressively, Sale has struck out 178 batters, 31 more than Archer and a ridiculous 53 more than any other AL hurler. The last AL pitcher to lead the league in strikeouts by more than 21% of the runner-up’s total was Pedro Martinez, who struck out 284 hitters in 2000, 72 more than second-place Bartolo Colon. In that legendary season in which his ERA was less than half that of any other pitcher in the league, Pedro struck out 11.78 batters per nine innings. This year, Sale has struck out 12.55 hitters per nine.
Sale doesn’t trade any of that power for a lack of command. He walked just 22 batters in those first 18 starts, a walk rate bettered only by Josh Tomlin among qualified AL starters. The last pitcher to finish a season in the top two in his league in both strikeout rate and walk rate was Sale himself in 2015. Before that, no one accomplished this feat since- you guessed it- Pedro Martinez in 2000.
When the ball is put into play, batters hit just .292 against Sale, a slightly below average figure made all the more impressive by the park in which he pitches his home games. AL batters have hit .297 on balls in play in 2017, but they’ve hit .308 against Red Sox pitchers, due both to the monstrous wall lurking dangerously close to the infield and to the monstrous third baseman botching plays at an almost inconceivable rate this year.
What’s obscured some of Sale’s dominance this season is sequencing. On those rare occasions when a runner has reached base against Sale this year, 25.7% have come around to score. This is better than the league average of 27.5%, but certainly not elite. In contrast, Kansas City Royals lefty Jason Vargas, who leads the AL in ERA at 2.62 despite striking out just 6.6 batters per nine and walking more hitters than Sale in fewer innings, has allowed just 15.3% of opposing runners to score. There is little evidence that allowing baserunners without letting them score is a sustainable skill, so if you’re betting on which AL pitcher will lead the league in ERA at year-end, stay away from Vargas.
No pitcher in the AL has been in Sale’s league this year or, really, this decade (he leads the league in strikeouts, ERA, and Wins Above Replacement since 2012). To find a reasonable facsimile, let’s return to a name that’s come up a few times above. Pedro Martinez is a 5-foot-11-inch righthander whose primary weapon was a changeup. Sale is a 6-6 lefthander notorious for a nasty slider. Martinez threw five different pitches, mixing speeds and arm angles to leave batters completely flummoxed at the plate. Sale sticks to his fastball, slider and change, all of which are released from the same spot, but each of which takes a unique path to the plate.
In addition to the uniform on their backs in their most dominant season, the primary attribute shared by Sale and Martinez is dominance. Pedro was the game’s best pitcher from 1997 to 2005, winning one Cy Young in the National League and two in the American, though he would have been a reasonable choice for at least two more. Sale has been in the Cy Young discussion every year since 2012, but he’s been denied every time due in large part to a lack of run support from the White Sox.
With a new uniform on his back and a repertoire of pitches that only seems to get better with age, this may very well be the year when Sale’s name is etched on some hardware. And if he pitches anywhere near this well in October, perhaps his team’s name will be etched on an even bigger trophy.
Bryan O’Connor lives in Cumberland with his wife and two baseball-loving kids. Follow him on Twitter @replevel.