Chris Sale is taking quite a bit of criticism for the way he handled himself during and after this whole sign-stealing, bench-clearing incident thing with Detroit designated hitter Victor Martinez on Wednesday.
The thing that amuses me most about the whole deal is the fact that few in Chicago have paid any attention to the Sox whatsoever over the past month or six weeks -- Bears obsession in this town runs deep -- but after this incident where Sale plunked Martinez and supposedly accused the Tigers of stealing signs, all the pundits have suddenly come out of the woodwork to comment on Sale's actions during Wednesday's 6-1 Detroit victory.
It's clear to me that most people did not watch this game. They were probably too busy discussing Jay Cutler's mechanics, or "breaking down" Sunday's matchup between the Bears and the Green Bay Packers. That's fine. That's where their bread is buttered, and I get that. But if you didn't see the game, let's not form our opinions based upon Sale's non-answers to the media after the game. Let's also not form our opinions based upon a few angry soundbites from Detroit manager Brad Ausmus. He's an even more biased observer than I am.
It seems that some folks have dismissed the accusations of sign-stealing as completely implausible. But something that happened in the third inning -- three innings before Sale nailed Martinez in his left shoulder with a fastball -- is enough to raise some eyebrows.
Martinez came to the plate with two on and two out in that third inning. Sale looked out toward the outfield a couple times early in the at-bat, and with the count at 2-1, catcher Tyler Flowers paid a visit to the mound. It's pretty clear what they discussed.
On each of the next three pitches, Flowers set up on the inside corner, but Sale threw the ball outside.
On the 2-1 pitch, Martinez swung and missed a Sale fastball that was way off the plate. Martinez couldn't have hit that pitch with an oar. On the 2-2, Sale fired a backdoor slider that was just off the outside corner. Martinez swung and just got a piece of it, fouling it off to stay alive. The next pitch was a fastball that was high, outside and well out of the zone. Martinez swung and missed. Strike three, inning over. Sale walks off the mound and gives his now-famous tip of the cap to somebody in the outfield.
Forget about the cap-tipping for a moment. The key point here is Flowers set up inside three times in a row, and Sale threw the ball outside three times in a row. Quite obviously, they suspected someone was tipping location to the Detroit batters, and they reacted the way professional ballplayers should: They changed their strategy and got the desired result.
We don't know for sure that somebody in Detroit was trying to tip location to Martinez. What we do know is Martinez -- who has struck out just 41 times in 627 plate appearances this season -- was swinging wildly at horrible pitches like a blind man. He uncharacteristically struck himself out in a critical RBI situation, against a pitcher he has owned (15 for 29 lifetime) in the past. Isn't that interesting?
It seems likely Martinez was looking for the ball in, only to get the ball away, throughout that at-bat. Maybe he was looking for the ball in because he could sense Flowers move toward the inside corner. Or maybe, someone was signaling to him that Flowers was setting up inside, causing him to look in, only to be fooled by pitches away. It's not as implausible as Sale's critics are making it out to be. Stealing signs and stealing pitch locations has been a part of the game for decades. There are ways to combat it, and Sale and Flowers employed one such method in the third inning.
Then, Martinez comes up in the sixth inning, knowing he struck out on an outside pitch in his previous at-bat. Flowers sets up on the inside part of the plate once again, but this time Sale really is coming in with a fastball. The pitch hits Martinez, who was probably looking away. He glares at Sale. The fans boo. The Tigers say, "That's intentional!" Cry me a river.
Maybe it was intentional. Or maybe Sale figured he had Martinez looking away, so he was going to try to bust him in this particular at-bat, and the ball was just too far in. That stuff does happen, and when you're facing a guy who is 15 for 29 off you lifetime, you gotta try different things.
Even if Sale did hit Martinez intentionally, so what? Again, 15 for 29. Isn't it about time Sale do something to make Martinez less comfortable in the box against him? I don't care if the Tigers' feelings were hurt. It's competitive athletics. It's not about feelings. It's about winning. If Ausmus doesn't like or respect Sale now, who cares?
And don't get me started about this lazy media narrative about the Tigers being "fired up" by the incident. First of all, the Tigers are trying to win an AL Central division title. They entered Wednesday's action with a one-game lead over the Kansas City Royals with five games to play. If they need a pitcher on a fourth-place team to do something to get them excited to play, well, they ought to be ashamed of themselves.
Secondly, the Tigers didn't win this game because Sale "fired them up." The game was tied, 1-1, when Sale left the mound. Detroit scored five runs after the Chicago ace departed. That's not a coincidence. Sale struck out 10 and allowed just the one run in this contest. Tiger hitters did next to nothing against him. Javy Guerra and Matt Lindstrom are significantly lesser pitchers than Sale. We've see throughout the course of the season that opposing teams don't need to be "fired up" to score runs against mediocre or less-than-mediocre Sox relief pitchers such as Guerra and Lindstrom. Poor pitches by those two bullpen guys were the deciding factor in the game, not "the fire and the passion."
From where I'm sitting, Sale did nothing wrong with any of the pitches he threw Wednesday. His biggest mistake was the cap-tipping thing after he struck out Martinez in the third. People get angry about antics like that -- maybe more than they should -- but the moral of the story is an athlete never wins in the court of public opinion if he makes a gesture of any sort toward the fans. I'll bet Sale received a talking-to from his manager about that. Hopefully, he doesn't make the same mistake again.
That said, I have no problem with the way Sale dealt with Martinez. If this bothers some folks so much, well, they can go back to breaking down matchups in the Bears-Packers game.