Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Efficient Chris Sale carves up hard-hitting Blue Jays

Chris Sale is 5-0.
ESPN senior writer David Schoenfield made a bold prediction Wednesday. He foresees White Sox ace Chris Sale winning the AL Cy Young Award in 2016.

Of course, it's only April, and it's way too early to draw grand conclusions about any team or any player just 21 games into a 162-game schedule. But Sale (5-0) has won each of his first five starts and has more wins than the Atlanta Braves, who enter Wednesday's play with a 4-16 record.

Sale latest victory was a 10-1 masterpiece against the Toronto Blue Jays on Tuesday. The left-hander went eight innings, allowing a run on four hits while striking out six and walking two. His ERA is down to 1.66, and his WHIP is just 0.68.

Most impressively, Sale needed only 100 pitches to get through eight innings against a hard-hitting Toronto lineup that led all of baseball with 891 runs scored last season.

That pitch efficiency is not a fluke, either. Sale has yet to reach 110 pitches in any of his five starts, but he has gone at least seven innings in all of them. Sale's strikeout rate has dipped from 32.1 percent in 2015 to 23.2 percent this year, but opposing batters are hitting just .186 on balls put in play. Anyone who watched Wednesday's game saw the Blue Jays hit an array of lazy fly balls and infield popups that landed harmlessly in the gloves of Sox fielders.

Sure, Sale set the team strikeout record last season with 274, and that was awesome, but he wasn't nearly this efficient. He had 15 starts last season with 110 pitches or more. He's won five games this year without needing to do that. He's getting quicker outs and getting deeper into games, and obviously, the more innings Sale throws, the better things are likely to be for the Sox.

A rough second half last season might have been the best thing for Sale's career. He had an un-Sale-like ERA of 4.33 after the All-Star break in 2015. Moreover, his September numbers were terrible. He gave up 45 hits, including eight home runs, in 37 September innings.

As Schoenfield notes, six of the eight home runs Sale allowed in September came off fastballs, and batters hit  .363/.407/.638 against his fastball for the month.

Basically, Sale was trying to throw his heater by everybody as he chased that strikeout record in September, and hitters were ready for it. This offseason, it was clear Sale needed to make an adjustment to take the next step. Now, he's not throwing as hard as he has in the past -- the 97 mph heat is still there when he needs it -- but he's adding and subtracting off his fastball and mixing in his outstanding slider and good changeup effectively. Even good hitters such as those in the Toronto lineup are having their timing totally disrupted.

The high strikeout totals probably won't come as often for Sale if he sticks with this game plan, but the wins will come. At the end of last year, Sale was a thrower instead of a pitcher. He's back to being a pitcher now, and he's performing as well as he ever has in his career.

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