ST. LOUIS — As Chris Sale bulldozed his way to tying a major league record over his last eight starts, there’s something he hasn’t done much, if at all.
Shake off catcher Tyler Flowers.
Sale and Flowers have as good a working pitcher-catcher relationship as you’ll find in baseball. Whatever Flowers calls, Sale throws. If an adjustment needs to be made during a game, Flowers will make it and Sale will trust it.
That happened Tuesday night when Sale didn’t have good command of the inner third of the plate. Flowers made the adjustment and called for more two-seamer fastballs away to a righty-heavy lineup and mixed in more sliders than usual — Sale threw 24 percent of the time, up about eight percent from his season average.
The result: Eight innings of one-run ball with 12 strikeouts — all swinging — giving him eight consecutive games with double-digit strikeouts to tie Pedro Martinez’s major league record set in 1999.
“We both trust each other entirely,” Flowers, who's caught all 15 of Sale's starts this season, said. “It just allows him to stay focused on whatever pitch, executing that and not worrying about the preparation as far as pitch sequences and those kind of things. He leaves that in my hands, and I kind of enjoy that aspect of the preparation to help him have success and give us a chance to win.”
As Sale said after a start earlier last month: “Just follow Flow, whatever he’s got, that’s what I’m throwing.”
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The Sale-Flowers relationship is a subtle aspect to the White Sox ace’s success over the last few seasons. The pair worked together during Sale’s brief stint in Triple-A in 2010 and have formed the White Sox battery 74 times, teaming up to limit hitters to a .212 batting average and .591 OPS. In 446 2/3 innings with Flowers behind the plate, Sale has 538 strikeouts.
Those on-the-fly adjustments Flowers is able to make on an inning-by-inning, batter-by-batter, pitch-by-pitch basis have helped keep Sale effective even if he doesn’t have his best stuff or command.
“He’s caught him enough and he can tell if one pitch isn’t as sharp as another,” manager Robin Ventura said. “There is trust when he puts down down different fingers that there is a reason for that. They get along well. They’re in sync, he doesn’t spend much time shaking off and standing out there.”
Ventura said Sale’s preferred rhythm is similar to the one former White Sox starter Mark Buehrle is known for — get the ball, get on the mound and throw it quickly. Having a strong trust in Flowers to call the right pitch in the right location helps Sale find that rhythm and not overthink things.
The results, especially in 2015, have been staggering. If Sale makes 17 more starts at his current pace he’ll finish the season with 301 strikeouts, a total which hasn’t been reached by a pitcher since Randy Johnson in 2002. And if Sale racks up 10 or more strikeouts in his next start — which will be either Sunday or Monday next week — he’ll set a major league single season record for most consecutive starts with double digit strikeouts.
The relationship between pitcher and catcher didn’t develop immediately, but it did develop quickly. And it’s become an important part of Sale’s dominance.
“It’s easier for pitchers to trust in a guy when they have success, and it’s easier for me to have success with him when he can execute, and we have some weapons to work with,” Flowers said. “So it kind of goes hand-in-hand where he gave me a shot to run the game, to run an inning, to run the next inning with some success and it just kind of snowballed into where we’re at today.”