White Sox

White Sox ace Chris Sale continues his staggering run of success

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White Sox ace Chris Sale continues his staggering run of success

Chris Sale’s raw numbers over his last four starts are astounding, starting with a 1.17 ERA over 30 2/3 innings with 49 strikeouts against four walks. For comparison, former White Sox left-hander Mark Buehrle — certainly not a swing-and-miss pitcher — has 17 fewer strikeouts over 11 starts covering 72 1/3 innings with Toronto this season.

Opposing hitters have a .157 batting average and .455 OPS against Sale in those four starts, in which the White Sox are 3-1. Any concerns over Sale’s slow start have dissipated into an ocean of swings and misses.

Sale’s had a few dominant four-start stretches over his career — like last year’s 31 2/3 IP, 3 ER, 38 K, 3 BB stretch from July 4-26 — but he’s previously racked up double digit strikeouts in consecutive starts only twice in his career. Sale’s strikeout totals in his last four games: 10, 12, 13, 14.

[MORE WHITE SOX: Chris Sale strikes out 14 as White Sox top Astros]

Whether it’s fair or not, whenever the lanky left-hander piles up strikeouts like this it’s going to elicit comparisons to Randy Johnson — the flamethrowing, svelte lefty who won five Cy Youngs and will enter the Hall of Fame this summer.

“What he’s throwing up there numbers-wise is impressive and he’s right up there with all those guys,” manager Robin Ventura said. “You’re really seeing, and in the way he’s finishing it. He’s right up there with Johnson -- we do that because he’s left-handed but he’s right up there with any of those guys.”

What’s keyed Sale’s dominant stretch has been an ability to generate plenty of swings and misses with both his offspeed pitches.

[MORE WHITE SOX: Carson Fulmer hopes to follow Chris Sale's path]

When opposing hitters swing at Sale’s changeup over his last four starts, they’re whiffing at one in every two of them. His slider has been nearly as good: His whiff/swing percentage is 46.5 percent, according to Brooks Baseball.

White Sox catcher Tyler Flowers, though, said there’s a more subtle reason to the gaudy swing-and-miss rates beyond a pair of offspeed pitches working to perfection.

“I’d say (Monday), we only threw two or three pitches that we missed that were over the plate,” Flowers said. “Other than that, when he misses he’s missing in good spots — in off, away off, down, even a couple of them over the middle yesterday he got up in the zone. That’s a big part of it. … Instead of just throwing in a general area, he’s trying to hit that exact spot or miss in, or hit that exact spot and miss away.”

As long as Sale continues to scythe his way through opposing lineups with his blazing fastball, wipeout slider and excellent changeup he’ll draw those comparisons to The Big Unit. Ventura remembers what it was like to face Johnson — against whom he had 15 strikeouts and only two extra-base hits in 45 plate appearances — and said getting on base against him often came down to guessing right.

[SHOP: Gear up, White Sox fans!]

Here in 2015, that’s something Flowers and Sale have worked on lately, trying to get the 26-year-old to be more unpredictable with his pitches to make that guessing game even more difficult.

“It's not easy,” Ventura said. “… You pick something and hopefully it's right and if it's not you're not going to have a very good chance to hit it.”

Lucas Giolito relieved to be able to shed No. 1 pitching prospect label

Lucas Giolito relieved to be able to shed No. 1 pitching prospect label

GLENDALE, AZ — You don’t need a scale to see that Lucas Giolito lost some weight in the offseason. As he walks around Camelback Ranch, he just seems lighter. These pounds were shedded thanks to a certain label that has been detached from his name and his being.

“Lucas Giolito, number-one pitching prospect in baseball” is no more.

“Definitely. Big time relief. I carried that title for a while,” Giolito told NBC Sports Chicago. “It was kind of up and down. I was (ranked) 1 at one point. I dropped. I always paid attention to it a little bit moving through the minor leagues.”

Which for any young hurler is risky business. The “best pitching prospect” designation can mess with a pitcher’s psyche and derail a promising career. Giolito was walking a mental tightrope reading those rankings, but after making it back to the majors last season with the White Sox and succeeding, the moniker that seemed to follow him wherever he went has now vanished.

“Looking back on it, that stuff is pretty cool," Giolito said. "It can pump you up and make you feel good about yourself, but in the end the question is, what are you going to do at the big league level? Can you contribute to a team? I’m glad that I finally have the opportunity to do that and all that other stuff is in the rear view."

This wasn’t the case when the White Sox acquired Giolito from the Washington Nationals in the Adam Eaton trade in December 2016. When he arrived at spring training last year, he was carrying around tons of extra baggage in his brain that was weighing him down. Questions about his ability and makeup weren’t helping as he tried living up to such high expectations.

“Yeah, I’d say especially with the trade coming off 2016 where I didn’t perform well at all that year," Giolito said. "I got traded over to a new organization, I still have this label on me of being a top pitching prospect while I’m going to a new place, I’m trying to impress people but at the same time I had a lot of things off mechanically I was trying to fix. Mentally, I was not in the best place as far as pitching went. It definitely added some extra pressure that I didn’t deal with well for a while."

How bad was it for Giolito? Here are some of the thoughts that were scrambling his brain during spring training and beyond last season.

“I saw I wasn’t throwing as hard. I was like, ’Where did my velocity go?’ Oh, it’s my mechanics. My mechanics are bad. I need to fix those,” Giolito said. “Then I’m trying to make adjustments. Why can’t I make this adjustment? It compounds. It just builds and builds and builds and can weigh on you a ton. I was 22 turning 23 later in the year. I didn’t handle it very well. I put a lot of pressure on myself to fix all these different things about my performance, my pitching and trying to do it all in one go instead of just relaxing and remembering, ‘Hey, what am I here for? Why do I play the game?’”

Still, pitching coach Don Cooper wanted to see what he had in his young prospect. So last February, he scheduled him to make his White Sox debut against the Cubs in front of a packed house in Mesa.

“It was kind of like a challenge," Giolito said. "They fill the stadium over there. I’m like, ‘Alright here we go."

Giolito gave up one run, three hits, walked one and struck out two in two innings against the Cubs that day.

“I pitched OK," he said. "I think I gave up a home run to Addison Russell. At the same time, I remember that game like I was forcing things. I might have pitched okay, but I was forcing the ball over the plate instead of relaxing, trusting and letting it happen which is kind of my mantra now. I’m saying that all the time, just having confidence in yourself and letting it go.”

A conversation in midseason with Charlotte Knights pitching coach Steve McCatty, suggested by Cooper, helped turn Giolito’s season around. The lesson for Giolito: whatever you have on the day you take the mound is what you have. Don’t force what isn’t there.

Fortunately for Giolito he has extra pitches in his arsenal, so if the curveball isn’t working (which it rarely did when he came up to the majors last season) he can go to his change-up, fastball, slider, etc.

It’s all part of the learning process, both on the mound and off it. Setbacks are coming. Giolito has already had his share. More will be on the way.

“You want to set expectations for yourself. You want to try and achieve great goals,” he said. “At the same time, it is a game of failure. There’s so much that you have to learn through experience whether that be success or failure. Especially going through the minor leagues. There’s so much that you have to learn and a lot of it is about development. It’s a crazy ride for sure.”

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Rick Hahn gives an update on the state of the White Sox rebuild

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SportsTalk Live Podcast: Rick Hahn gives an update on the state of the White Sox rebuild

In this episode of the SportsTalk Live Podcast, Danny Parkins (670 The Score), Chris Bleck (ESPN 1000) and Scott King (WGN Radio) join David Kaplan on the panel.

Ryan Pace’s offseason begins. Josh Sitton and Jerrell Freeman are gone, but what will he do with Kyle Fuller?

Plus, Rick Hahn joins Kap from Glendale, Ariz., to discuss the state of the White Sox rebuild, how tough it is to keep their best prospects in the minors and why Jose Abreu is so important for his young team?

Listen to the full episode at this link or in the embedded player below: