It seems strange that Chris Sale — who set a White Sox franchise record for strikeouts in 2015 — would enter a game not looking to rack up forwards and backwards K’s.
But that was the plan on Wednesday, and Sale excelled with it. The lanky left-hander cruised through seven innings of work to push the White Sox to a 2-1 win over the Los Angeles Angels in front of 12,785 at U.S. Cellular Field.
This wasn’t a typically-dominant Sale start, complete with the deluge of swings and misses that’ve been staples for the ace left-hander last four years. He only struck out three — just the second time he’s had fewer than four strikeouts in at least seven innings of work — but held the Angels to just two hits, both ground ball singles off the bat of 2014 AL MVP outfielder Mike Trout.
“When I came out, I was like, Trout was 2-3 off me with two singles, and I feel like I beat him,” laughed Sale, nodding to Trout’s mega-superstar status.
But the Angels entered Wednesday striking out in just 15 percent of their collective plate appearances, the lowest rate in baseball. Sale talked during spring training about trying to be more efficient by letting opponents put the ball in play, but on Wednesday, he was essentially forced into it.
The result was Angels hitters peppering White Sox infielders and outfielders with soft-hit grounders and fly balls, none of which really seemed to pose much of a threat.
“With a team like that, to be honest with you, it doesn’t make sense to go out there and try to get strikeouts,” catcher Alex Avila said. “They put the ball in play and tend to have good at-bats. So you have to pick your spots. You can run yourself out of a game real quick. You can still pitch well but it could be a five inning game for him.”
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Sale tipped his cap to the White Sox defense, which he said helped get him an extra inning by making all the plays behind him.
At the least, that reliability is an improvement from last year’s group, which ranked at or near the bottom of baseball by just about every defensive evaluation, advanced or otherwise. It’s early in the season, and defensive metrics can be wonky in a small sample size, but the White Sox defense looks better to the eye and rates in the top seven in baseball by DRS and UZR.
Despite setting a franchise record for strikeouts and not issuing many walks or home runs, Sale had a career-worst 3.41 ERA last year. The additions of Austin Jackson, Todd Frazier and Brett Lawrie, as well as Adam Eaton’s move to right field, have already provided a major boost to the defense behind Sale.
Manager Robin Ventura said opposing teams, too, are bound to be more aggressive early in the count given Sale’s propensity to blow them away with two strikes.
“We do have a pretty good defense right now of guys being able to go get it as well as the approach of (opponents),” Ventura said, “You don't want to wait around too long because if you get yourself in a two-strike count, the odds go up of him punching you out rather you putting it in play.”
Even if Sale continues to focus on being more efficient and generating weak contact, the strikeouts are bound to come. He had nine in his masterful shutout of the Tampa Bay Rays last Friday. It’ll always be a big part of his game.
But Avila talked about working with Sale to dial things up when he needs a strikeout, but not focusing on getting one every at-bat. There will be games and situations in which Sale needs to reach back and keep the ball out of play; there will also be games like Wednesday in which that’s not entirely necessary.
“He’s going to get his strikeouts,” Avila said. “We’re not worried about that. It’s a matter of him being more efficient.”