Maybe it shouldn’t have come off as a revelation, maybe it was obvious. Of course, Chris Sale would feel amped up in his first year in Boston. Who wouldn't want to try to make a strong first impression?
Yet, when Sale admitted as much publicly in January at Winter Weekend, it still felt a surprise. Because he looked completely unmoved a year ago. And he was so good for so long.
Being too hyped provides a reasonable explanation for Sale's performance drop at the end of the season: he was worn out after he sprinted out of the gate. Everyone seems to have settled on that explanation, it should be noted, for Sale’s drop-off. But the lefty is not the type to come out and directly say, “I was gassed.” Not because he’s disconnected from reality, but because he doesn’t want to perceived as an excuse-maker.
But look: if you get tired, you can’t repeat your delivery.
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“Repeating your mechanics is probably the most important thing about pitching,” Sale said at spring training in a general discussion about his work. “If you have to practice from five different arm slots, that’s a lot of things to remember. So, the more you can kind of do the same thing over and over with the same grip, the same foot — start, landing spot, the whole nine. That’s when you can kind of start sharpening your, getting better. Just trying to attack.”
Sale faced the Yankees five times in 2017 and went 0-3. Did that familiarity hurt him? He won’t go there.
“It’s part of the gig. I’m not the first person to ever face the same team five or six times a year, and at the same time, as many times as they’re adjusting to me, I should be adjusting to them,” Sale said. “I just think you got to be professional. It doesn’t matter if you face 'em five times. You get crushed the last four times, you take the ball that fifth time expecting to win a ball game. For me it’s not exactly who I’m facing or what batter’s in the box, it’s more kind of just me and Sandy [Leon] or me and Christian [Vazquez] kind of just working together and trying to get through the game.”
Still, what felt so remarkable about Sale’s small admission that he wanted to impress in his first year in Boston is that, more than anyone in recent Red Sox history, he did not look like a person concerned with perception. There was never a sign in his body language, never a hint. He appeared impervious to the big, bad, Boston spotlight — in no small part because he dominated.
Don’t let the end of 2017 erase your memory of how damn good Sale was (17-8, 2.90 ERA, 308 strikeouts. 0.970 WHIP), and for how long it looked as if he would win the American League Cy Young award. He was not Pedro Martinez, but the electricity of his starts provided the closest thing to Pedro yet.
We knew Sale has always carried himself with a certain cool and calm (aside from one infamous incident with the White Sox where he cut up jerseys behind closed doors). But to hear what was brewing underneath, virtually undetected — well, how does one learn that? How does one so thoroughly avoid wearing their emotions on their sleeve?
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In Sale’s case, it seems he considered the alternative.
“You guys would have chewed me up and spit me out if that was the case,” Sale said smiling. “When I came in here, I was really, really focused on just kind of going about my business. I didn’t want to bother anybody. I didn’t want to get in the way. I wanted to come in, work hard, get my things done and do it at 100 percent...I’m going to do what I got to do and try not to mess with anybody else.
“It’s always easy to judge from outside looking in. But once you put the shoes on and you actually walk in someone else’s shoes, it’s a completely different story. So yeah I mean, you know what to expect [in year two in Boston]. It's a big-city market. Big media outlet. Fans are very passionate, high expectations, and honestly, I enjoy that. That's kind of what we show up for, that's what we work for. When you have fans coming to the park every day expecting you guys to win, it puts little sense of urgency on it. I enjoy it, it brings energy to the park.”
Sale gets recognized around town. The Red Sox experience is fully upon him.
“People come up. It’s cool, everyone is really respectful,” Sale said. “That’s the fun thing about all this, is even when people see you or do recognize you, it’s always like, ‘Oh my gosh, we love the Red Sox. We’re season-ticket holders,’ and as much as they thank me for their time, I thank them for theirs. Because without them, I don’t have a job. And I’m basically nothing. It’s nice. Obviously, Boston fans are scattered everywhere. I mean we go to Seattle, and there’s 15 people outside of our hotel. That’s fun, you know? That’s part of the passion and the fun and the energy that they bring for us. That helps us go out there and perform for them.”
He is one of the more fascinating Red Sox to listen to, in part because he’s so skilled at his craft. But don’t expect Sale to all of a sudden be in the spotlight more, though, or turn into a media darling, a la Pedro. When Sale speaks, he’s an intriguing listen, but he’s not necessarily going to start speaking a ton more in his second year. Which is, in a small way, a shame. But authenticity is what matters, and if the authentic Sale is what he has presented — and we have no evidence contrary — then that is what fans or media should want.
“I would say, yeah, that’s not my really style. I’m not big on being seen, being heard,” Sale said. “I think you need [people who are more outgoing like] that. Obviously, that’s a fun characteristic to have around and have on your team and have in your corner. But for me, I’d rather get the work done, do the work and kind of enjoy it afterwards."
As has been detailed often this spring, he has a plan to gradually build up this year so that he’s doing the work even better in 2018.
“I think everybody has a responsibility as a professional in general to bring something more to the table every year,” Sale said. “And if you’re doing the same thing over and over, it’s going to get stagnant. I think not only in life, but especially in sports, no matter whether it’s good, indifferent. You need to try to bring not only your best, but something different. Maybe something more. And if you’re not, if you’re not shooting to be better, you’re kind of cheating yourself and you’re cheating your teammates.
"It’s not only myself, but it’s everybody. Everybody needs to make another step, try to be better than they were last year.”