After he found a piece of wood on which to knock, Chris Sale said Tuesday that the biggest difference for him this September is in how good he physically feels. Pitching coach Don Cooper said his biggest takeaway is in the improved numbers Sale has posted.
Either way, it’s clear that both men are pleased with the results of a somewhat questionable plan they put into place this spring that called for Sale to dial it back on the mound in order to ensure his longevity. With three or four starts left, Sale, whose next turn is Friday at Kansas City, has enjoyed perhaps the most successful post All-Star break run of his career. In the process, Sale has re-established himself as a contender for the American League Cy Young award.
“Listen, this wasn’t an easy decision going to the “hybrid,”” Cooper said. “You’re messing with one of the top guys in the game. If it don’t work, what the (heck) are you doing? What were you thinking about? But I kind of knew in my heart and my head that our biggest job is to keep him healthy and strong.”
Sale has finished in the top six in voting for the AL Cy Young award in each of the past four seasons. But September has never been a particularly strong month for Sale, whose 3.70 ERA in the month over the last four years is by far the highest of any on the calendar.
With that in mind, Cooper and Sale hatched a plan in spring to reduce stress on the five-time All-Star throughout the season in order to have his body in good shape were the White Sox to find themselves in a pennant race. Whether it was limiting his spring training innings, working at a lower velocity to induce contact -- they call it the “hybrid” -- or regulating sideline sessions, the intent was to minimize Sale’s workload to have him better positioned late in the season.
“When we sat down, it was more, ‘What’s going to be better for the long run?’” Sale said. “‘What’s going to get down the stretch better? What’s going to make everything collectively work better?’”
Sale said he “feels great right now.” He attributes it to not maxing out his effort on every pitch and in particular when he gets in trouble. So far, Sale has averaged 92.8 mph on his fastball this season, which is down from 94.5 in 2015, according to fangraphs.com. Inducing more contact has led to Sale throwing fewer pitches per inning -- he’s down to 15.11 this season from 16.02 in 2015.
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His numbers since the All-Star break would suggest Sale has benefitted from the plan; over his last 10 starts, Sale has a 2.47 ERA in 76 2/3 innings with 82 strikeouts and only 58 hits and 17 walks. Aside from 2014 when he missed five weeks in April and May with a flexor strain, Sale has never had a better 10-start stretch out of the All-Star break (he had a 1.85 ERA in 68 innings in 2014).
Another byproduct of the plan -- Sale is on pace to easily establish a career best for innings pitched. He set his previous high in 2013 when pitched 214 1/3 innings. This season, Sale is already at 201 2/3 innings.
“I’ve been able to be extended and filling up innings and that was the whole point of this was longevity and feeling good right now,” Sale said.
The plan hasn’t been 100 percent effective, Sale said. Pitching to more contact versus pitching for the strikeout leaves him more vulnerable as evidenced by Kendrys Morales’ solo homer on Sunday on an 89-mph two-seam fastball.
But Sale likes the end game. He’s pleased to have thrown only 40 more pitches than he had through 28 starts last season yet have already completed 14 more innings. He has his eyes set on the 230-inning mark.
“Live by the sword, die by the sword,” Sale said. “But I’ve also got guys to swing 2-0 with one out and roll into a double play. You take the pros with the cons. Obviously, you’re going to get roughed up here and there. But as a whole, I think it has worked out.”
Cooper likes the numbers as Sale could very well win his first Cy Young with a strong push.
Sale has been even better in his last five games, pitching at least eight innings with a 1.98 ERA. If he continues that, Cooper thinks he should take home the hardware. And Cooper believes he’s in a good position to be able to accomplish it.
“It’s to keep him strong from start to start, inning to inning, game to game,” Cooper said. “I think that all bears out right now.
“I think he’s in a stronger position and had a stronger second half than ever before.”