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.
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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.
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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.
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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.”