Don’t get Don Cooper going.
“Listen, when I think of Chris Sale, he’s in the top freaking five of all of baseball in pitching, and we’re looking for flaws?’’ he said.
Well, “looking for flaws’’ might be overstating it. At SoxFest on Friday, I had asked the White Sox pitching coach if he had identified anything that might explain why Sale’s 2015 first half was so different from his second. The lefthander was 8-4 with a 2.72 earned-run average before the All-Star break and 5-7 with a 4.33 ERA after. Opponents hit .206 against him in the first half and .266 in the second.
“He’s a four-time All Star,’’ Cooper said. “I’m hoping he gets to be a five-time All Star because that means he’s pitching his ass off.
“He had individual bad games in the second half, games where holy (cow), they dropped an eight-spot on him, to really make it look like, oh, it was a horrible second half. He had some games that were lemons. There were a few things going on with that that I’d rather not even talk about. Things that might have been going on.’’
By this time, little pieces of chewing tobacco were starting to collect on his Cooper’s lower lip, which I assume happens when you’re making an impassioned defense of your ace and/or fillibustering. You can’t blame Cooper. The Sox weren’t bad last season because of Sale. They avoided abject awfulness because of him.
He struck out 274 batters, setting the Sox’ single-season record. When that number came up Friday, Cooper finally started talking about concrete ways for Sale to make it to the end of the season without the “lemons’’ that soured things a bit.
“I’m looking for Chris Sale to be a bit more economical with his pitches,’’ he said. “Let’s get ’em out quicker. Let’s get strikeouts when need them. Let’s not try to strike everybody out with the first pitch, second pitch and third pitch. He did that last year. And he got the White Sox’ record that had stood for 107 years.
“I’m not chasing strikeout records. I’m chasing improvement in efficiency with all of his pitches that he can stay in a game even a little longer. With all those strikeouts, he ran the pitch total up sometimes. I’d rather get the ninth inning out of him instead of just eight. I’d rather get the eighth inning instead of just seven.’’
When Sale sat down with Sox general manager Rick Hahn at the end of last season, he said he had six or seven more starts in him. So fatigue wasn’t the issue – not that there was an issue!
“Yeah, I just stunk,’’ Sale said, laughing. “… No, that’s the name of the game. It doesn’t matter how you start, it’s how you finish. It’s something I need to clean up and do a better job of.
“That’s the most important part, too – being strong at the end of the season. You get into the playoffs, it doesn’t matter. You’re pretty much starting from scratch. You better be ready to go when that comes around or you’ll be disappointed.’’
In the past four seasons, Sale has finished sixth, fifth, third and fourth, respectively, in American League Cy Young Award voting. He’s got the thing surrounded. It’s time to win one, though you’ll never hear talk of individual awards from him.
“It’s not really why you sign up to play the game,’’ he said. “Individual awards and statistics only go so far in a team game. This is about getting a trophy at the end and not getting a trophy for yourself.’’
Sale is close with Tyler Flowers, but the Sox cut ties with the catcher in the offseason. It means Sale will have to learn a new catcher, either Dioner Navarro or Alex Avila or both. It’s hard to believe that will be an issue.
He’s so talented, it’s hard to believe anything will be an issue this season. He’s due to make $11.7 million in 2016, which pales in comparison to what other pitchers of his abilities are making, but he said he doesn’t worry about such things. So check envy off the list of things that might get in his way this season.
And last season? Don’t get Cooper going.
“He was still really good,’’ he said. “Ask any hitter that came to the plate. He had some games that didn’t work out, but name me a guy in either league that doesn’t have games like that. There are none. I’ll take Chris Sale just the way he is.’’