Talent is only the half of it for White Sox left-hander Chris Sale, who has appeared at the All-Star Game every year since he became a starting pitcher four seasons ago.
Sale’s talent stands out even to the occasional fan, but it’s that high motor and those lofty ambitions that set him apart, Sox pitching coach Don Cooper said. How good is he? Sale leads the American League with 157 strikeouts, he tied Pedro Martinez’ record of eight straight games with 10 or more Ks and owns a 2.72 ERA — 1.76 over his last 12 starts.
And it looks as though he’s still climbing, toward a bar Sale set high. He is by no means content.
“God has gifted this kid with some serious gifts,’’ said Cooper said, who is awed by Sale’s talent and inspired by his commitment to greatness. Cooper sees the daily work Sale puts in, how he ramped up his offseason regimen with swimming workouts and whatever else is required to maintain strength and endurance in a rail-thin 6-6 frame that teammate Jeff Samardzija described as “one solid muscle.’’
“He has set the bar very high for himself,’’ Cooper said. “Higher and higher he’s pushing it. And because this kid wants to be good, now I’ve got the bar really high, and that’s a big statement for me to make.’’
A day after expressing concerns about Sale pitching in the All-Star Game on two days rest, Cooper was no doubt relieved when AL manager Ned Yost changed his plan and told reporters in Cincinnati Sale would only pitch in an emergency Tuesday night.
Cooper’s top responsibility in handling Sale is to keep him healthy, he said.
“He’s an All-Star and it’s an honor for him, our organization and anybody who is a fan of his,’’ Cooper said. “But I kind of dig what he’s doing every five or six days and I don’t want anything to get in the way of that.”
White Sox fans and fans of pitching are digging what Sale is doing. His outings have been so good of late – he has struck out 131 and walked 13 over 92 innings during his last 12 starts – that double-digit strikeouts have become commonplace.
“Against the Cubs [Saturday] he punched out 10 and walked one guy [while allowing one run over seven innings] and you know what? I’ve seen him better.’’
“He’s the closest thing to Randy Johnson that you’ve seen in a long time,’’ Cubs manager Joe Maddon said.
Sale finished third in Cy Young voting last season after going 12-4 with a 2.17 ERA and 208 strikeouts over 174 innings. His 10.75 strikeouts per nine innings were his best as a starter and second only to Clayton Kershaw (10.86) in the major leagues. This year Sale’s strikeout rate is at 11.8.
“Now all of a sudden the growth continues and he takes it to a new level and adds in mega-strikeouts,’’ Cooper said.
“He’s Secretariat. He’s the thoroughbred. If he continues on this path for three or four more years you know where he’s at? Greatness. Greatness.”
From a difficult angle, Sale throws an above average fastball, slider and changeup with command of each one. That pretty much sums up the “what makes Sale good” discussion.
One rough patch over his last start in April (eight earned runs over three innings against the Twins) and his first start in May (five earned runs over 5 1/3 against the Tigers) is the only smudge on this season. He was throwing more changeups and fewer sliders, then, sliders on only 13 percent of his pitches against the Tigers and 15 percent against the Twins.
“He had two bad games in a row and everybody was going ‘what’s going on?’ and it was big news with Chris Sale,’’ Cooper said. “We had to make an adjustment. The other team was swinging early and they had basically two pitches to think about. So we started moving the fastball around to both sides of the plate and added the breaking ball. So now they have three things to think about.’’
Ryan Dempster, for one, marveled at Sale’s changeup after watching him face the Cubs.
“He never leaves it up,’’ Dempster said.
“His changeup has always been freaking good,’’ Cooper said, “but he’s getting better and better feel for it because of experience.’’
Cooper is a big fan because of Sale’s talent, work ethic and makeup.
“This kid has his stuff together,’’ Cooper said. “He was a mature kid [as a rookie]. A smart kid, listening kid, a watching kid. A didn’t-get-too-big-for-his-britches kid. He’s real. He’s down to earth. He has many, many great qualities and as a coach I’m just lucky to be around him.’’