Chris Sale's first year as a starter with the White Sox was thoroughly impressive, with the 23-year-old lefty compiling a 3.05 ERA with 192 strikeouts in 192 innings. He earned a pitcher of the month honor, threw an inning in the All-Star Game and finished sixth in AL Cy Young voting.
So what's the next thing for Sale to accomplish, given his breakout 2012 season?
"No hitters," quipped manager Robin Ventura.
"For him, he's getting stronger, I think he understands what it takes to go the full year," Ventura added in a more serious tone. "But we're happy with his progress. He's a talented kid, we're lucky to have him and just keep him healthy."
Sale slowed down in August and September last season, throwing 68 innings over 11 starts with a 3.84 ERA with 12 home runs and 20 walks allowed. From April through July, Sale had a 2.61 ERA with seven home runs and 31 walks allowed in 124 innings covering 18 starts and one short-lived relief appearance.
The slender left-hander said he added 15 pounds in the offseason, with the gain mainly concentrated in his legs. He said he's eating better and working on his core strength, all in an effort to be as good as he was in the first four months of 2012 throughout the entire 2013 season.
"Last season, I felt like I kinda fizzled out late," Sale said. "Those are the most important innings. It doesn't matter how good you are in May, April, June, July -- August and September is when it's really crunch time, and that's when I want to be at my best. I just want to build enough strength to be at my best at the end of the season and kind of be that guy that I was at the beginning of the season."
Sale's average fastball velocity dipped below 92 miles per hour in September, which statistically was his worst month of the season. In six starts in the season's final full month, Sale allowed 16 runs with 37 strikeouts, 12 walks and four home runs allowed in 35 innings, good for a 4.11 ERA. Opponents had a .785 OPS against Sale as the White Sox stumbled to a second-place finish.
"There were starts where I felt great and I'd go out there and give up five or six runs," Sale explained. "There were times where I didn't feel so good and those would be some of my better games. So you don't really pinpoint this or that on production or outcome of the game, you kinda go based on feeling. I want to feel at my peak later on in the season and kinda be able to see the season through and make all my starts and be the guy I need to be for this team."
Ventura recently said he expects to hold Sale back at the start of spring training games, which runs a week longer this year due to the World Baseball Classic. The White Sox will continue to treat their most prized pitcher with care, doing whatever they can to keep him on the mound and off the disabled list. Last year, that meant pushing a few of his starts back or skipping them entirely.
While Washington opted to shut down their own burgeoning ace in Stephen Strasburg late last season, the White Sox didn't go that route. But the intent of both team's strategies were the same.
Addison Reed played with both -- at San Diego State with Strasburg, and in the White Sox organization with Sale -- and the closer explained how imperative it is to have someone like Sale or Strasburg for a full season, even if it means going to great lengths to do so.
"Those guys are pretty important to a team. They could make or break a whole season," Reed said. "I think with them being smart with Sale, that will do nothing but help us out. As long as we keep him healthy, I think we have a pretty good chance."