NEW YORK -- Chris Sale has pitched on a restriction-free policy for several months now, and he wouldn’t have it any other way.
Whereas he entered last year’s Midsummer Classic with questions about whether or not he’d pitch even an inning, the White Sox starter has fewer constraints this season. Sale is expected to pitch the second and third innings for the American League in Tuesday’s All-Star Game, which begins at 7 p.m. CT.
Pitching without restriction in the exhibition is just more evidence the franchise is carrying out its plan to treat Sale as a regular starting pitcher after it helped him manage his way through his first season as a starter in 2012.
Through 17 starts this season, Sale is averaging 109 pitches per game, per baseball-reference.com, an increase of six per start from 2012. He also has matched or surpassed his 2012 season-high of 119 pitches thrown in a game four times this season.
“I love it,” Sale said. “That’s what I’m here for. Starting pitchers, you take the ball every fifth day and you want to get as deep into games as you can. I like the fact that I have a little bit higher pitch count. It’s kind of my game now. I’m very fortunate for that and very lucky, them putting their trust and faith in me and being able to go out there and handle my business.”
Sale’s win-loss total might not show it, but business is good.
Even though the two-time All-Star is throwing more pitches he’s throwing harder than he did last season. His overall fastball velocity is up to 92.9 mph this season per fangraphs.com. Last season, Sale averaged 91.6 mph.
But he has thrown even harder since June 1, with an average velocity of 93.5 mph, per texasleaguers.com.
That has translated into an increase in Sale’s strikeouts, as he has 131 in 120 innings. Last season he whiffed 192 batters in 192 innings.
“His stuff is unbelievable this year,” fellow All-Star and White Sox teammate Jesse Crain said. “I don’t know if last year he was first year starting and maybe kind of taking it easy because he didn’t want to blow out too early. This season you see the way he’s been going out there and throwing the ball, throwing up in the mid-90s almost like he was in the bullpen. It’s impressive.”
Sale attributes his arm strength to a solid mid-start routine between himself and the athletic trainers and the conditioning staff.
The White Sox have a strong history of keeping pitchers healthy under the tutelage of athletic trainers Herm Schneider and Brian Ball and conditioning coach Allen Thomas. Sale also has proven himself to manager Robin Ventura when he spoke up in May to say his shoulder didn’t feel up to par, resulting in a missed start. Their strong communication and Sale’s work ethic makes Ventura certain he can let Sale go longer.
“Very confident,” Ventura said. “He’s more mature. He’s a year further along from being a reliever. He gets the gist of it and how to prepare. Even (Tuesday), let him go out there and pitch and have some fun and let people see his talent.”
Sale’s win total might be limited by the White Sox poor overall play, but the talent can’t be overlooked.
All the advanced metrics suggest he is a better pitch this season at 7-9 than when he won 17 games last season and finished sixth in the AL Cy Young Award vote. His ERA is down, so is his fielding independent pitching and his walks per nine, while his strikeouts have increased. But for almost two months, Sale couldn’t buy a victory as the White Sox offense had difficulty scoring when he took the mound.
Sale might be frustrated, but he seems to have good perspective, especially because he knows he has been given the chance to stay in games longer and control the outcome as best he can.
“That’s how sports is,” Sale said. “The best team doesn’t always win. The best guy doesn’t always win. It’s crazy. Sometimes you can go out there with the best stuff you’ve ever had and can lose a game and come in on a day where your arm is hanging a little bit, you have your C-stuff almost, and you manage a win out of it. I just try to not put too much thought into it. Keep grinding, keep going out and doing everything I can and see how it shakes out.”