The best show in baseball is tucked away on the South side of Chicago, where it's lived the past four years in a half-filled stadium, playing in front of the smallest TV audience in the league, striving for meaning and finding none.
“I've never played in a meaningful game in my career,” the best show in baseball recently mused about his lack of playoff experience.
Despite the lack of trappings, no one who lays eyes on the best show in baseball mistakes it for something else. At six feet and six inches, with only 180 pounds to stretch over the whole length, his construction is as towering as he is slight. After a career of relative durability he still looks brittle enough to break apart during his pronounced delivery recoil. The best show in baseball is a pitcher who is as rawly powerful and overwhelming—with a two-seamer heater that snips in at the mid-90s and a streetsweeping slider–as he is deceptive, pulling the ball behind his head and offering knees and elbows in return. He's as dedicated to changing speeds (on everything) and jamming hitters as getting them out in front enough to toss them directly into the dirt. And after every year, the best show in baseball gets a bit better.
Chris Sale was once an unremarkable freshman reliever at a small Florida college, was once a three-quarter-delivery left-handed draft prospect who didn't have a slider, and was once part of a crop of stud relievers—along with Daniel Bard, Neftali Feliz, Aaron Crow and Aroldis Chapman—who were to shift to the starting rotation in 2012. Sale alone made the move successfully. A month into his precocious career as a starter, concerns about elbow soreness and his mechanics prompted the Sox to pull him from the rotation. After making a single bullpen appearance with a murderous gaze affixed on his face, Sale placed the most WARP-adding phone call in franchise history, and profanely berated his general manager until he was returned to his rightful place. His advance through every stage of his development is its own small miracle.
He burst onto the scene in 2012 with an absurd, biting slider and low-to-mid-90s heat that featured two-seamer action more often than not. There were flashes of a change that could be even better. Left-handers, naturally hopeless against his bizarre three-quarter delivery, hit just .230/.265/.337 against him, yet he entered 2013 discussing an expansion of his arsenal against them, and using his changeup more. The next year they hit .133/.205/.155 against him, and a lefty hasn't taken him deep since. The next season was marred by the first real DL stint of his career, but his strikeout rate eclipsed 30 percent for the first time, and his pristine ERA (2.17) earned him end-of-season award attention despite his throwing nowhere near enough innings.
Last season began with a broken foot (in a bizarre off-field accident he never fully explained), and was peppered with a total inability to figure out the Twins, back-to-back starts with seven runs allowed, and the worst ERA of his career. Through it all, Sale struck out a franchise-record 274 batters in 209 innings, maintained an average fastball over 94 mph all season, and released a hellish midseason torrent on the league that reached historical levels. In an eight-start streak stretching from late May through June, Sale flashed a terrifying next level, striking out 97 hitters over 60 innings and reaching double digits in each start, walking just nine and holding opponents to a .172/.211/.270 batting line. The streak of games with double-digit whiffs tied a record set by Pedro Martinez. The White Sox managed to win half of these games.
Their season, and a 3.41 final ERA for Sale, were disappointments, but for those of us who analyze pitching by starting with strikeouts and walks, Sale was close to perfecting the art. His 2015 campaign was one of four seasons in history with more than 11.5 K/9, fewer than two walks per nine, and at least 200 innings thrown. Clayton Kershaw had one those seasons himself in 2015, while the other two belong to—who else—Pedro Martinez.
Sale is not as good as Kershaw (he's second to him in ERA- among active pitchers, after all), he hasn't won a Cy Young award since becoming a starter in 2012, and he hasn't undeniably deserved one either. While he's been a superstar since the moment he began making major-league starts, Sale has also provided a demonstration of the breaking point of a superstar; the limits of one’s ability to transcend a bad defense, to drag a doomed team above its destiny. The duality of his K/BB supremacy and career-worst runs allowed numbers just happened to come while he was playing in front of the worst defense in the AL.
The best show in baseball is about as anonymous as a top-five starting pitcher could be. He has been the subject of some calls to #FreeSale by trading him to a contender or a bigger market, but the White Sox are too generically underwhelming to even attract that kind of pity attention most days. This is not to detract from Sale's credentials but explain why it’s even an argument whether or not Sale is best show in baseball.
Have you ever seen Chris Sale? If you have, have you seen anything else like him? Other pitchers impress with their mastery of their pitches, their command, their wisdom and strategy. Sale is terror; a presentation of the impossible. A collection of things that shouldn't exist, working at full force and in concert with one another.
We root for the relatable everyman, maxing out his meager abilities with his labor and craft visible with every pitch, but we gawk at Sale, whose bizarre build could have no other purpose than to make it difficult to hit what he's throwing. That his UCL probably should have popped years ago is part of the appeal. He shouldn't be modeled, or emulated, and even the next Sale that comes along would probably have a saner organization put him in the bullpen where pitchers too volatile to exist are kept.
The White Sox are going to try again to scrap together a supporting cast that will drag Sale to the playoffs, or vice versa, and offer him the spotlight his high-wattage talent deserves. Given what the projections foretell for them, and what their recent history suggests, they will fail again. But they still have Chris Sale, scheduled for 30-33 more starts, and when you can trot out the best show in baseball that often, it's plenty.
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