When it came time to talk about the tall, skinny kid who threw like nobody else, the debate wasn't much of a debate at all. The Kansas City Royals held the fourth pick in the 2010 draft. The top three picks were gimmes: Bryce Harper, Jameson Taillon and Manny Machado. Where they would go at No. 4 they weren't sure. They just knew it wouldn't be the tall, skinny kid.
Everyone in their draft room, recalled people privy to the conversation, agreed: Chris Sale was a relief pitcher. They loved what he did at Florida Gulf Coast, where he enfeebled batter after batter. They appreciated how hard he threw, the action on his changeup and slider, everything about him. They just weren't taking a reliever with the fourth pick in the draft. That would be like picking a utilityman.
The greatest beauty of Sale, who may well be the best left-handed pitcher alive not named Clayton Kershaw, is the very thing that frightened off the Royals and the eight teams that followed them: that he is a complete anomaly, a 6-foot-6, 180-pound pipe cleaner with an 82-inch wingspan, a delivery that looks wrong bordering on painful and a way of combining the two to make hitters look perpetually foolish. Now in his fifth big league season – yes, it's been that long – he is one of baseball's unquestioned aces, a high-inning, high-strikeout, high-groundball, low-walk, homer-scarce, left-handed monster. His success is an ode to the cooperation of scouts and major league personnel, and an organization that bucked conventional thinking to rely on its own wisdom.
Sale is baseball's worst nightmare: the player with no comps. Scouts like to give their bosses comparable players, if only to give a general outline as to who he resembles. Sale's closest comp may be Randy Johnson, who's only the biggest freak baseball ever has seen. Nobody else fits Sale's mixture of body, sidearm action and mean stuff. And so in the days leading up to the 2010 draft, his name came up in another room, as an answer to the question: "Who can help this team win now?"
Kenny Williams, now the Chicago White Sox’s president and then their general manager, wanted help for what ended up an ill-fated playoff push. Someone pulled up video of Sale, though the White Sox, picking at No. 13, didn’t expect him to drop to them. Only the Royals skipped past him, as did others because of the body or arm action or maybe both. Kids named Barret Loux (Arizona) and Karsten Whitson (San Diego) and Deck McGuire (Toronto) went ahead of Sale. He is the classic draft second-guess, every team jealous that Chicago guessed right.
The White Sox's front office and evaluators used slow-motion video of Sale's delivery to assess different potential danger areas: where his arm sat at foot strike, how well he cleared it, where it was upon landing. That allayed fears. Pitching coach Don Cooper, respected across the sport for his historically healthy rotations, broke down the same video of Sale and gave his seal of approval. As long as the White Sox could get Sale on board with their shoulder-intensive exercise program – and he has proven among the team's most diligent with maintenance work – they believed his arm would hold up despite not looking the part.
"Given the upside and the impact he could have," said Rick Hahn, now the White Sox's GM, "it was a risk we were willing to take."
And one, it turns out, well worth taking. After debuting as a reliever for the last two months of 2010 and sticking in the role the next season, Sale has spent 2012-13 as a starter, made a pair of All-Star teams, received Cy Young votes, averaged more than a strikeout an inning over 406 1/3 frames and left hitters more confused than anyone.
The scary part: Only now is he truly unleashing his full arsenal. In an effort to save his arm from excessive wear and tear, Sale is throwing far more changeups than he has at any point in his career – nearly 30 percent of his pitches in his first three starts, compared to less than 14 percent in his first season as a starter. His fastball and slider proved such great weapons that he treated them as security blankets; the evolution of the changeup is simply another step for the 25-year-old in his quest to grow even further past the rap hung on him in college.
"I've never put too much thought into what other people think," Sale said. "It either happens or doesn't. There were guys who weren't supposed to pitch in the big leagues who have long careers. You have guys drafted in the 30th round that become perennial All-Stars and lead teams. You can't pay attention to what everyone else is saying. Be your own guy."
He is very much that. Sale isn't the sort to embrace his own success, especially numerically. Sale said he never looks at his statistics until the end of a season. He worries about letting his ERA get into his head. Even after the year ends, the advanced metrics that put him up there with Kershaw and the rest of the best pitchers in the game don't resonate.
"All I know I've got to do is give up less runs than we score," Sale said. "I don't care about anything else. Not the numbers. Not the ISPFMLBLSSRs and whatever else Brian Kenny has come up with to define what makes a good player or not."
Reminded the numbers love him, Sale said: "I don't love them back."
Nobody said love needed to go both ways. So long as his arm keeps pumping two-seam fastballs in the mid-90s and grants him the confidence to throw changeups to left-handed hitters, Sale could profess his love for the Gatorade cooler in the dugout, and nobody would flinch.
"He wants to be great," Hahn said. "He wants to be that No 1. He wants to be out there for all nine. He has embraced that."
As the White Sox rebuild, Hahn can at least take solace in that. It's a luxury to know in a game against the defending champion Red Sox in Boston, with the great Jon Lester on the mound, Chicago can come into the game as favorites because Sale is pitching. He'll do so Thursday night, looking to bump his record to 4-0 and lower his ERA from 2.66.
In the meantime, a 24-year-old infielder will continue playing at Triple-A, where he's hitting .224 with a .637 OPS. His name is Christian Colon. The Royals took him with the fourth overall pick. If he ever makes it to the major leagues, scouts believe he'll be a utilityman.
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