BOSTON — In Boston, Red Sox legends are made by the unforgettable and epic moments that define a career. And this is especially true with pitchers.
From Luis Tiant to Roger Clemens, from Pedro Martinez to Curt Schilling and from Josh Beckett to Jon Lester, all of them have moments of dominance that survive long after their careers have come to a close. Chris Sale doesn’t have those moments yet but he certainly has the credentials and statistics to be considered among the greatest of the great.
In a 4-2 win that moved the Red Sox to 36 over .500 for the first time in nearly 40 years (Oct. 1, 1978), Sale had a lively fastball and an absolutely devastating slider. He threw 110 pitches, allowing just six hits over seven scoreless innings, striking out another 12 batters, bringing his MLB-leading strikeout total to 188 over 20 starts. He is averaging 12.5 strikeouts per nine innings.
“He’s on top of his game,” Cora raved after the game. “Physically, he’s in a good place. It looks like the last seven, eight (starts), it’s been effortless.”
In a win that moved the Red Sox to 36 over .500 for the first time in nearly 40 years (Oct. 1, 1978), Sale (10-4, 2.23 ERA, 0.899 WHIP) had a lively fastball and an absolutely devastating slider. He threw 110 pitches, allowing just six hits over seven scoreless innings, striking out another 12 batters, bringing his MLB-leading strikeout total to 188 over 20 starts. He is averaging 12.5 strikeouts per nine innings.
When discussing the last 20 years, any talk of pitching superiority begins with Pedro Martinez, and rightly so. Schilling, Beckett and Lester are also worthy of mention, mostly because of their performances on the postseason stage. But when talking about the post-Roger Clemens era starting in 1997, No. 45 is unquestionably the gold standard. And Martinez’s 2000 season is the most dominant in the game since the pitcher’s mound was lowered after the 1968 season.
To refresh: Martinez went 18-6 with a 1.74 ERA and a ridiculously microscopic 0.737 WHIP, the lowest for a starting pitcher in MLB history. Martinez won his second straight Cy Young and somehow the Red Sox missed the playoffs that season. Martinez’s six-year run from 1998 (his first in Boston) through 2003 is what earned him a place in Cooperstown.
Fast forward to 2017 and the first year of Chris Sale. The left-hander acquired by Dave Dombrowski in a Dec. 2016 trade with the White Sox started out on fire. He was just 2-2 but his WHIP was .745 and his ERA was 1.38 over six starts. He finished with 17-8 with 308 strikeouts and finished second to Corey Kluber in Cy Young voting.
This year, the left-hander making his 200th career start Wednesday, is not just the ace of the best team in baseball, he’s putting up historic numbers that rival any pitcher in the modern era.
According to Elias, the MLB record for most strikeouts in a player’s first 200 starts was held by Pedro Martinez (1,600), but Sale has already passed that mark (1,616 Ks as a starter).
This year, under the new direction of Alex Cora and pitching coach Dana LeVangie, Sale is pacing himself and it’s paying big dividends. In six previous starts before Wednesday, Sale was 4-1 with a 1.10 ERA. He has recorded at least 11 strikeouts with only one walk in each of his previous four starts, the longest such streak in MLB history. Cora has compared Sale to another lanky, flame-throwing lefty he faced over the course of his career: Randy Johnson.
“He reminds me a lot of Randy Johnson back in the day,” Cora told MassLive’s Chris Cotillo last week. “Right now, the way he’s throwing the ball after we gave him those off days. Throwing 100 [mph], with that slider.”
Anyone who has watched Sale pitch agrees 100 percent with Cora. But again, for the purposes of this discussion, Sale’s legacy will be defined by Red Sox standards. And the Martinez standard is the one Red Sox fans would love to see him match.
Entering Wednesday, Sale had not allowed a homer in his last 44 innings, the longest such streak of his career. He was named AL Pitcher of the Month for June with a 3-2 mark, to go with a 1.76 ERA and a 0.76 WHIP, and a .154 opponent AVG (22-for-143) over six starts.
His 176 strikeouts this season (19 starts) are the 4th-most by a Red Sox prior to the All-Star break: Roger Clemens-186 in 1988, Pedro Martinez-184 in 1999, Sale-178 in 2017.
Among Red Sox with at least 100 innings pitched before the All-Star break, Sale’s 0.89 WHIP and .181 opponent AVG are the 2nd-lowest ever (Pedro Martinez: 0.77 WHIP, .164 AVG in 2000 see above for the perspective).
Sale’s 12.98 K/9.0 IP ratio this season also trails only Martinez’s 13.02 mark in 2001 for the highest among that group. As it stands now, Sale possesses the highest K/9.0 IP ratio (10.75) and K/BB ratio (5.19) in the Live Ball Era (min. 1,000.0 IP). He has recorded at least 12 strikeouts 32 times since the start of 2012, 14 more than any other pitcher in that time (Scherzer-18).
All of those numbers speak to Sale’s qualifications as an ace on par with the Kershaws, Scherzers and Klubers. But there’s something missing from his resume, that something keeps him from being put in the Pedro category just yet.
Pedro threw five perfect innings of relief with the season on the line in Game 5 in Cleveland in 1999. Three months earlier, he set the baseball world on fire when he overpowered National League hitters at the All-Star Game at Fenway and came away with the MVP trophy. On Sept. 10 that same year, he allowed a Chili Davis homer but nothing else, striking out 17 and throwing the most dominant game in Red Sox history that wasn’t a perfect game (And yes, that includes the two 20-K games by Roger Clemens). Pedro beat Clemens in Game 3 of the ALCS that year at Fenway, Boston’s only win against the Yankees in that series. Pedro electrified Red Sox fans with big moments they will always remember.
To Cora’s analogy, Randy Johnson was the most feared pitcher of his era. His moment came in the 2001 World Series when he relieved Curt Schilling and Miguel Batista in Game 7 against the Yankees. With the immense pressure on, he retired all four batters he faced, earning the win in the decisive game when Arizona scored twice against Mariano Rivera in the bottom of the ninth. He was on the mound when he won a one-game playoff against the Angels in 1995, allowing three hits and a run in a complete game win to propel the Mariners to the postseason for the first time ever.
That’s what Sale needs. And the way the Red Sox are clicking right now, the playoffs should not be a question. Sure, there could be a moment waiting in September if the Red Sox need a big win against the Yankees to help seal the division and home field advantage, or there could be a epic performance between now and October that mirrored Pedro in Sept. 99.
But like with the team itself, it’s all about the postseason. Sale will be the ace heading into the playoffs, looking for redemption of his forgettable maiden voyage into the postseason in 2017.
In his first start, he lasted just five innings in Game 1 against the Astros, allowing seven runs and nine hits over five innings in an 8-2 loss to Houston. In Game 4 at Fenway, it wasn’t much better, allowing only two runs and four hits over 4 2/3 innings, striking out six each time.
Until then, sit back and appreciate the greatness of Sale and what he’s been able to accomplish so far in under two seasons in Boston. That should be quite the appetizer for October.