Monday, May 13, 2013
The new face of the White Sox
By Buster Olney
CHICAGO -- The back of Paul Konerko’s baseball card is impressive and Adam Dunn might finish with 500 homers. Addison Reed is an excellent young closer and Jake Peavy is a battler. All that said, the other White Sox know that Chris Sale has really become the guy on the team, manager Robin Ventura mused before the game.
Sale is the biggest difference-maker on the White Sox, the new face of the franchise, with a body and delivery that reminds some evaluators of Randy Johnson -- and Sunday night, he had Big Unit-type stuff.
I have been fortunate enough to cover two of the 23 perfect games thrown in major league history -- David Wells in 1998 and David Cone in 1999 -- and I thought I was seeing another Sunday night. Sale, pitching in short sleeves on a cold night, had overpowering stuff in the early innings, his fastball crowding right-handed hitters at 95 mph and his slider making their knees buckle.
He needed just 46 pitches to get through the first 15 outs, and by the time he finished the sixth inning with just 65 pitches, I’m sure that everybody working on the "Sunday Night Baseball" crew was digging out all of the necessary archival information on perfect games: The video of past White Sox perfect games, from Mark Buehrle’s gem to Phil Humber last year, to the video of Dallas Braden’s perfect game on Mother’s Day.
By the sixth inning, Sale was mixing in his changeup, and the Angels’ hitters looked completely helpless, and off balance. They had to be ready to react to his fastball and just when they thought they were getting that pitch, he was pulling the parachute with his changeup, leaving them nothing to swing at. They were the easiest first six innings I’ve seen, and while his White Sox teammates did the same thing they’d done through the first five innings -- greeting Sale as he came into the dugout with high-fives -- Sale noticed that they had started to shy away from him, in keeping with baseball’s time-honored superstition. He was well aware of what might take place.
With nine outs to go, the most significant challenge ahead was clearly Mike Trout, especially at a time when Albert Pujols is swinging with almost no base -- his left heel is bothering him, and his right knee is hurting -- and Josh Hamilton is still searching for a clue. After the first couple of weeks of this season, Trout sat down with Pujols and looked at video from last year and determined that he was slightly more upright in his 2013 mechanics than he intended to be. So Trout got a little lower, determined to swing at better pitches, and has been hitting much better in recent weeks.
Alberto Callaspo led off the top of the seventh for the Angels and slashed a ground ball that appeared destined for center field, when shortstop Alexei Ramirez flashed to intercept the ball, gloved it, fired to first and got Callaspo by a half-step. Ramirez did a 360-degree whirl, finishing with a fist pump. All the White Sox knew it; they all felt it. Sale had only eight outs to go.
But Trout hit a grounder into almost the exact same spot, only with much more authority, and the ball bounded into center field. The bid for the perfect game was gone, and for Sale, it had become all about keeping Trout away from home plate and giving the White Sox a chance for a badly needed victory. Trout moved to second when Pujols grounded out, and then stole third.
Mike Campbell was Sale’s high school coach at Lakeland (Fla.) Senior High School, and when Sale was a junior, he and the left-hander had significant issues. Sale recalled that Campbell told him over and over that he needed to make better choices in his life; Campbell recalled, in a conversation Sunday morning, that Sale spent too much time with people he didn’t believe were good influences on him, and as Sale went into his final year in high school, Campbell wasn’t sure if Sale would last.
"I told my assistant coaches, ‘Just keep me away from him, because if I’m around him, I might have to get rid of him,'" said Campbell. "But I’ve never seen a good thoroughbred who didn’t buck."
That senior season, Campbell thought, Sale matured dramatically as a person and as a pitcher. “And one thing about him,” Campbell said. “He’s ultra-competitive.”
With Trout at third base and two outs in the top of the seventh, the game still scoreless, Mark Trumbo swung through a 1-2 pitch. Sale was in complete control.
Finally, Ramirez drove in two runs in the bottom of the seventh, in a three-run rally, and Sale finished up the Angels in the eighth and ninth innings. Trout had been the only player to reach base against him, and Sale had needed just 98 pitches.
After the game, Sale acknowledged that the thoughts of a possible no-hitter began leaking into his mind.
From ESPN Stats & Info, how Sale won:
A. He kept hitters off balance with changeup: Sale got 11 outs with his changeup. Angels hitters swung at 68 percent of changeups they saw and missed on 37 percent of those swings.
B. He went to just one 3-ball count. He averaged four 3-ball counts per start in his first seven starts this season.
• We are seeing a heck of a run of pitching, as detailed by ESPN Stats & Info:
Six times this season a pitcher has thrown nine scoreless innings while allowing two hits or fewer. Five of those performances happened this week. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the last time five pitchers each threw nine innings allowing two or fewer hits and no runs in a seven-day span occurred in July 1992, when Roger Clemens, Ben McDonald, Hipolito Pichardo, Kevin Appier and Scott Erickson each did it. This week's five pitchers were Matt Harvey, Jon Lester, Shelby Miller, Adam Wainwright and Sale.
• On the podcast the other day, Justin Havens of ESPN Research and I talked next-level numbers on Paul Konerko, Carlos Gomez and others. Konerko really struggled in the games here this weekend, looking overmatched Sunday night.
• Adam Dunn installed a significant adjustment with his swing in batting practice Sunday, moving his hands higher, as opposed to down by his chest. Dunn said the new mechanics feel more comfortable, and he expects to play today against the Minnesota Twins.
Around the league
• The Cubs’ seven-year, $41 million deal with Anthony Rizzo is reminiscent of the Rays’ first contract with Evan Longoria: Team-friendly, undoubtedly, if Rizzo continues to develop into a star, with two club option years at the back end for 2020 and 2021. But sometimes I think that with all of the crazy money thrown around in professional sports, we forget how much money $41 million is, and for Rizzo, who struggled terribly with the Padres in 2011 and was sent back down to the minor leagues, this is a life-changing sum of money. No matter what happens going forward, Rizzo should never have financial concerns again.
From ESPN Stats & Info, there is more on an adjustment Rizzo has made early this year:
After hitting .173 with 26 strikeouts in 81 at-bats in his first 21 games, there was talk of Rizzo potentially being demoted to Triple-A. But that talk is no more after Rizzo's past 16 games. Rizzo is 26-for-62 with three homers in that span and has struck out only eight times.
From a technical standpoint, the big difference in performance for Rizzo is in his performance against pitches on the outer half of the plate, off the outside corner. Since April 25, he is 18-for-34 against such pitches with a 36 percent line-drive rate. He was 8-for-54 with a 13 percent line-drive rate prior.
Early in the season, if he wasn't homering against that pitch, he was popping it up to left field or grounding it to the right side. Now he's hitting line drives against it.
• The good news for the Orioles is that they beat the Twins on Sunday, and Wei-Yin Chen threw really well. The bad news is that he has an oblique strain. The Orioles are hoping it’s just a cramp, as Roch Kubatko writes.
• Jason Grilli and Mark Melancon are pitching a whole lot early this season, as Rob Biertempfel writes.
• The Astros were swept by Texas, in what was a lesson in baseball, says Bo Porter.
Houston’s record: 10-28. At this pace, they’ll finish 43-119, which would be close to a record.
Houston’s run differential: minus-81. At this pace, they’ll finish with a run differential of minus-345, which would be close to a record.
Moves, deals and decisions
1. The Red Sox called up Ryan Lavarnway.
2. With Neil Walker set to come back, Jordy Mercer may be headed back to the minors.
3. Vidal Nuno will get the ball today for the Yankees.
4. Fredi Gonzalez shook up his lineup.
Dings and dents
1. Brandon Morrow figures he’ll be ready to pitch Wednesday, writes John Lott.
2. Shane Victorino ran into a wall, writes Tim Britton.
3. Mike Adams is dealing with some back spasms.
4. Frank Francisco had a setback.
5. Chris Carpenter is taking a different approach to his recovery, writes Derrick Goold.
6. Chris Perez has some shoulder soreness.
1. The Diamondbacks had their guts ripped out, after Brandon McCarthy left the game and Heath Bell took over.
2. Ryan Howard rallied the Phillies.
3. This is what it has come down to for the Mets: Matt Harvey was imperfect, and the Mets lost. Nothing is more important to the Mets now than his development, writes Tyler Kepner.
4. Washington wasted a strong effort from Gio Gonzalez, writes James Wagner.
5. Some young guys sparked the Rangers.
6. The Rays finished off the Padres.
• Chris Coghlan is becoming more aggressive at the plate, writes Manny Navarro.
• Don Mattingly thinks Jose Fernandez is like Felix Hernandez, as Juan Rodriguez writes.
• Kris Medlen continues to struggle.
• The Pirates’ schedule has gotten a whole lot easier and they are rolling, writes Bill Brink.
• Reds fans might as well accept Jay Bruce’s inconsistency, writes Paul Daugherty.
• Mike Fiers had to leave his gravely ill mother after being called up.
• Troy Tulowitzki put the Rockies on his shoulders, as Patrick Saunders writes.
• Tim Lincecum was back to being his old self in shutting down the Braves, writes John Shea.
• The Dodgers hope that Matt Kemp’s hitting streak is a sign of things to come.
• Don Mattingly isn’t going to blame injuries for his team’s woes, writes Kevin Baxter.
• The Padres’ bats have gone cold, writes Bill Center.
• The Yankees just keep winning, with a bunch of old guys and castoffs. Vernon Wells hit two homers Sunday, and now has nine for the year. He's hitting .338 against fastballs after posting a .227 mark against them the previous two seasons.
And then there’s that Rivera guy, who hasn't blown a save and is on a pace for 68 saves at the age of 43, which would break Francisco Rodriguez's single-season record.
From Elias: Mariano Rivera closed out the Yankees’ win Sunday for his 15th save of the season and in the process set a record for most saves in one season at age 43 or older. Rivera had been tied with Hoyt Wilhelm, who turned 47 years old in July 1969, the year he notched 14 saves while splitting time between the Angels (10 saves) and Braves (four saves).
Hiroki Kuroda had a spat win an umpire during his win Sunday.
• Ricky Romero made his first start in Triple-A since being sent down, and really struggled.
• The Jays broke out for a nice series win in Boston.
• Cleveland went toe-to-toe with the Tigers over the weekend and seemed to make a statement. Terry Francona is settling right in, writes Bud Shaw.
• Jose Valverde scares every Tigers fan, writes Drew Sharp. The Tigers squandered some chances.
• The Royals had a lost weekend.
• Joe Mauer extended his hitting streak.
• Oakland has slipped under .500, writes Susan Slusser. Seems like May is a bad DL month for the Athletics every year.
• The Angels aren’t running as they have in the past, writes Mike DiGiovanna.
• The Mariners are making progress.
• Bruce Bochy will present a World Series ring to Melky Cabrera, writes Alex Pavlovic.
• A Padres prospect is dealing.
• Joba Chamberlain was defiant.
• Avisail Garcia is tearing it up in Toledo.
• In Triple-A, Jeremy Bonderman threw well again.
• So in the end, Nick Markakis didn’t use the pink bat he wanted to use to honor his Mom, a cancer survivor, because he would’ve been fined $1,000 if he had. Is it possible for someone to step in and use common sense in situations like this?
And today will be better than yesterday.