On May 4, Robin Ventura made the first crucial decision of his incipient managerial career. With Chris Sale facing a bout of soreness and tightness in his left elbow, Ventura and Chicago White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper decided to move Sale to the bullpen, despite Sale's 2.81 ERA through five starts.
Sale was not happy with decision, saying his elbow didn't hurt but was merely tender. Ventura and Cooper expressed concerns that they just wanted to be cautious about Sale's long-term health. "It's the best way to keep him healthy and strong," Cooper told White Sox beat reporters at the time. "He was upset. He wanted to continue to (start). But sometimes we have to make decisions based upon what we feel is best for that individual, and that's what we did."
Sale pitched one game in relief on May 8, picking up a blown save in an eventual 5-3 victory for the White Sox over the Indians.
Ventura then made a second critical decision, one that could prove to be the key move of the 2012 regular season: He put Sale back in the rotation.
An MRI on Sale's elbow had come back clean. Sale argued to management that his elbow wasn't actually so sore after all. Ventura, Cooper and GM Kenny Williams put their 23-year-old left-hander back in the rotation.
"Just to say, I really, really felt I could do this," Sale said, expressing his desire to start after pitching in relief as a rookie in 2011. "This is something that has been a dream of mine, and I've been passionate about for very long. At the end of the day, I felt I could do this. I felt poorly, I set a goal to do this, fell drastically short. I felt like I was letting my teammates down. I felt like I was having other people to put up my slack. It was disappointing to me to not be able to fulfill what I was supposed to do."
The results since: A so-so effort of five innings and three runs on May 12, but then one run over 5 1/3 innings in a victory over the Angels, seven scoreless innings against the Twins and Monday's 15-strikeout masterpiece in a 2-1 victory over the Rays, matching Max Scherzer for the season high in strikeouts. Sale was dominant, throwing 80 of his 113 pitches for strikes. He's built like that sophomore center on your high school's JV basketball team who hit his growth spurt but has never lifted anything heavier than an algebra textbook, but from the 6-foot-6 matchstick frame, Sale cranked his fastball up to 97 mph against Tampa Bay on a first-inning pitch to B.J. Upton and threw 22 pitches clocked at 95 or higher. Most impressively, he held that velocity into the eighth. The final two batters he faced were Jose Molina, who struck out swinging on a 96-mph heater, and Rich Thompson, who grounded out on another 96-mph fastball.
Here's a heat map of all 15 strikeouts:
He used his wipeout slider for 11 of the 15 strikeouts; the other four came on fastballs. Those 15 strikeouts were the second-most in White Sox history since 1918, according to Baseball-Reference.com; Jack Harshman had 16 K's in 1954. Sale mixed in a few changeups, showing a three-pitch arsenal that has made him one of the best starters in the American League so far.
At 6-2 with a 2.34 ERA, Sale ranks second to Justin Verlander in ERA, fourth behind Verlander, Jered Weaver and teammate Jake Peavy in WHIP, eighth in strikeouts, fourth in opponents' batting average and fourth in opponents' OPS. The last hurdle is for him to prove he can pitch consistently into the seventh and eighth innings and that he can do this for 30 starts.
Still, not bad for a guy who hadn't started a big league game before the season.
Sale was one of four high-profile, reliever-to-starter transitions this season. Daniel Bard's move for Boston has earned mediocre reviews, and that's a kind judgment considering his 4.69 ERA and 28/29 SO/BB ratio. The Rangers' Neftali Feliz is on the disabled list with a strained right elbow. Jeff Samardzija has a solid 3.00 ERA for the Cubs.
Sale's move was probably the least publicized of the four, considering the White Sox's red-headed stepchild support in Chicago. But when the White Sox drafted Sale with the 13th pick in the 2010 draft out of Florida Gulf Coast University, they always envisioned him as a potential starter. He reached the majors just two months after getting drafted, pitching in 21 games out of the bullpen that year and then 58 games and 71 innings in 2011. It was the old Earl Weaver approach of sorts: Put the kid in the bullpen for a year or two and then let him join the rotation.
It's a route rarely used anymore, but Sale's rise is perhaps a case study on why it should be utilized more often.
The White Sox have now won six in a row to move just a half-game behind Cleveland. The 1-2 punch of Paul Konerko and Adam Dunn and a strong start by catcher A.J. Pierzynski have carried the offense. Now the Sox appear to have a lethal 1-2 punch at the top of the rotation in Peavy and Sale.
In the AL Central, that may be enough to keep them in the race.