Sale digging into arsenal to keep hitters off balance
Left-hander dominating with increased usage of changeup
CHICAGO -- Randy Johnson stands 6-foot-10, not 6-foot-6. He dialed his fastball up into the high-90s with regularity, not the modest 94-96 that Chris Sale was throwing on Thursday night.
But in terms of the futility they produce from batters, Johnson and Sale are two of a kind.
Few pitchers have ever been as overpowering as Johnson. But the Big Unit was seldom, if ever, as overpowering in a stretch of three starts as Sale has been in his last three -- which, oddly enough, came before, during and after a stint on the disabled list for a flexor muscle strain.
Returning from the DL to face the Yankees, Sale was as nasty as milk left out in the sun after a picnic. Mixing in more changeups than in previous seasons, he retired the first 17 hitters he faced -- including eight of the first 11 on strikeouts -- before allowing a solid single to center to Zoilo Almonte.
"He looked like he was pretty sharp,'' Yankees manager Joe Girardi said after the White Sox 3-2 victory. "He didn't look too rusty to me. He gave 'em what he could.''
The sixth-inning single by Almonte was actually a huge relief to manager Robin Ventura, who was about to take Sale out of the game -- perfect game or not. Sale did come out after following the single by striking out Jacoby Ellsbury for the third time, ending this outing almost exactly like the two starts that preceded it.
Sale had flirted with a no-hitter against the Red Sox on April 17, eventually throwing 127 pitches and winding up on the DL when he experienced soreness on his ensuing workout day. He took his time getting better and was just as dominant in his rehab assignment at Triple-A Charlotte last Friday, striking out 11 in four innings.
"It was clear he was Major League ready,'' White Sox general manager Rick Hahn said.
Uh, yeah. He was Major League ready.
Including that rehab stint, Sale has put together the following line his last three times out: 17 innings, three hits, one run, five walks and 31 strikeouts.
With the exception of Ellsbury, the Yankees started all right-handed hitters against Sale, resting Brian McCann, Brett Gardner and Ichiro Suzuki, a trio with a combined 4,434 hits.
Girardi didn't sound like he had a lot of confidence in Ellsbury, joking that he should keep the ball if he got a base hit, as Sale hasn't allowed a hit to a left-handed batter this season. They're now a nifty 0-for-23 against him.
This was only the fifth start Sale has made this year, so we're talking about a small sample size. But he's 4-0 with a 1.89 ERA, holding opponents to a .149 batting average, and Girardi has a pretty good idea why he's being so successful.
"I think what has really made him tough on right-handers is he's developed a third pitch with the changeup,'' Girardi said. "It's a really good pitch for him.''
When the White Sox drafted Sale out of Florida Gulf Coast University in 2010, then-GM Ken Williams felt his changeup was his best pitch. But when he was hurried to the big leagues as a reliever, he turned into a fastball-slider guy, throwing his changeup only 5.6 percent of the time in 2010 and 11.6 percent in 2011, according to Brooks Baseball.
When he moved into the rotation in 2012, he threw the changeup only 14.8 percent of the time. He became more comfortable with it last season, throwing it 19.2 percent of the time, and this season has been throwing more changeups than sliders, using the change 31.9 percent of the time.
"We expected him to pitch like he did,'' Alfonso Soriano said. "He's an outstanding pitcher. He's got a very good fastball, very good changeup and very good slider. He pitched very good tonight. We have to give credit to him.''
Eight of Sale's 10 strikeouts came when Yankee hitters swung and missed, including all three times that Ellsbury went down on strikes. He got four strikeouts with fastballs -- including a 96-mph heater that Derek Jeter took in the first inning -- three on sliders and three with his changeup.
"It's an effective pitch he has developed,'' Girardi said about the change. "It's a big part of his repertoire. It really neutralizes the right-handed hitters.''
As if Sale, a two-time All-Star at age 25, needed a new weapon. Here's hoping the kid stays healthy enough to pitch into his 40s, as did Johnson.
Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.