When Chicago White Sox pitcher Chris Sale was 9 years old, his uncle took him to Tropicana Field for the first game in Tampa Bay Devil Rays history. Sale saved the ticket stub as a birthday souvenir and came home with a mustard glob on his pinstriped Rays polo shirt after an unfortunate encounter with a ballpark hot dog.
The evening combined two of Sale's lifelong passions -- baseball and eating. At 6-foot-6 and 170-something pounds, he's a cross between Randy Johnson and Joey Chestnut.
"The guy crushes food," said teammate Adam Dunn. "He eats more than anybody in the world, and he gets so excited when he gains two pounds. All I have to do is think about eating and I gain four pounds. Me and CC Sabathia are fat dudes who are trying to be skinny. Sale is a skinny dude who's trying to get fat."
Sale's slender frame and bony elbows come in handy when he's jostling for position at the postgame spread. We'll find out soon enough about his staying power.
Stephen Strasburg's workload has generated lots of conversation as the Washington Nationals debate how hard to push him down the stretch. A similar scenario is unfolding in Chicago, where the White Sox have leaned heavily on Sale to take the lead in the American League Central. Sale made the All-Star team and carries an 11-2 record and 2.11 ERA into Saturday's start against Detroit's Rick Porcello at Comerica Park. But as the innings mount, the White Sox are putting a lot of time and effort into the care and feeding of their young left-hander.
The Sox have refrained from setting an innings target for Sale -- at least publicly. But they've made a sincere effort to keep his workload under wraps and take the big picture into account. Consider:
• Sale has thrown at least 100 pitches in 12 of his 16 starts this season. But nine of his outings have come with either five or six days' rest. "We basically pitched him on just about a college schedule the first half of the season," general manager Kenny Williams said in an email.
• When Sale revealed that he felt soreness in his left elbow in early May, the White Sox sent him for a precautionary MRI and briefly moved him to the bullpen. Combine that hiatus with some free time around the All-Star break, and he's had an 11-day breather and a 12-day break that were interrupted by one-inning relief cameos.
• Sale is tied for 74th in the majors with 1,684 pitches this season. He's thrown 30 fewer innings and 465 fewer pitches than Detroit's Justin Verlander, one of his main Cy Young Award competitors.
The White Sox's master plan requires candor and self-awareness on Sale's part and communication up the chain of command from pitching coach Don Cooper to manager Robin Ventura to Williams. But the Sox are optimistic that Sale will stick it out through the 162nd game -- and beyond, if necessary.
"It is our expectation that because we have been diligent in his care and he works his tail off in between starts, he will be strong and able to go every fifth day in September for what we hope is a playoff push," Williams said.
Workloads for young pitchers have come under increased scrutiny in recent years as teams strive to keep prospects healthy and productive for the long haul. Sports Illustrated writer Tom Verducci gave baseball's development people a lot to chew on in the early 2000s when he determined that pitchers whose innings totals increased by more than 30 from one year to the next incurred a greater risk of injury. Saber-skeptics have recently lined up to poke holes in the "Verducci Effect," but there's no denying that the subject is on every team's radar and clubs ignore the fallout from excessive usage at their peril.
Logic and common sense dictate that the White Sox should be careful with Sale. In 2009, he threw a combined 144 innings for Florida Gulf Coast University and Yarmouth-Dennis in the Cape Cod League. The following year Sale threw 136 innings in college, the minor leagues and a late-season call-up to Chicago. But he logged only 71 innings while pitching exclusively in the bullpen in 2011, and he's currently at 110⅔ innings and counting.
Sale plans to maintain his mid-90s fastball with a rigorous between-starts regimen. He used to loathe running long distances, but now he'll turn on his iPod, zone out and look at his watch 15 to 20 minutes later to find his shirt is wringing wet. He faithfully adheres to his routine of shoulder exercises and weight work, and he absorbs all the scouting reports and veteran advice at his disposal.
Sale has fully embraced the "pitch to contact" mindset as a way to conserve bullets. Even though he's striking out 8.3 batters per nine innings, he's averaging an economical 15.2 pitches per innings.
"That's what you have to do as a starter," Sale said. "In the bullpen you can give it everything you've got for an entire inning, and if you throw 20 pitches it's not that big a deal. As a starter, 20-pitch innings are rough. Obviously, you want to fill up the zone and get quicker outs and get [the hitters] back in the dugout so they can keep doing what they've been doing."
It's a fine line between pushing young starters to reach their potential and extending them beyond their comfort zones. No one understands that tug-of-war better than Jake Peavy, who strung together three straight 200-inning seasons with San Diego from age 24 through 26 and made two All-Star teams and won a Cy Young Award. That was before a detached latissimus dorsi muscle in 2010 nearly wrecked his career.
It is our expectation that because we have been diligent in his care and he works his tail off in between starts, he will be strong and able to go every fifth day in September for what we hope is a playoff push.
”-- White Sox general manager
Kenny Williams on Chris Sale
"I understand that Chris Sale has to be looked after," Peavy said. "He's a prized possession for any organization to have. But at the same time, I look back and think about when I came into the league in 2003. I look back at Roy Oswalt, and we were both throwing around 200 innings those years.
"For us to win, Chris Sale is going to have to start. It's going to be interesting to see how it plays out. You just have to leave it up to the organization and what they feel is best. They certainly know. The biggest thing comes down to him taking care of himself and his body. I can promise you Chris will do that."
Chicago's starting rotation ranks sixth in the American League with a 4.07 ERA, but it's looking a little tenuous at the moment. Peavy is on track to surpass 200 innings for the first time since 2007. Just as Phil Humber returned from a right elbow flexor strain Tuesday, Gavin Floyd went on the shelf with tendinitis in his elbow. John Danks hopes to return from a shoulder injury sometime in August, but in the meantime the White Sox will have to rely on rookies Jose Quintana and Dylan Axelrod to help fill the void. Williams is always aggressive at the trade deadline, and the White Sox will continue to monitor their options as July 31 approaches.
Sale gives Ventura and his fellow White Sox a comfortable feeling every time he takes the mound. Lefties are hitting .209 with a .536 OPS against him this season, while righties check in at .207 and .565. Dunn, one of baseball's most congenial players, hears lots of comments about Sale's nastiness around the batting cage and the first-base bag. His buddy Josh Willingham, who is having a terrific season for the Minnesota Twins, is 1-for-9 with five strikeouts against Sale.
"Josh hates facing Sale," Dunn said. "He told me, 'The guy has a slider I can't even see, and a fastball I can't even touch.' And that's coming from a pretty good right-handed hitter."
Sale's smorgasbord of fastballs, sliders and changeups is even more formidable coming from that funky, angular delivery. He seemingly can't wait to receive the ball from the catcher and fling it. Given the caliber of his stuff, it's hard to blame him.
"His metabolism is about five times anybody on our team," Peavy said. "I tell him, 'Wait until you get to age 30 like me. You'll start to slow down a little bit and lose that six-pack.'"
One goal at a time. If Sale can make it through September with his left arm intact, everything else will be gravy.