When the 2012 season opened for the Chicago White Sox, left-handed pitcher Chris Sale was an unknown entity. As a converted reliever, the White Sox really had no idea what type of season Sale would have. As it turns out, first-year manager Robin Ventura and White Sox fans were in for a welcome surprise.
Sale, 23, turned into the ace of the staff and his stat line (17-8 with a 3.05 ERA, 192 strikeouts in 192 innings and a 1.135 WHIP in 29 starts) was among MLB’s best. It was the best season a White Sox starting pitcher has had in some time, and exceeded even the most optimistic expectations.
So, with 2012 in his back pocket, can Sale turn into a guy the White Sox can count on for years to come? If his strengths are compared to future Hall of Fame pitcher Randy Johnson, there is no reason to believe he can’t.
The most apparent similarity between the two is the inverted W delivery, which can intimidate left-handed hitters and befuddle the right-handed ones. Of greater hope for Sox fans is that Sale’s best pitch, like Johnson, is not the fastball. It is an overpowering slider.
While Johnson’s fastball, which often reached 100 mph early in his career, gets most of the attention, it was not what made him one of the best pitchers in baseball for much of his 21-year career.
What made the "Big Unit" such an effective pitcher was the nasty slider he referred to as “Mr. Snappy.” That pitch wreaked havoc on opposing hitters and made his fastball that much more effective.
Is it too early to make a comparison between Sale and Johnson?
The results did not go unnoticed. Gary Hughes, director of pro scouting for the Cincinnati Reds, told Jayson Stark from ESPN.com that Johnson’s slider “should be declared illegal” because it was unhittable.
Similar sentiments are shared regarding the slider Sale throws.
White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper told the Sporting News that Sale’s breaking pitch was “hard” and “sharp,” while noting that it just “disappears” as it approaches home plate. In the same article, White Sox television analyst Steve Stone said that Sale’s slider “is Mr. Snappy.”
For those scoring at home, that is a direct pitch comparison between Sale and Johnson, straight from the mouth of a former Cy Young Award winner.
Bottom line—Sale’s slider is ferocious, and that is what allowed Johnson to dominate for so long.
Now, Sale’s delivery and reliance on the slider has caused speculation that he will run into arm troubles as his career progresses.
The common argument is that using the slider as frequently as Sale does and the inverted W delivery puts too much pressure on the UCL, which can lead to Tommy John surgery.
Fair point, but it is not a forgone conclusion.
Only time will tell, and the skeptics may be right, but if we use Johnson as a barometer, White Sox fans have much to look forward to in the years to come because Chris Sale can absolutely become the next Randy Johnson.