Yes, it is a brash statement and is sure to spark debate between fans of the White Sox and Detroit Tigers, but Sale (17-8, 3.05 ERA in 2012) will have a better season than Justin Verlander (17-8, 2.64).
To be sure, there are other pitchers in the Central who could be part of the conversation. The Tigers’ Max Scherzer, James Shields from the Kansas City Royals and the Minnesota Twins’ Scott Diamond are all very good pitchers, but Verlander is the standard bearer.
And although this is purely argumentative and cannot be quantified until the end of the 2013 season, there are a couple of reasons why Sale is poised to become the best in the division.
First, he commands the mound as well as Verlander does.
From Sale’s much talked-about delivery—which on its own keeps hitters off balance—to his devastating slider, the young southpaw has a dominating presence.
The results speak for themselves. In 2012, he finished with a 1.135 WHIP, amassed 192 strikeouts in 192 innings and held opponents to a .660 OPS.
His two-seam fastball consistently averages around 92 mph and can routinely top out around 94. He counters his two-seamer with the above-mentioned slider and a deceptive changeup.
Verlander has a better fastball, but he has begun the migration to throwing more off-speed pitches as the inning totals mount each season. In 2012, for example, a career high 50.1 percent of his pitches were of the off-speed variety.
More important than what Sale can throw, though—and the real crux of the argument—is that he already controls each at-bat better than Verlander does.
As Nicholas Minnix of KFFL.com noted, he finished with “a 15.72 pitch-per-inning rate, making him one of the majors’ more efficient starters.”
That rate was best on the White Sox, better than Verlander—albeit by a hair—and good for third in the Central behind Diamond (14.6) and the Kansas City Royals’ Luis Mendoza (15.3).
Sale also throws fewer pitches per plate appearance (3.91) than Verlander (3.94). Efficiency is the key to prolonged production at the major league level, and Sale already understands that.
Let’s not forget here that Sale was in first full season starting for the White Sox. Barring injury, his stat line will only get better.
To be fair, there are prognosticators out there who are wary of Sale’s ability to repeat the success he found in 2012 for the White Sox.
Is Sale ready to take the next step?
Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci, for one, has Sale on the short list of pitchers at risk for the “year-after effect.” Verducci describes the YAF as a “rule of thumb to identify pitchers who may be at risk because of a sharp increase in workload.”
It is a valid point—considering that Sale topped his previous major-league high in innings pitched by more than 120—but it is not a guaranteed harbinger of things to come.
There were no trips to the disabled list for Sale last year, and he is spending the offseason working on his conditioning. White Sox manager Robin Ventura and pitching coach Don Cooper also went to great lengths last year to protect his arm.
This approach, which CSNChicago.com's Dan Hayes reported Wednesday will continue during spring training, is sure to pay off.
Becoming the best requires two things—having great stuff and knowing what to do with it.
And while Verlander has done nothing to relinquish the crown, the time is now for Sale.
Expect Sale to finish with 20 wins, an ERA a tick below 3.00 and 210 strikeouts en route to being widely hailed as the best pitcher in the AL Central.
*Stats courtesy of FanGraphs.com, BaseballReference.com and ESPN.com