Grading Chris Sale's 1st Opening Day Start for the Chicago White Sox
On the one hand, Sale went 17-8 with a 3.05 ERA in his first season as a starter in 2012. His tall, lanky frame and jerky delivery made him tough to solve for hitters and he quickly made a name for himself, becoming an All-Star in the process.
But still only 24, there have been questions about Sale going into the 2013 campaign. Could he match those gaudy stats or even surpass them this year as many expect him to do? Would he be able to hold up for a whole season?
A chilly Monday afternoon on the South Side was Sale's first test. He sailed through 7.2 innings, giving up seven hits and not allowing any runs. The Kansas City Royals hitters smacked some base hits off him, but ultimately couldn't get much going falling 1-0 to the White Sox.
Let's look more in depth at just how Sale accomplished his midseason form on the first day of April.
He Didn't Let His Nerves Get the Best of Him
Any MLB player is going to have some level of butterflies for the first game of a new year, whether a seasoned veteran like Paul Konerko or a youngster like Sale.
Sale, though, openly admitted to Daryl Van Schouwen and Chris De Luca of the Chicago Sun-Times that it would be kind of nerve-wracking at times because of the excitement and hoopla that comes with Opening Day.
No one would blame Sale for feeling the nerves a bit. After signing a five-year, $32.5 million extension with the White Sox (with two additional option years that could end up paying him as much as $60 million), the expectation is that he will sustain the success he has experienced thus far.
With a sellout crowd on hand at U.S. Cellular Field, Sale went out and out-pitched the Royals newly-acquired ace James Shields.
From Sale's first Opening Day with the club in 2011 when he was in the bullpen to Opening Day 2012 when he watched as a converted reliever awaiting his first start days later, the young ace has come a long way.
Now that he has his first taste of pitching amidst hoopla out of the way, he can get used to toeing the rubber in this game for the White Sox for years to come.
He Threw Strikes and Was Efficient
If you're a pitcher, the name of the game is getting ahead in the count and finding a rhythm. Sale had no problem accomplishing this, tossing 72 of his 104 pitches for strikes.
Sale only gave up one walk and never really fell behind any of the hitters. Whether because of the colder temperatures or the adrenaline, the Florida guy got them up to home plate quickly.
His pitch count ended up totaling 104 pitches on the afternoon after he couldn't quite make it out of the eighth. According to ESPN, White Sox manager Robin Ventura said he saw a positive adjustment in Sale from last season:
"I think he's a more mature kid as far as pitching and being effective, efficient through innings. I looked up to see how many pitches he had probably in the fifth or sixth, and last year it probably would've been 20 pitches higher. I think it's maturity that allows him to do that."
Taking tutelage from other veteran starters in the clubhouse such as Jake Peavy and fellow southpaw John Danks has likely helped Sale learn how to keep composure and do the things necessary to win games, like getting his pitches over the plate and not trying to be too perfect if things start going wrong.
The Fastball and Breaking Ball Were Both Working
When it comes to pitching, Sale is lucky to have a plus fastball that he can fling up to home plate in the mid-90s, as well as an above-average curve and slider to boot.
Against the Royals, he was able to locate all his pitches and painted some nice fastballs on the corners. After getting ahead in the count, he often used his off-speed pitches to get Kansas City to chase outside the zone..
A perfect example was in the top of the third, in what would end up being Sale's biggest jam of the afternoon. Royals slugger Billy Butler stepped up to the plate, and with the feeling of a pitcher's duel in the air, it might have been the most pivotal at-bat of the game.
After seeing a few pitches, Sale got Butler to strike out on a tough slider to get out of the inning. The White Sox would later turn a couple double plays and get a highlight-reel-worthy-diving grab of a liner by second baseman Gordon Beckham.
When it was all said and done, the White Sox won the game on solid pitching and defense. If the White Sox hope to contend for a playoff spot throughout the season, this will be the blueprint on how to do it, as they continue to rely heavily on Sale.
As far as the organization and fanbase are concerned, they hope Chris Sale wasn't just participating in April Fool's Day, but showcasing the ace he will be from day one.