By Sterling Pingree
In the mid-90’s, NBC called their programming “Must See TV”. One could hardly argue if you just did a deep dive through these promos on YouTube as I did last night. They had monolithic shows like Seinfeld, Friends and ER. NBC was where it was at in the 1990’s in terms of sitcoms. Now, I’m not sure if there is a single show on NBC that I watch. There’s one, Superstore, I watch Superstore on NBC. But that’s beside the point, the point is that the major networks are rarely supplying “must see” programming anymore, what in the new era of cord cutters and streaming services.
What is must see right now is Chris Sale’s first month with the Boston Red Sox. What Sale has done in his first 5 starts with the Red Sox has been astounding, even if his numbers don’t completely back that up. For the most part they do, his 52 strike outs in 37.2 innings pitched is the best in the league and is all the more impressive when you factor in that he’s only allowed 6 walks and 23 hits. A 1.19 ERA will grab anybody’s attention, but for different reasons so will his 1-2 record.
Part of the excitement from Sale’s first starts with the Red Sox, is the team’s inability to score runs when he pitches. You watch this guy go out there, attack hitters and blow them away with over powering stuff and some how he feels like the underdog because he’s been forced to match the opposition zero for zero. Last week in Toronto I leapt out of my chair when Xander knocked in the go-ahead run in the top of the 9th inning because I struggle to remember a time when I was rooting for a pitcher to win a specific April game as much as I was pulling for Sale in that game. It was the same last night against the Yankees when the Sox failed to score a run against Tanaka.
Sale is something different and something familiar all at the same time. Chris Sale has an unorthodox motion, one that I thought a few years ago would undoubtedly lead to arm trouble long before this point. He has proved me wrong, making at least 30 starts per season every year except 2014 when he made 26 starts. (It should be noted in that in those 26 starts, his ERA was a paltry 2.17.) Sale is something different because he is a ballyhooed pitcher who has come to Boston and through the first month exceeded expectations. One does not have to go back that far to seek an example for another Ace that came to town with as much acclaim, only to fail to meet high standards. It was just a year ago when David Price made five April starts with an ERA of 5.76. (How fair is it that Sale’s ERA is 4.5 runs lower this April than Price’s last year and Price went 3-0 and Sale is 1-2?)
What is familiar about Sale, is tough to describe because he does remind you of a few guys. I’ve heard comparisons to Randy Johnson and I can see the similarities: the easiest to spot is Sale is 6’7 and the Big Unit was 6’10, (probably still is) both are left handed, both rely on fastballs in the upper 90s and devastating sliders to attack hitters. It’s Sale’s toughness and quiet determination that reminds me of an ace from 50 years ago, one “Gentleman Jim” Lonborg.
Sale is appointment viewing every time he takes the mound like no Red Sox pitcher since Pedro Martinez. Think about that for a moment if you will and consider the great pitchers that have made their home at Fenway Park in the time between Pedro’s escape to New York in 2004 and now. Schilling, Beckett and Lester rush to mind, but none has the appeal that Sale has and part of that is due to pace the Sale works in.
There were innings in the game versus Toronto last week where Sale’s half of the inning was taking 2 to 4 minutes each and not one of Sale’s half innings lasted longer than 8 minutes. Sale threw the first pitch against the Yankees last night at 7:10pm and walked off the mound after the 8th at 8:58pm, merely striking out 10 and refusing to walk a single batter along the way. He’s providing scarcity to his brand because you have to tune in because each time he takes the mound you’ll only get a brief glimpse of him as he strikes out 2, retires the side in order and strides back to the dugout. Baseball has a pace of play problem and spends tons of time each off season trying to figure out ways to speed the game up. If only more pitchers would work like Chris Sale, which is like saying if only I could sing like Frank Sinatra I’d get a record deal. Major League Baseball should show tape of Chris Sale’s starts to every pitcher in professional baseball and force them to work at his pace. It sounds like a chore or a punishment, but if you’ve watched Sale pitch for the Red Sox, the pleasure is all yours.
Sterling Pingree (@SterlingPingree on Twitter) is a co-host on The Drive, weekdays 4pm to 6pm on 92.9fm The Ticket and streaming live at DriveShowMaine.com. Follow us on Twitter, @DriveShowMaine and “Like Us” on Facebook, Drive Show Maine.