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Prospect Retrospective: Chris Sale

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A look at the career of the Boston Red Sox ace and how he rated as a prospect

Tampa Bay Rays v Boston Red Sox Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

Game One of the American League division series begins this afternoon with Chris Sale and the Boston Red Sox taking on Justin Verlander and the Houston Astros. This year we are doing a Prospect Retrospective for each starting pitcher in the post-season. Let’s hit Sale now. We will get Verlander along with Trevor Bauer of the Cleveland Indians and Sonny Gray of the New York Yankees later today.

Sale was a starting pitcher at Florida Gulf Coast University. He got on the radar with a strong sophomore season in 2009 (2.72 ERA, 124/27 K/BB in 103 innings) then followed up with an excellent journey through the Cape Cod League that summer (1.47, 57/9 K/BB in 55 innings), putting him in contention as a possible first round pick.

His 2010 junior year was outstanding in every way (2.01 in 103 innings, 146/14 K/BB). Drafted in the first round (13th overall), he was in the majors within two months, seeing significant action out of the White Sox bullpen down the stretch and performing very well. I wrote this report for him entering 2011:

Chris Sale was drafted in the first round last year, 13th overall, out of Florida Gulf Coast University. As you can see, his pro debut was excellent. He zipped through the minors in 11 games and finished the year closing games for the White Sox. Current word is that he will return to starting in 2011, and that the bullpen use was just to save wear on his arm, but plans can change and just because one thing is said in November doesn’t mean it will be true in March or April. Sale throws 90-95 MPH as a starter but worked at 95-97 in relief, and hit 100 MPH a few times. He has a vicious slider, and his changeup was very good in college, though in the bullpen he didn’t use it often. His command was superb in the NCAA but his walk rate was a bit high in the pros. It certainly didn’t hurt him, and I’m not worried about his command going forward. Sale looks like he could be a number two starter, maybe even a number one if all goes well. He could also end up being a superb closer if the White Sox go that route in the end. Grade A

The White Sox opted for the bullpen route in Sale’s first complete season and he continued to thrive, posting a 2.79 ERA in 71 innings with a 79/27 K/BB. In 2012 he moved into the starting rotation and has been at the top of the league ever since.

MLB: Minnesota Twins at Chicago White Sox Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

In his eight year career Sale has started 180 games while relieving in 80 more, posting a 2.98 ERA in 1324 innings with a 1552/303 K/BB ratio, 91-58 record, ERA+ 139, fWAR 35.4. He’s led the American League in strikeouts twice (including 308 in 2017), K/9 IP three times, and has made six consecutive All-Star games. Since becoming a starter his worst WAR performance was “only” 4.7 in 2012 and he was up to a career-best 7.7 this year.

By way of comparison, almost all of the pitchers with career WAR values in the 35 range have well more than 2,000 innings on their resume. Sale’s 1324 innings is over 500 innings fewer than any other pitcher between 33 and 36 WAR.

Sale is on a Hall of Fame pace, although whether he get there or not depends on how durable he will be. So far he’s been quite durable despite his unorthodox delivery. All went well and he’s become a number one starter, justifying his Grade A prospect status.