Could Chris Sale Really Win 30 Games This Season?
Baseball has a few records that will probably never be broken.
The first that comes to mind is Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak, a feat so outrageous that no one has really even come close to it since he pulled it off in 1956. Nolan Ryan's 5,714 career strikeouts seems impossible to catch, too, and, of course Cy Young's 511 career wins will never even be sniffed by anyone.
There are also some numbers that seem unlikely to be broached again. Offensively, it's hard to imagine a hitter batting .400 again. And given the importance of the bullpen, the era of specialization, and the usage of a five-man starting rotation, baseball will probably never see a 30-game winner.
If a pitcher is going to win 30 games, he's pretty much going to have to win every decision for an entire season.
But don't tell that to the White Sox' Chris Sale, who is doing precisely that.
After defeating the Houston Astros 2-1 on Thursday night, Sale has notched a victory in his first nine appearances so far this year, becoming the first White Sox pitcher since Eddie Cicotte in 1919 to win his first nine starts of the season. He's also the first Major League pitcher to do that in a while.
Chris Sale is the FIRST White Sox pitcher to win his 1st 9 starts in the live ball era (since 1920.) pic.twitter.com/5rZ9s3GLgt
— #KZone For Sale (@whitesox) May 20, 2016
Chris Sale is 1st pitcher since Brandon Webb ('08) to start a season 9-0 through 9 starts. https://t.co/IbhuEzZI3u pic.twitter.com/5JDdb8hM6O
— MLB Stat of the Day (@MLBStatoftheDay) May 20, 2016
After starting 9-0, Webb lost four out of his next seven starts but still finished the year 22-7 in 34 starts, which shows you just how difficult the task of winning 30 games truly is. The last pitcher to do it was Denny McLain in 1968, when he won 31.
Since 1901, the year the National League and American joined together and unified, 13 pitchers have had 30-win seasons for a total of 21 such seasons. But it has only happened three times since the Deadball era ended in 1920.
Of course, pitcher's "wins" could not be a more meaningless statistic. It is a team stat, one that requires an offense to score runs and a bullpen that does their job. But a pitcher can certainly affect his ability to pile up wins by pitching deeper into games, which is something Sale has said he is focusing on this season.
He now has three complete games in nine starts. Coming into this season, Sale had only finished 11 games in his career, with a high of 4 complete games in one season, back in 2013.
McLain was aided by the fact that he pitched in a four-man rotation and made 41 starts in '68, amassing 336 innings, an insane amount by today's standards. In today's five-man rotations, pitchers tend to make 33 or 34 starts a season, and they don't come close to amassing those kinds of innings. To wit, Sale's career high for innings pitched is 214 1/3, done in 2013.
In other words, for Sale to challenge the 30-win barrier, he's going to have to pitch ridiculously well, get a lot of luck, and continue to pitch deep into games. But given his ridiculous start to the season, maybe it's not such a crazy idea.
Sale's strikeout rate (24.5%) is much lower than last year's (32.1%) and below his career average (28.2%). His walk rate (4.0%) is also a career low, below last year's 4.9% and his career mark of 5.9%. This has allowed him to throw fewer pitches per plate appearance and go deeper into games, all while maintaining his effectiveness.
And even though his average fastball velocity (92.4 miles per hour) is far below what it was last season (94.5 miles per hour), batters are hitting a meager .163 against him this season, a career low. His WHIP of 0.72 is second-best in baseball behind only Clayton Kershaw.
As more pitchers are increasing velocity in order to increase strikeouts, Sale seems to be bucking that trend, throwing a little less hard in order to generate a little more contact so that he can log more innings. He's allowing much more contact (80.2% percent of his pitches) than his career mark (74.0%) last year's 70.4%, but his hard hit rate against (22.5%) ranks seventh-best among qualified pitchers this season.
If Sale is going to challenge the 30-win threshold, the White Sox are going to have to score runs for him while he's in the game. That much is out of his control. But the longer he's in the game, the better the chances of that happening, and the better the chances he will be the pitcher of record.
Chris Sale almost certainly won't get to 30 wins. It will probably never happen again.
But he's doing everything under his control to give it a go in 2016. And he'll probably win the AL Cy Young Award in the process.