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Chad Finn

Easy sell: Chris Sale pitching like 1986 Roger Clemens

Chris Sale leads the AL in nine major pitching categories through 20 starts.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff/Boston Globe

Chris Sale is delivering a magnificent season in his first with the Red Sox, perhaps even a transcendent season. Barring catastrophe, this will almost certainly rate when it is complete as the finest year of the 28-year-old lefthander’s eight-year career.

That’s an achievement unto itself considering he’s finished in the top six in the Cy Young balloting every season since 2012. It does not matter how good Yoan Moncada or Michael Kopech become in 2021. This trade is already a win for the Red Sox.

Sale’s performance is extraordinary, but his appeal is enhanced by his no-nonsense, accountable approach. He does not seem to the type who would, for instance, publicly berate a broadcaster for daring to offer brief, accurate criticism. Sale never squawked in April when the Red Sox scored all of 10 runs in his first five starts, just one of which he won. And he’s not interested now in discussing his success.

“I’m not here to talk about that kind of crap, man,’’ he said after picking up his 12th win Friday night. “We have a long way to go. A long way to go; we have a lot of work to do.’’


Rather than resting on his laurels, he’s resisting them. Gotta like a guy like that.

His refusal to discuss what he’s done and what he might do leaves it up to us to attempt to put his performance so far in context. The numbers are as spectacular as his visceral good-luck-hitting-this performance every fifth day. Through 20 starts, he leads the American League in wins, (12), ERA (2.48), WHIP (0.892), FIP (1.97), adjusted ERA (181), K/9 (12.7), K/BB ratio (7.69), innings pitched (141.1) and strikeouts (200).

He is just one of three pitchers in major league history to record 200 strikeouts in 20 or fewer starts: Nolan Ryan (1977), Randy Johnson (three times), and Pedro Martinez (2000) are the others. Martinez set the Red Sox’ single-season record with 313 strikeouts in 1999. Sale is on pace for a ridiculous, Koufaxian 331.


As spectacular (I’m running out of adjectives here) as Sale as been, it would be leaning toward the hyperbolic to compare this season to Martinez’s best. In 60 games (58 starts) in 1999-2000, Martinez went 41-10 with a 1.90 ERA, striking out 597 in 430⅓ innings while allowing just 288 hits. Did I mention this was during the heart of the performance-enhancing drug era, when at least seven guys in every lineup looked like a David Banner lab experiment gone wrong?

Sale has been every adjective that roughly translates to awesome. He may even challenge some of Martinez’s records. But in 2000, Martinez had a 291 adjusted ERA, the best ever by a starting pitcher in the modern era. His ERA, 1.74, was more than three runs better than the league average (4.91), and nearly two runs better than the AL runner-up qualifier, Roger Clemens (3.70).

Sale has a long way to go up the mountain to approach peak Pedro, and no other modern pitcher has achieved such heights. But Clemens? Now there’s an interesting thought. When I look at Sale’s results, it is not a Pedro season that comes to mind. It is Roger Clemens’s 1986 season, for a couple of reasons.

Foremost, Sale ’17 and Clemens ’86 have rather similar numbers through 20 starts. I’ve given you Sale’s already, a few graphs north of here. Here are some of Clemens’s key stats through the same span in ’86: 17 wins, 2.50 ERA, 162 innings, 161 strikeouts, 4.2 K/BB ratio.


Roger Clemens throws a pitch durng his 20-strikeout game against Seattle in 1986.File/AP

The ERA is nearly identical. Clemens has more wins in large part due to better run support. In other stats, Sale is superior almost across the board. The argument can be made that ’17 Chris Sale has been better than ’86 Roger Clemens, and it can be made fairly easily.

Which brings us to the other reason why Sale’s season might be reminiscent of Clemens’s ’86 classic: He won the American League Most Valuable Player award along with the Cy Young, receiving 19 of 28 first-place votes. (Don Mattingly was second, with five, while Jim Rice was third with four.)

There hasn’t been much talk so far of Sale winning the AL MVP, what with Aaron Judge doing his ’87 Mark McGwire imitation in the Bronx, but perhaps there should be. Sale is currently fifth in the AL in WAR (4.7, baseball-reference version), trailing Houston’s Jose Altuve (5.5), Judge (5.3), Mookie Betts (5.1, and you’re surprised, aren’t you?), and injured Astro Carlos Correa (4.9).

Being a pitcher will work against Sale in the balloting, just as it did for Martinez. But if the Astros’ candidates — don’t forget George Springer, too — split votes and Judge (slashing .158/.327/.316 since the All-Star break) tails off, Sale has a shot to join Justin Verlander (2011) as the only AL starting pitchers to win the MVP since Clemens. (Dennis Eckersley won it as a reliever in ’92. Someone should tell David Price this.)


Sale finished 19th in the MVP voting two years ago and 16th last year. He will finish much, much higher this year. But no matter whether he wins the award, finishes a controversial second like Martinez did in 1999, or ranks even lower, it should be noted that he still has a chance to do something for the Red Sox that neither Clemens nor Martinez could. Ask me, Sale is way overdue for a no-hitter.

His arsenal of pitches and varying methods of throwing them keep hitters off-balance and unsure of what’s coming.
His arsenal of pitches and varying methods of throwing them keep hitters off-balance and unsure of what’s coming.

Related: What it’s like to face Chris Sale

Chad Finn can be reached at finn@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globechadfinn.