BALTIMORE — Typically, those in uniform maintain a sense of reserve about what they see on a baseball field. After all, with a database of thousands of games at their disposal, few events can transpire that feel unfamiliar.
That’s why Wednesday night represented a milestone not just for Chris Sale but for all of the Red Sox. During the eighth inning of the lefthander’s dominant performance, players and coaches were transformed into fans, breathless with anticipation as they hoped to see the ace’s 300th strikeout of the season.
There were groans when Orioles slugger Chris Davis — a prime candidate for a strikeout — led off the frame with a first-pitch ground out, and more dismay when J.J. Hardy followed with another quick grounder. But Sale dispelled any notions of potential disappointment by freezing lefthanded-hitting Ryan Flaherty with a slider for the milestone punchout, producing an eruption in the dugout. People who had spent decades in the game celebrated with the same exuberance experienced by the paying customers at Camden Yards.
“It gives you chills,” said Red Sox pitching coach Carl Willis, who has worked with four Cy Young winners — CC Sabathia in 2007, Cliff Lee in 2008, Felix Hernandez in 2010, and Rick Porcello in 2016 — but had never witnessed a 300-strikeout season. “You see things happen on a daily basis that you’ve never seen before, but to see someone accomplish something like that, I mean really, it kind of leaves you speechless. At the end of the day, you have to feel blessed to be in the presence of it.”
Sale became the second Red Sox pitcher to reach the plateau, joining Pedro Martinez — whose 313-strikeout campaign in 1999 marked the last time an American Leaguer recorded that many punchouts. The company in which Sale sits in posting the 35th 300-strikeout season in big league history attests to the remarkable nature of the achievement, with Sale among the likes of Nolan Ryan, Sandy Koufax, Randy Johnson, Bob Feller, Steve Carlton, Clayton Kershaw, and Martinez.
The rarity of the feat created giddiness, yet it also spawned appreciation for the components and body of work that led to the milestone. Among those elements:
All members of the 300-strikeout club share a baseline element: an overwhelming fastball with explosive velocity and life. In Sale’s case, his 94.9-mile-per-hour average four-seam velocity ranks second (behind only James Paxton of the Mariners) among big league lefties this year, while his low three-quarters arm slot creates unmatched horizontal movement for hitters.
Yet it is not fastballs alone that establish pitchers as strikeout forces. They must complement that pitch with other swing-and-miss options, as Sale does with his slider and changeup.
“His stuff is electric, [starting with] the movement that he gets with his fastball, the velocity he can generate with his fastball,” said Willis. “But at the same time, the sharpness and late break of the slider and changeup he’s throwing, those things I guess are the obvious, but he has the confidence to throw those pitches in any count.”
When opponents have swung at Sale’s fastball, they’ve swung and missed 27 percent of the time this year. His swing-and-miss rate on his slider is 39.8 percent, while his third-most frequently used pitch, the changeup, generates whiffs at a 40.1 percent rate. That’s three pitches with outrageous swing-and-miss rates, a hallmark of the 300-strikeout club.
“They have to have everything,” said Red Sox assistant pitching coach Brian Bannister. “They have to have the unique fastball, the overwhelming velocity, the power breaking ball, the above-average third pitch.”
Dizzying array of strikeouts
It seems obvious, but in order to put up obscene strikeout totals, a pitcher has to throw a ton of strikes — beginning with the first pitch of an at-bat.
“One of the things you see in those guys, it feels like they’re always in 0-2 counts. They go after hitters unlike other guys,” said Bannister. “Some guys nibble. Some guys are afraid to throw a first-pitch strike. They are ahead. They get you on your heels. You’re defensive.”
On Wednesday, Sale threw first-pitch strikes to 20 of the 27 Orioles hitters he faced. That is in keeping with a year in which he ranks fourth among big league starters with a 66.6 percent first-strike rate (behind Jose Quintana, Kershaw, and Rick Porcello). Overall, Sale’s 68.4 percent strike rate leads the majors.
That said, the way Sale gets strikes is particularly interesting and helps to contribute to his huge strikeout totals. Opponents chase 36.1 percent of his offerings that are outside of the strike zone, second only to Yankees starter Masahiro Tanaka. Yet they often watch pitches that are in the strike zone, swinging at just 65.4 percent of such pitches — 40th among 61 qualifying starting pitches. Even when they do swing at pitches in the strike zone — presumably the most hittable offerings — they swing and miss 21 percent of the time, the highest rate against any starter this year.
What does that mean? Those elements suggest that Sale combines incredible stuff with tremendous deception. Hitters see balls as strikes and strikes as balls, such that even when they do swing at pitches in the strike zone, they fail to make contact.
The size and the delivery
Bannister — who noted that he did not register his 300th strikeout until his third big league season — attended as many of Johnson’s starts as possible while growing up in the Phoenix area. At the time, Johnson mesmerized Bannister as a one-of-a-kind pitcher. Now, Bannister is experiencing a sense of deja vu.
“When you look at what his pitches do, look at his body type — it’s a fair comparison: [Sale] is the closest thing we have to Randy Johnson as a pitcher in today’s game,” said Bannister. “Randy was that dominant, elite pitcher, same kind of strikeout potential, same kind of intimidation, same kind of uniqueness on the movement of his pitches. It’s a privilege to watch Chris every fifth day.”
Orioles manager Buck Showalter managed Johnson for his first four seasons with the Diamondbacks, when 300-strikeout seasons came with regularity. Like Bannister, he noted that the Johnson-like delivery is a key element in overwhelming hitters.
“Some guys are 6-5, 6-6 and don’t take advantage of their angles. Some guys are shorter and do,” said Showalter. “He’s got a great angle. It’s a release you don’t see. It’s tough to simulate and prepare for.”
Red Sox bullpen coach Dana LeVangie is perhaps best positioned to understand the similarities of Sale and Martinez. He was the Red Sox’ bullpen catcher for Martinez’s entire Boston tenure. In many respects, the two were very different — righthanded vs. lefthanded, short vs. tall — but in their mentality, there was a great deal of overlap.
“Obviously [Sale] has great stuff, great deception, but every pitch he throws, he’s throwing a championship pitch,” said LeVangie. “There is a purpose to every pitch he throws. Then you add in his mentality on the mound, he doesn’t back down from anything. He doesn’t care about what hitter is in the box. He puts hitters away in big situations with runners in scoring position. Pedro, when he dominated, he didn’t allow guys to score. He was putting out all fires. When you have that ability to strike guys out, you have that weapon. They both had it.”
With runners on base this year, Sale is striking out 40 percent of all hitters — the highest rate in big league history by a starter. That is a product not just of his arsenal but also of relentless intensity.
“They’re physically intimidating, whether it’s visual, whether it’s their demeanor, their personality, I think that’s the final piece of the puzzle,” said Bannister. “You have to be able to intimidate hitters to get to that level of strikeouts because one of the things that causes swing and miss is you’re tough to face. He embodies all of that.”
The total package
To see any of those individual elements on a baseball field is rare. To see them all is extraordinary — helping to explain why veterans became breathless at the sight of Sale’s milestone on Wednesday night.
“You see the game every night, watch guys do special stuff, but this is something that we haven’t seen in a long time. It doesn’t happen that often,” said Porcello, who not only authored his own Cy Young season last year but also witnessed a pair of overpowering campaigns in Detroit from Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer and had never seen a 300-strikeout campaign. “It was kind of similar to watching [David Ortiz] hit his 500th [homer]. This was one season, that was a cumulative total of a Hall of Fame career, but it’s similar as far as taking a step back and being a fan, kind of soaking that moment in because you never know when you’re going to see it again.”