ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Chris Sale threw 3,327 pitches to Sandy Leon over the course of 31 games last season. Not once did he shake his head when Leon called a pitch to ask for something else.
It sounds impossible. Surely there had to be a time or two when Sale disagreed with the choice his catcher made. The lefthander is one of the best pitchers of his generation and knows his own abilities better than anyone.
Most starters consider signals from the catcher to be suggestions, not orders. Some even call their own games. But Sale just nods and gets into his delivery.
“He threw every pitch I called,” Leon said. “He never shook me off.”
Sale happily confirmed it.
“I know, I was there,” he said.
Sale has made not thinking an act of brilliance. The 28-year-old is set to make his fourth career Opening Day start on Thursday when the Red Sox face the Tampa Bay Rays.
If the coming season is like the others, Sale will make the All-Star team, win 17 games, and strike out roughly a third of the batters he faces. His statistics compare favorably to those of Madison Bumgarner, Corey Kluber, and Stephen Strasburg.
“If he’s not the best, he’s close,” said new teammate J.D. Martinez, who has faced Sale more than any other pitcher in his career.
“He has this weird, lanky body and a weird, lanky delivery that makes it hard to find the ball,” Martinez said. “When you do find it, it’s coming in hot and you have to be ready to go. It’s not easy; it’s not fun.”
Martinez spends countless hours studying pitchers to glean bits of information that can give him an edge when he comes to the plate. He watches video and breaks down scouting reports, sopping up as much information as he can to find exploitable tendencies.
“I go to sleep thinking about it,” Martinez said. “I’m a little crazy about preparation.”
But Sale was a safe he never cracked.
“Completely unpredictable. He does things for no reason,” Martinez said. “That’s what makes him so good.”
Martinez has 42 career plate appearances against Sale. He has more home runs (3) against him than any other pitcher but also more strikeouts (16).
“I’ve hit him pretty well when I’ve made contact,” Martinez said. “But that doesn’t happen much.”
Leon knows the feeling. He faced Sale in one game, on June 21, 2016, at Fenway Park. Leon struck out twice, but he did have a single.
“A broken-bat looper,” Leon said. “I was lucky. He was so nasty. It wasn’t fun. I’m glad he’s on my team.”
Sale approaches every batter with a clean slate. He lets the catcher, pitching coach, and advance scouts decide what’s best.
Sale’s four-seam fastball, slider, and changeup are all above-average pitches, so any combination is effective. In a big situation, almost every starter has a pitch he doesn’t quite trust. Not Sale; they’re all good.
“You have to be careful what pitch you want to call, some hitters hit certain pitches better than others,” Leon said. “But every pitch I call for Chris I like.
“His slider is nasty. But I like his fastball more than his slider. He can locate it to both sides of the plate or slow it down. He can throw his change at any time. He can locate any pitch at any time. That’s why he’s Chris Sale.”
There’s freedom in leaving the decisions to others. Sale considers it his job to pitch, not ponder. His role is unfolding that “weird, lanky” 6-foot-6-inch, 185-pound body and throwing the ball.
“If I was smart, I’d be a scientist,” he said. “It takes the thinking aspect out of the game. For me, if I’m thinking in my mind, ‘I want to throw a fastball right here,’ and [the catcher] throws down a slider or changeup, I now have doubt in my mind.
“You never want to go out on that field with a single doubt, it’ll eat you alive. I throw every pitch with a purpose and whichever one it is, that’s what I go with it.”
Developing that level of trust in the catcher is a product of knowing there is no wrong choice.
“That would be a pretty arrogant thing to say. But I have confidence in myself, I do,” Sale said. “I don’t want to come off as arrogant or cocky, but you have to. If you’re not confident in what you’re putting out you’re kind of wasting your time.”
When Sale started to compare his process to a writer finishing a story, a reporter laughed. Bad idea.
“Seriously, I’m not joking. This is real,” Sale said. “If you’re not confident in what you’re putting out, don’t do it. For me, that’s where I’m at.”
Red Sox manager Alex Cora hopes to see that competitiveness rub off on his younger pitchers. As bench coach of the Astros last season, he marveled at Sale’s determination.
“The way he pitches, it seems like every pitch is a championship pitch with him,” Cora said. “You’re like, ‘Wow.’ Which is great. There are a few guys who can learn that and compete the way he does.
“I’m not saying they don’t compete. I’m saying it would be great if everybody gets to that level. Is it hard to do? Of course, yes. That’s why he’s one of the best in the big leagues.”
Chris Archer, who is starting for the Rays, said every pitcher has the goal of “mindful intent” on every pitch.
But it’s easy to get caught up thinking ahead or get annoyed by an umpire’s call. Distractions abound in a major league ballpark.
“To maximize your potential as a starting pitcher, you have to be mindful of every pitch,” Archer said. “The way [Sale] mixes pitches is what impresses me. Not only does he have high-end stuff, it’s such a mix that the hitter can’t wait for one particular one.”
Sale finished second in the Cy Young Award voting last season and the Red Sox made a quick exit from the playoffs. There is still much he can accomplish and it starts Thursday.
It also will start with a new catcher. Leon caught all but one of Sale’s starts last season but Christian Vazquez has him for the opener. Their history together is only 5⅓ innings.
Cora sees Vazquez as his primary catcher and wants him to get comfortable with Sale. He also trusts the scouting report Vazquez will refer to.
“I know we’re going to get Chris’s best,” Cora said. “We always do.”