Chris Sale's Brilliant Campaign Reaches A Boiling Point

August 28, 2012; Baltimore, MD, USA; Chicago White Sox starting pitcher Chris Sale (49) pitches in the first inning against the Baltimore Orioles at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. Mandatory Credit: Joy R. Absalon-US PRESSWIRE

Chris Sale has developed into a Cy Young candidate this season for the Chicago White Sox. SB Nation Chicago's Ricky O'Donnell just hopes the 23-year old left-hander can hold up.

Though the team has made a habit of staying competitive throughout the summer for the better part of two decades, there's a subset of plugged-in baseball cynics who will always associate the Chicago White Sox with two things: a refusal to pay for top talent in the amateur draft and routinely dismal farm systems. The latter is a consequence of the former, of course, and it doesn't help that longtime general manager Kenny Williams never hesitates to deal any mildly appealing prospect for immediate big league help. Coming into this season, the White Sox's farm system was view by some as historically barren, a crippled dud the franchise wore like a scarlet letter.

It's a bit astonishing, then, that baseball's most impoverished minor league ranks have produced a burgeoning 23-year Cy Young candidate this season on the South Side.

Well, maybe we shouldn't give the White Sox's farm system too much credit. Chris Sale pitched exactly 10.1 innings in the minors before being called up just 58 days after Chicago made him the 13th overall selection in the 2010 draft. Sale slid because of signability issues; the White Sox wisely offered the Florida Gulf Coast pitcher the chance to quickly ascend the ranks and kickstart his service clock in exchange for slot value. It's worked out better than anyone could have ever imagined, as Sale has established himself as one of baseball's best pitchers in 2012 and has helped turn the White Sox into a surprising contender in the American League.

It is a joy to watch Chris Sale throw a baseball. His fastball, which threatened triple-digits during his halcyon bullpen days last season, routinely touches 96. His slider is devastating. His changeup has been called one of the 10 best pitching weapons in baseball. He does it all with an angular delivery that keeps hitters off-balance. If success on the mound is defined by changing speeds and locating pitches with added deception, Sale has the formula down to a tee. He has been certifiably nasty this season, making a fool out of some of baseball's best hitters on his way to a mind-blowing debut campaign as a starter.

We'll leave the final endorsement to New York Yankees first baseman and perennial All-Star Mark Teixeira, who said of Sale: "It’s like facing a closer three times."

This was Teixeira's closing statement after Sale struck out 13 Yankees on August 22 to earn his 15th win of the season. It was a pitching poetry in motion, the type of A++ performance against an elite squad so few harbor the capacity to unleash. It was indicative of Sale's talent and a summation of a season's worth of brilliant work.

Things didn't go as well in Sale's next start, though. The Baltimore Orioles touched him up for six hits and four runs over just four innings, his shortest outing of the season. Something just looked off: Sale still struck out five, but his command wasn't there and neither was his velocity. To wit: in the start against Baltimore, Sale's average fastball only clocked at 90.3, the lowest it's been all season.

Was this cause for concern, or just one bad start?

Time will tell, because it always does. It could go either way. Two of baseball's other elite pitchers were also rocked on the same day. Washington's 24-year old ace Stephen Strasburg allowed nine hits and seven runs over five innings against the Marlins, while Detroit's Justin Verlander lasted less than six innings for the first time in two years, surrendering eight runs on 12 hits against those pesky Royals.

Baseball season is eternal and the physical damage pitchers endure is palpable. Great players and great teams find a second wind as the playoffs approach and summer gives way to autumn, though a tired arm at the end of August is nothing to be ashamed of. The worry is multiplied with Sale because he's never thrown so many innings before. To date, Sale has tossed 157 innings this season, exactly 86 more than he's ever thrown in the big leagues. That's a lot of stress for such a touted young arm. It's a factoid that also helps any White Sox fan retroactively value Mark Buehrle even more for his durability over such a long period of time.

Strasburg is an interesting case study for Sale. The Nationals are the best team in the N.L. and Strasburg is the best pitcher on a strong staff, though the team has made it very clear he's working with a 180 inning hard cap. They are protecting their prized young arm, even if it costs them a World Series. That's right: if and when the Nationals reach the postseason, Strasburg won't be allowed to pitch. While the rest of the free world finds this asinine, Washington is sticking to its guns.

The Sox very easily could be doing the same thing with Sale, particularly after talk of a tender elbow in May momentarily banished the him to the bullpen. That experiment was short-lived and Sale has come back stronger than ever. The Sox have gone a different route: they've tried a six-man rotation, let Sale skip a start here and there, and attempt to give him as much rest as possible. One dominant pitcher can bring a lot of postseason glory, and the Sox know their chances hinge on Sale's left arm.

Baseball has millions of stats, some that will scare you straight, some that will assure times have never better better. Sale boasts a 4.1 WAR right now according to Fangraphs, making him the third most valuable pitcher in the American League. His performance this season has been worth $18.6 million. The Sox are paying him just $500,000.

On the flip side? Sale has a 6.67 ERA in six starts with fewer than nine days rest after the All-Star break.

The Tigers welcome the Sox on Friday, and the race for the Central is reaching its climax. It's fitting that the last football-less Sunday will feature Sale going against Verlander, the pitching matchup everyone wants to see under the most pressure-packed of circumstances. The Bears are great, but be sure to hang with these White Sox. The way Sale is going, there could be a huge reward waiting at the end of the season.

Ricky O'Donnell is the editor of SB Nation Chicago and the founder of the Chicago sports blog Tremendous Upside Potential. Follow him on Twitter or reach him at richardpodonnell@gmail.com.

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