Chris Sale has come close to winning the Cy Young award on six occasions. That’s more than most batters who’ve come up against his slider can say, but it begs the question: why hasn’t the Red Sox ace — who’s dominated the majors for seven straight seasons now — taken home the prestigious prize?
First, the credentials. Sale has a 2.88 ERA, a 1.02 WHIP, and 1,629 strikeouts since he first cracked the White Sox’ starting rotation in 2012. For his entire career, he’s 101-62 with a 10.8 strikeouts-per-nine-innings ratio. On Tuesday night, he was handed the ball to start the All-Star Game for the third year in a row — the first pitcher to earn the honor since Hall of Famer Robin Roberts represented the National League from 1953-55.
“He’s Chris Sale. He comes at you with that 6-5 body with arms and legs going all over the place and he’s not throwing 86,” fellow All-Star Manny Machado said. “He’s throwing 98-99 and it’s just going to be a tough day at the office when you know he’s pitching. If you can get a hit off him, that’s a major accomplishment.”
For Sale to fill the second hole in his resume — the first being a World Series trophy — he’ll need the endorsement of baseball writers from across the country. The Cy Young is awarded by members of the BBWAA, two from each league city, who submit ballots based on a tabulation system that rewards seven points for first place, four for second, three for third, two for fourth and one for fifth.
Sale received his first Cy Young votes in 2012. That year — his first in the dugout instead of the bullpen —he finished sixth with 17 points and no first- or second-place votes. The award went to his current teammate, David Price, who narrowly edged Justin Verlander on the strength of his league-leading 2.56 ERA and 20 wins.
The following season, Sale moved up to fifth in the final tally and received one first-place nod. There was no danger of tiebreakers at the top in 2013, as Max Scherzer blew away the competition with 21 wins, a 0.97 WHIP, and 240 strikeouts.
Things got a bit interesting for Sale in 2014, when he placed third in the voting. However, his point total depended heavily on third-place ballots and did not include any first-place votes. The writers determined the pitchers ahead of him simply had better seasons.
Sale posted a 2.17 ERA, recorded 208 strikeouts, and had a 10.8 strikeouts-per-nine ratio. Corey Kluber (2.44/ 269/10.3) won the Cy Young, while Felix Hernandez (2.14/268/9.5) finished runner-up. The difference between Sale and the other two stat lines? Kluber and Hernandez threw 235 2/3 and 236 innings respectively. Sale missed time with an elbow injury and only pitched in 174.
His play — and his Cy Young votes — took a half-step backwards in 2015 and 2016. He was still an excellent weapon for the White Sox, but his ERA and WHIP edged north as he finished fourth, then fifth, in the eyes of the BBWA.
Last season was far and away Sale’s best chance to win the award. At the All-Star break, it looked all but certain that he would. At that point in the year he had struck out 178 batters in 127.2 innings, and even in mid-August he had a 14-4 record and 2.51 ERA to his name. However, Sale faltered down the stretch.
In his final eight starts of the regular season, the newly-signed Red Sox went 3-4 with a 4.30 ERA. Sale still finished the season with a more-than-respectable 17-8 mark and a league-leading 308 strikeouts, but he was caught by a pitcher trending in the opposite direction.
Kluber surged over the second half of the season to win his second Cy Young award. The Cleveland Indians right-hander landed on the disabled list with a back injury in May, but when he returned he was lights-out. Kluber went 15-2 with a 1.62 ERA once the calendar turned to June, wrapping up a sensational season with an 18-4 record, a 2.25 ERA, and 265 strikeouts against 36 walks.
When the writers cast their ballots, 28 selected Kluber with their first-place vote. Two chose Sale — Jason Mastrodonato of the Boston Herald and Bruce Levine from CBSChicago.com. It was the Red Sox ace’s best ever finish in the voting, but he still fell 78 points short of the coveted prize.
This year, Sale is again on pace to take the Cy Young home as the league pauses for the midsummer classic. In addition to the breathing room between him and the next-best pitcher by punch-outs, Sale owns the best ERA and WAR in the American League. Barring another late slump, this could be the year Sale puts the question at the top of this story to rest.