I initially saw the headline that Sale had struck out eleven batters in his first rehab start since being sent to the DL on April 22. A little more information makes that figure even more impressive - Sale struck out eleven batters in only four innings. Other pieces of context: This was against a AAA team, not your classic High A rehab game where all Sale would have to do is throw offspeed junk in the dirt and let them get themselves out. On the other hand, this is a AAA team that sent Ray Olmedo of all people to the plate to lead off, so this wasn't exactly the AL All Star team either. What does this mean for Sale and the White Sox going forward?
Sale will evidently make one more rehab start before returning to the majors, all with the caveat of "depending on how he's feeling." That makes sense, as this injury cropped up in the first place on the heels of a dominant outing against Boston - it's not like his performance was noticeably hindered in any way - so it really seems to be the recovery from pitching that is crucial.
Personally, I am going to be keeping a close eye on Sale's pitch count for the foreseeable future. Short term, he threw 68 pitches in his first rehab start, and was apparently on a hard cap of 75. It would make sense that, if all goes well, his next outing he will probably be capped somewhere around 90, which scales nicely to being back to full duty when he returns to the majors.
But once he returns, is Robin Ventura going to be left to his own devices? Or is the organization as a whole going to take a more careful approach? As cliche as it sounds to have the blogger whine about the tactics of the team's manager, I submit that Robin Ventura cannot be trusted with Sale's usage.
I have made no secret of my issues with how Ventura deploys his pitching staff. In 2012, a year where the White Sox only needed to win an extra game here or there in order to pass Detroit for the division title, Ventura fumbled away winnable games by treating 1-run deficits as mop-up situations and intentionally walking guys like Chris Getz and Jeff Francoeur.
More to the point of this article, Ventura clearly showed no concept of preserving valuable resources in a lost season in 2013. Most famously, from August 16-27th last year, Addison Reed made nine appearances, including six games in a row, and two separate instances of pitching three days straight. This was despite the fact that the White Sox entered that stretch with a record of 47-74 and sat 23.5 games back in the division. On a 99-loss team, Ventura thought it was worth absolutely abusing a good 24-year old relief pitcher chasing wins -- and although the bullpen wasn't great, it's not like he didn't have any other options.
Below the radar, Sale was similarly being overworked, particularly in a season where it was abundantly clear that the best tactic was to live to fight another day, as the battle for 2013 was already lost. For example, in the month of July, Chris Sale only made four starts due to the All Star Break (although he pitched in the All Star Game as well). I am going to list the pitch counts he had in these games, including the final score, but as you're reading these remember that the White Sox started the month 10.5 games back with a record of 33-47 and had given no indication of having any life whatsoever:
July 6 -- 118 pitches, 0-3 loss to Tampa Bay.
July 11 -- 124 pitches, 6-3 win over Detroit.
July 16 -- 24 pitches -- two dazzling innings in an All Star Game win.
July 22 -- 119 pitches, 3-7 loss to Detroit.
July 27 -- 115 pitches, 0-1 loss to Kansas City.
Is any one of these particularly egregious? Not necessarily. None of these is the Edwin Jackson 149-pitch, 8-walk no hitter, for example. And in any given instance Ventura is technically correct that Sale is the best option to get an out or win a game. He's the best pitcher on the team. At any point in these games where Sale was at 105 pitches or so and was working on a long streak of throwing heavy pitch counts, Ventura would be right saying, "Sending Sale back out there gives me the best chance to win this game right now."
But that approach is shortsighted. Sale is hopefully going to be the ace of the staff for years. Are you really chasing 4th place in the AL Central that hard that Sale needs to throw pitches 105-119 in a game where you are almost certainly going to lose? And yeah, the relievers aren't as good as Sale, but it's not like they're a lock to give up a million runs. They are professionals paid to get hitters out as well.
In 2013, from May 1 to July 31, Sale threw fewer than 100 pitches once, when he threw 98 in a complete game shutout of the Angels. Ventura gets no credit for that as Sale just dominated his way into a shorter evening than usual. Over the course of that 14-start stretch, as the White Sox cratered their way to the #3 overall draft pick, Sale threw 115 or more pitches nine times, and hit 110 and 113 in two more games.
I generally think it's good to maximize the output you have from your best starters, and not all pitchers are created equal in terms of the workload they can handle. That said, although this is Sale's first real trip to the DL, he is a guy who has had to miss a start here or there for extra rest -- indeed, the White Sox front office issued some panicky missives in 2012 that he would be moved to the bullpen forever due to pain Sale experienced as part of his workload as a starter. He is by far the most valuable piece in the organization, and Ventura has shown no interest in making sure he gets periodic rest. Ventura just keeps Sale in 5th gear at all times, as evidenced by Sale's most recent 127 pitch start against Boston - in freaking April! - that landed him on the DL.
I don't advocate strict pitch counts or coddling Sale to the point where he's only going 5 or 6 innings, but at the same time, it seems wise to ease off the throttle a little bit once a month or so. In my opinion, Ventura has demonstrated that he does not appreciate the marathon-esque character of a baseball season, and the power to make this decision should be completely taken out of his hands at this point. You don't let a 6-year old drive a Ferrari.
A piece of optimism: Ventura's recklessness with the pitchers that he trusts seems directly proportionate to just how scared he is of using the relievers he does not trust. With the White Sox bullpen morphing from a disaster to a weapon, perhaps Ventura will feel more comfortable pulling his starter at the appropriate time.
As a bit of a non sequitur, according to Baseball-Reference, Chris Sale's nickname is "The Condor." I cannot really recall ever hearing that nickname, and while it conjures up images of the fact that he is thin, lanky, and cool, it somewhat less fortunately implies that he is in imminent danger of going extinct.