By Bruce Levine–
GLeNDALE, Ariz. (CBS) — If you are one of the most dominant pitchers in baseball, why would you want to make an effort on getting hitters making more contact with your pitches?
This question is one that the White Sox ace left-hander Chris Sale is working on solving this spring as he focuses on retiring hitters earlier in the count.
“I threw three or four (sliders),” Sale said after allowing two runs on six hits while striking out three in 5 1/3 innings against the Dodgers on Saturday. “I was just trying to command the strike zone. I was just working on fastball command, and to be truthful it was a little shaky.”
After playing a role in the Adam LaRoche drama this week when he blasted White Sox executive vice president for what he called lying, Sale was happy to just take the mound and pitch.
“We are here to play baseball, and collectively as a group we are doing that,” Sale said. “Hopefully when day one comes, we will be as good anyone. From yesterday forward we are showing up to play baseball. I don’t think there is anything else to talk about. We have a job to do and moving forward, that’s what we are here for.”
In order to micromanage his pitch selection and pitch count, Sale’s working in a new direction with pitching coach Don Cooper. In late January, he met with Cooper to define his pitching methods going forward this year. The two had a meeting of the minds on using more pitches that would create early contact and easier innings to get through.
Saturday marked the first real competitive outing of the spring for Sale, who previously had only pitched in simulated and B games.
“I was very ready for this,” Sale said. “There is a difference between getting on the big field with a crowd there, atmosphere and music playing. I was prepared and jacked up for it.”
Because Sale has always been a max-effort pitcher, the idea of using more contact-inducing pitches would help plant a different seed of acumen. Many fastball pitchers learn this lesson early in there career. Rotation mate John Danks experienced such a career arc after shoulder surgery took away his velocity.
“Chris has already been pitching to contact,” Danks said. “The reality is his stuff is just to tough to hit. His issue isn’t throwing strikes, he already is trying to make them hit it. He is just that good, you can’t hit him. So that said, the only (thing to) tell him to pitch to contact is to throw it a little easier. I guess the best way for him to get out of innings earlier is strike them out.”
Of course, Danks was kidding on the last part, but he was also pointing out how good Sale is.
“That is a good call for him,” catcher Dioner Navarro said. “That is a good mindset to use your stuff more wisely and save your stuff and bullets for October and November. If he does that well, that will do nothing but help the team and himself out.”
Navarro has caught numerous pitchers who have dialed it down in order to pitch it better.
“James Shields, Scott Kazmir, David Price, even Clayton Kershaw,” Navarro said of pitchers he saw change their approach to pitching. “These are power guys with bulldog mentality who learned not to try and strike everyone out.”
When relying on secondary stuff, a pitcher must have a belief in his catcher and what’s being called.
“That is my job and what I get paid for,” Navarro said. “I like the challenge of helping them get better and using their minds in different ways. If I give my best, I expect that from the pitcher.”
Sale will build up toward 100 pitches on March 24 before scaling back to 60 or so on March 29. That will put him in line with six days rest for his Opening Day assignment in Oakland on April 4.
“We always try to build up to 100 pitches,” Sale said. “That is where you are going to be at during the season.We build up there and then try to get a three- or four-inning start on (March 29).”
Bruce Levine covers the Cubs and White Sox for 670 The Score and CBSChicago.com. Follow him on Twitter @MLBBruceLevine.