MLB.com Columnist

Anthony Castrovince

Comparing Sale to Big Unit makes sense

Comparing Sale to Big Unit makes sense

CLEVELAND -- Chris Sale looks the part. He relishes the part. He even acts the part.

But it would be incorrect to call Sale the new Randy Johnson. After all, many of his numbers at this point in his career are even better than those of the Big Unit.

Now, of course, there's simply no telling if Sale will enjoy nearly as long and productive career as Johnson when all is said and done. But there's also no denying that he's made a more seamless transition to the big leagues than the once-wild Johnson did:

Sale's numbers over 103 games started since joining the rotation in 2012: 48-31 record; 2.80 ERA; 706 innings pitched; 789 strikeouts; eight complete games; and one shutout.

Johnson's first 103 starts, from 1988-1992: 40-35; 3.99; 641 1/3 innings; 610 K's; 12 CG; and five shutouts.

Historic Hall class gearing up for induction

So as we celebrate one lanky lefty with sterling strikeout stuff on the National Baseball Hall of Fame stage this weekend, let's also enjoy another. The Big Unit's going in the Hall on Sunday in Cooperstown, N.Y., and the New Unit's on the hill on Saturday at Progressive Field.

MLB Central: The Cycle

But Sale said it's hard to even comprehend the Johnson comparison.

"How many times have you seen guys come up and have a handful of good years?" he said. "I'm not going to sit here and say, 'I'm going to do it' or 'I'm going to be the best' because you've seen it time and time again, guys have two good years and they are done, three good years and they are done. So there's a lot more work to do to be in that category than I have right now."

Very true. In fact, last we checked, Sale hasn't destroyed any in-flight birds with his fastball yet.

Still, this is about as natural a comparison as can be made when you look at this year's Hall of Fame class.

Tall builds -- Johnson is 6-foot-10, Sale 6-6. Power fastballs. Sick sliders. 

"Sale's more changeup than Randy was," White Sox manager Robin Ventura said. "Randy was just fastball-slider for a long time, and then the changeup kind of came in with it. But [in terms of] angle and everything, Randy probably was a little taller, but I can't really think of any other lefty [as closely aligned]. It's just easy to kind of group them together."

Johnson excited for induction

Growing up in Lakeland, Fla., Sale idolized the Big Unit. So he joined the many among us pleased to see Johnson get the Cooperstown call on the first ballot.

That said, as late as his age-28 season, Johnson did not profile as a first-ballot Hall of Famer. He led the league in walks in 1990, '91 and '92 and had to make major adjustments to get under control. And it's not at all unusual for even the most elite athletes to be humbled at the Major League level early in their careers, the way Johnson was.

This is what makes the 26-year-old Sale such a special breed. Drafted out of Florida Gulf Coast University in 2010, he made just 22 Minor League appearances -- all in relief -- before coming up to the big leagues. And despite rampant questions in the industry about whether he had the build to handle prolonged starter duties, he's become one of the game's true studs, finishing in the top six of the American League Cy Young Award voting each of the last three years and rattling off a record-tying eight consecutive 10-plus-strikeout performances earlier this year.

"It's all been learning at this level," Ventura said. "There was no figuring it out in the Minor Leagues. It's been here, against the best hitters in the world. So to have numbers like that is kind of mind-boggling."

Sale boggles minds just about every time he takes the mound.

"What do you want? His 98-mph fastball that comes from behind me? Or his slider that starts from behind me and ends at the belt away?" said Indians second baseman Jason Kipnis, who has hit .235 with a walk and three K's in 17 career at-bats vs. Sale. "It's tough, because you want to eliminate one of his pitches and think all-fastball, but it takes a second to see it coming and it's funky and it's also 98 mph. So not only do you have to guess right, but then you have to execute against it. It's not fun."

Sale has made a conscious and understandable decision to use his slider less frequently of late, in an effort to prevent the elbow ligament stress that so often leads to Tommy John surgery. Clearly, this change in approach has not had much of an effect on his performance.

"I think he's even pumped it up a little bit and stepped it up a notch," Kipnis said. "He battles on the mound, too. It's not just stuff with him. It's almost angry pitching. If you get a hit, he's going to make sure you don't get another one. The way he competes is outstanding."

Ventura added: "He's become very good at protecting himself with his changeup. Where it's at now, he doesn't use the nasty, nasty slider quite as much as before. But it's still there. You can tell when he throws it just from the reactions of the opposing players."

That's the kind of stuff they used to say about Johnson back in the day. And while nobody's prepping Sale's Hall plaque just yet, sometimes it's nice to remember to appreciate the present even as we applaud the past.

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.