The most exciting youngster in baseball is theoretically the Nationals’ 19-year-old prodigy Bryce Harper, a Sports Illustrated cover boy in high school who looked the part: born to be an elite athlete. Like the last prospect of his youth and talent, Alex Rodriguez, on the field he’s almost uninterestingly prodigous; as a friend put it, when he’s at the plate he looks like he’s at a driving range. Like fellow five-tool outfielder Josh Hamilton, his success seems preordained; Hamilton nearly destroyed himself with drink and drugs, but such were his physical gifts that, upon sobriety, he reverted to being one of the best athletes in the country.
My favorite young player this year is a less obvious specimen: the White Sox’s living Edward Gorey sketch, Chris Sale. He’s listed at six-foot-six, one hundred and eighty pounds, presumably soaking wet and after a long lunch. And he’s filled out a bit since college. Sale is built to pitch, or possibly to be a headless horseman.
Coming into 2012, the class of the American League Central was Justin Verlander, the most reliably good pitcher in baseball and the best player in the division. Despite his mediocre 5-4 record, Verlander has been typically good. Sale has arguably been better:
A sore arm and a brief bullpen sojourn means Sale has 19 fewer innings than Verlander, but by other measures he’s been the better pitcher, if just by a hair. He’s allowed fewer runs; fewer baserunners; fewer home runs; stranded a higher percentage of the batters he allows on base; and is just barely striking out more batters and walking fewer than Verlander.
The best stories in the senior circuit have been Matt Cain and R.A. Dickey. The former just threw a perfect game; the latter is a mere appeal away from a no-hitter, has an amazing hard-luck story and—more amazingly, depending on whether you react to life stories or numbers—is walking fewer than two batters every nine innings, a miracle for a knuckleballer. (In Tim Wakefield’s best seasons, he walked 3.1 and 2.8 batters per nine innings; Charlie Hough never walked fewer than 3.8 per nine.) But Dickey and Cain pitch in the National League, and get to face a pitcher every nine batters or so.
It’s early yet, so the field is crowded, but more than a third of the way through the season, Sale’s made the case that the’s the best starter in baseball.
Related: The White Sox’s biggest surprise. (Hint: it’s not Sale, or Jake Peavy, or Adam Dunn.)
Photograph: Chicago Tribune