Major League Baseball reached a relatively rare milestone this weekend when Washington Nationals ace Max Scherzer‘s 12 strikeouts in Sunday night’s game against the Atlanta Braves put him at the top of the National League with 163; coupled with 166 strikeouts from Boston Red Sox hurler Chris Sale, the MLB record books will print just the ninth season in which an American League pitcher and one from the NL each have over 160 strikeouts prior to the All-Star break.
The last instance occurred in 1999, when two of the greatest pitchers in the sport’s history, Randy Johnson and Pedro Martinez, accomplished the feat. Both Johnson (Arizona Diamondbacks) and Martinez (Boston Red Sox) won their league’s Cy Young Award — it isn’t hyperbole to say that with the trajectory Sale and Scherzer are on now, the two pitchers could do likewise and win the two Cy Young honors.
Frankly, they are each deserving of such an award at this moment in time: Scherzer, an All-Star for each of the last five seasons, holds a record of 10-5 with an ERA under 2.00, while Sale, the AL’s likely starting pitcher in next week’s All-Star Game, sits at 11-3 with a K/9 of 12.38.
But what makes their domination in their respective leagues of play interesting is their extremely contrasting styles of pitching. To say they could be more dissimilar would be a stretch; watching Sale pitch and then watching Scherzer — or vice versa — requires quite the eye adjustment.
First, Scherzer is a righty, and regarded to be the best in the world in terms of right-handed pitchers; Sale is a southpaw whose deceptive talent as far as lefties go contends with even former NL MVP Clayton Kershaw. Also, they don’t really throw with the same swagger, so to speak.
Sale, for example, relies on three pitches: a fastball that typically sits anywhere from 95 to 98 miles per hour, a changeup that can fork down to the high-70s, and his nasty slider that ranges from 85 to 90 MPH. As a lanky, 6-foot-6 pitcher, Sale has the ability to simply catapult the ball into oblivion and mystify batters from each side of the plate.
Sale has a side arm delivery that allows his long arms to swirl all the way across his body before his leg-kicking motion begins to come into fruition.
Scherzer is much different in delivery. His pitch regimen consists of a four-seam fastball (92-96 MPH range), a changeup and slider that fall into the mid-80s, and a sparing curveball that isn’t in use too often but can fool batters from each side.
His delivery is not quite sidearm, but pretty unorthodox: his rotation is almost the opposite of Sale’s body-twisting, sidearm stance, as Scherzer keeps his arm at about three quarters length low and uses pure finesse to fire the ball away.
Aside from their separation in pitching mechanics, Scherzer and Sale took far different paths to the major leagues. Scherzer was at one time a fringe bullpen prospect for the Arizona Diamondbacks, who later dealt the pitcher who was born with heterochromia iridum — a condition where a person’s eyes are two different colors — to the Detroit Tigers.
Scherzer developed his borderline-unhittable offspeed pitches and became a superstar with Detroit, going 13-0 into July of 2013 and winning the American League Cy Young Award. Scherzer would later sign with Washington in January 2015, where his combined record of 44-24 with a 2.68 ERA and a Cy Young puts his atop the board in the NL.
Sale, however, experienced immediate success straight out of Florida Gulf Coast University, as the Chicago White Sox drafted him 13th overall in his eventual debut season of 2010. After success in the White Sox bullpen, Sale transitioned to a starting role and became an All-Star in 2012, which began his current streak of six straight All-Star Game appearances.
While Sale’s immense talent, unlike Scherzer, has always been enjoyed, this season is truly the first in which he plays for a potential pennant contender. The Boston Red Sox would arguably be a much different team if Sale hadn’t been obtained from the White Sox this past offseason, as Sale has accounted for 21.5 percent of Boston’s total of 770 strikeouts.
You’d think with these two in different leagues that the possibility of a Scherzer vs. Sale matchup in the near future is extremely unlikely, but when both pitchers were on their previous teams, the two faced off twice in 2014. Scherzer walked away a winner on June 12 with a complete game shutout over Sale’s White Sox as the Tigers won, 4-0. Sale rebounded against the defending Cy Young winner at the time on August 30, when his 13 strikeouts overcame the Tigers’ stout offense and completed his 11th win of an otherwise meaningless season for the Sox.
Nonetheless, essentially the only similarity between the two pitchers is the fact that their status as some of the game’s top pitchers is indisputable. While the eye adjustment is odd when you see Sale’s awkward, rubbery, sidearm delivery from the left side followed by Scherzer’s lopsided, finessed, righty rotation, they’re each to be cherished and enjoyed.
Hopefully we see Sale face off against Scherzer yet again, as the two most-dominant and deceptive pitchers in baseball are giving it their all this season. It’s even more intriguing to think about the possibility of a Red Sox vs. Nationals World Series and watching the two most contrasting pitchers in baseball destroy opposing batters for seven-plus innings.