NEW YORK -- Six years ago, upon being crowned American League MVP, Detroit Tigers ace Justin Verlander agreed with the popular opinion that it should be more difficult for a starting pitcher to win the award than a position player.
"Having the chance to play in 160-some games, in the case of [teammate] Miguel [Cabrera], they can have a huge impact every day," Verlander said at the time. "That's why I've talked about, on my day, on a pitcher's day, the impact we have is tremendous on that game. So you have to have a great impact almost every time out to supersede [position players], and it happens on rare occasions."
This season has been one of those occasions.
When Chris Sale scales the mound Sunday night at Yankee Stadium, consider his sheer dominance over the game every fifth day or so for the past four months. Not only does he lead the league in ERA (2.57), he has piled up at least 10 strikeouts in 15 of 23 starts, including eight in a row earlier in the season. The Boston Red Sox lefty has fanned 12.77 hitters per nine innings, the third-highest rate of all time behind Randy Johnson in 2001 (13.41) and Pedro Martinez in 1999 (13.20). At this pace, he will become the first American League pitcher to punch out 300 batters in a season since Martinez did so 18 years ago.
Sale has a 14-4 record and the Red Sox are 17-6 in his starts, numbers that would be even better if only he had received more support in a 2-1 loss in Detroit on April 10, a 3-0 loss to the Yankees on April 27, a 3-2 loss at Oakland on May 19 and a 1-0 loss in Philadelphia on June 15, when he recorded the team's only extra-base hit.
But here's the truest testament to Sale's value, a more powerful statement than even the most eye-popping statistic can make: With three series in four weeks against the second-place Yankees, Boston manager John Farrell arranged the starting rotation to guarantee that his ace will face them three times.
And so, it's abundantly clear that Sale is the most valuable player to the Red Sox, even more than All-Star right fielder Mookie Betts. But if Sale does his thing over the next few weeks, beginning Sunday on the biggest stage in the Big Apple in front of a national television audience (ESPN, 8 p.m. ET), he really should cement an even loftier status.
Simple as that. Or at least it should be.
"As dominant as he's been, with the exception of an outing or two, we're talking about a difference-maker in the standings, in the feel of the team," Farrell says. "What he means to our team, yeah, he should be in that conversation."
There will be objectors. Some MVP voters, all of whom are members of the Baseball Writers' Association of America, simply won't consider a starting pitcher, citing the fact that pitching excellence is recognized annually with the Cy Young Award. Sale, who hasn't won a Cy Young despite finishing in the top five in the voting four years in a row, has a challenger for that award, too. Cleveland Indians ace Corey Kluber doesn't get as much attention but nevertheless is 10-3 with a 2.65 ERA and 12.4 strikeouts per nine innings.
In 62 years, the only starting pitchers to win the Cy Young and MVP in the same season are Don Newcombe (1956), Sandy Koufax (1963), Bob Gibson and Denny McLain (1968), Vida Blue (1971), Roger Clemens (1986), Verlander and Clayton Kershaw (2014). Relievers Rollie Fingers (1981), Willie Hernandez (1984) and Dennis Eckersley (1992) won both awards, too.
In 2011, Verlander led the league in wins (24), ERA (2.40) and strikeouts (250) for a Tigers club that won the AL Central. Although he received 13 of 28 first-place votes, he appeared on just 27 ballots and defeated then-Red Sox center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury by a 280-242 margin. Jose Bautista, Curtis Granderson and Cabrera also got first-place votes.
"I think there were a couple of factors: First of all, he had a spectacular year and we had a great year," says Red Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski, who was in charge in Detroit in 2011. "The other thing attached to it was that, as I recollect, there wasn't a clear-cut positional player that was also in the MVP conversation. I think that's part of the situation when we start talking about it, how that evolves."
In accepting the award, Verlander said "a starting pitcher has to do something special to be as valuable or more so than a position player." In Sale's case, the strikeouts are both special and potentially historic.
The value? For the increasing number of voters who look to the all-encompassing wins above replacement metric as a measure of value, Sale's 7.0 FanGraphs WAR (fWAR) is higher than slumping Yankees slugger Aaron Judge (6.0) and Altuve (5.9). He already has more fWAR than Verlander in 2011 (6.4) and is approaching Kershaw’s fWAR from 2014 (7.6).
Sale can strengthen his MVP candidacy with three victories against the Yankees.
"It's too early to talk about that," says superstitious Red Sox catcher Sandy Leon, who has been behind the plate for all but one of Sale's starts and has gained so much of his trust that the ace almost never shakes him off. "I know we've got almost five months, but still, he's probably got eight more starts, nine more starts and then, you never know, hopefully playoffs, hopefully World Series. We've still got a long way to go. Just want him to keep making it happen."
Sale, 28, has pitched in a true pennant race only once in his career as a starter, and it didn't go particularly well. In 2012, the Chicago White Sox weren't eliminated from contention until the season's final week. Sale, in his first season as a starter, went 3-5 with a 4.22 ERA over his final nine starts and saved his shortest start of the season for last, a 3 1/3-inning performance in which he allowed five runs against the Tampa Bay Rays on Sept. 29.
"It's everything. It's what we're here for," Sale says of another chance to reach the postseason. "We're here to play important games and win important games, and we have been, not only me personally, but everybody in here. We look forward to this challenge."
And if Sale meets it, his MVP credentials will be beyond reproach.