I wouldn't consider myself a Gin Blossoms fan, but there's a lyric from "Hey, Jealousy" that pops into my mind from time to time. The song is about relationships, as all songs from that era not named "Whoomp! (There it is)" are, but there's a lyric that can apply to family, dating, the office, or even baseball players: "If you don't expect too much from me, you might not be let down." And now I feel like I've unlocked the answer of why so many people like Jeff Francoeur.
Baseball or not, it's certainly harder to be disappointed when you already have low expectations. Personally, I'll admit I'm probably too cynical when it comes to baseball and when a player outperforms their expected production, in the back of my mind I'm always wondering if today will be the day that they start struggling. It's not that I want it to happen, but there's something comforting in knowing that baseball has its own gravitational pull: Just like the baseballs themselves, any player that goes up, must eventually come down. The only difference is that there isn't a formula as simple as g = 9.8 m/s^2 for determining when a player will come back down, but we seem to universally accept that some point, it's likely to happen.
After trading Edwin Jackson in July 2011 and deciding not to re-sign free agent Mark Buehrle, the White Sox needed at least one more starter for 2012. Instead of seeking an expensive veteran, the Sox decided to move Chris Sale from the bullpen to the rotation to fill the void. Sale had been of the better relievers the White Sox had in 2011, with 10.0 strikeouts-per-nine in 71 innings pitched, but his high velocity fastball and nasty* slider combination seemed like a better fit to assume the closer role instead. It's tough on a pitcher to make the transition to the rotation -- the innings increase alone is arduous -- so it wasn't unreasonable for armchair managers to question whether or not the White Sox were making the right decision.
*Other words I've heard to describe Chris Sale's slider include: unhittable, unfair, filthy, magical, and mind-blowing. Perhaps my favorite description, however, came when I was sitting behind home plate and a friend let out an audible gasp the first time he saw his slider bend.
In Sale's case, questioning the decision seemed justified, the "I told you so" moment every cynic waits for always imminent. After all, at a slim 6'6" and 180 pounds, it was possible Sale's frame could not sustain a starter's innings. Others thought his unconventional pitching delivery, with wonky mechanics that make surgeons see dollar signs with every wind up, would cause his arm to literally detach from his body.
You know what happened next: Someone forgot to tell Chris Sale that moving from the bullpen to the rotation is supposed to be difficult. In his first season as a starter, Sale had a 17-8 record with a 3.07 ERA. He averaged 9.0 strikeouts per nine innings and lowered his walk rate from 3.4 per nine innings to 2.9 over the course of the season. Despite the warnings from injury clairvoyants, he never went to the disabled list, nor did his arm fall off after pitching 192 innings. Sale's command of his fastball improved and his slider became the most lethal pitches in his arsenal. His changeup showed great improvement as well. It was with great joy I watched a befuddled Delmon Young continually struggle to make contact with that pitch.
Not only did Sale greatly exceed expectations, he emerged as the team's ace, a void the White Sox had looked to fill since Buehrle's departure. Though Buehrle never pitched like an ace, he was such a stable force in the rotation, so the fan favorite was awarded the title anyway. Sale provided much needed stability to a volatile rotation by proving he could match pitches with any competitor, including Justin Verlander and Zack Greinke. Sale's season wasn't just a stellar performance from a pitcher assuming a new role; it was on par with some of the best pitching performances by a 23-year-old in recent memory.
And then, gravity finally took hold. Sale provided his first and only "I told you so" moment for the cynics in his final outing of the season. On September 29th, Sale took the mound versus the Rays. The White Sox began the day two games behind the Tigers in the AL Central with five games to play. The Sox needed their ace, he just didn't have it that day. Perhaps it was fatigue or the injury that so many had predicted finally taking hold. Whatever the reason, his command was shaky and hitters were making contact. After giving up a third-inning RBI single to Justin Upton that made the score 3-0, Sale was pulled from the game with two runners on base after just 3.1 innings and 82 pitches. As he left the field on his final start of the season, he kept his head down. Yet, instead of being dismissed with a chant of "You suck" and a chorus of booos, he heard applause, cheers, and, had he looked, he would have seen a standing ovation. Though Sale certainly hadn't earned it with his performance that day, an ace usually gets the benefit of the doubt.
That's the crazy part about gravity -- sometimes it takes the lows to appreciate the highs even more. Sale was up for 28 games before he came tumbling down in his final start of the season, and the ensuing offseason cliffhanger has been just as intense as waiting for the return of Breaking Bad because it's hard to know where Sale will land. Perhaps he'll again be the ace, but there's still a chance that last season was a perfect storm of events that can never be replicated and the doomsayers will finally be right.
I suppose that's the concern with any player: At any moment, they could cease being great. Even cynics with the lowest expectations have trouble accepting that.