ATLANTA — As the Braves wilted in Philadelphia last October, most people watching the series noticed something. It might be impossible to quantify, but it seemed to affect the series. The Phillies had it, the Braves did not.
An edge. A spark. Fire.
These are often terms used by writers, broadcasters, fans and armchair quarterbacks. Often, they cannot be measured. It might be foolish to base any analysis on these traits.
At the end of December, when the Braves acquired Chris Sale, they rounded out the top four in their starting rotation.
But they also brought in a game-changing personality. Forgive the sports clichés — Sale, because of his personality, could push the Braves forward because of the attitude he brings.
At 34 years old, with all he has already experienced, he still is so competitive, so fiery, so hellbent on winning.
"This guy, he's a competitor," Max Fried said. "He means business and he definitely has an edge to him that you can see on the other side, and even (in) the brief little conversations that we've had right now. He brings a presence that's intoxicating. You gravitate toward it."
"It's more than instrumental," said Spencer Strider, who jumped up after seeing the news of the Sale trade on his phone last month. "It's hard to really explain that. Max (Fried) was kind of talking about it earlier, we've been talking about it ever since it happened. I just think that the validation that he'll bring to his behavior — it's one thing if I do something, but this is Chris Sale. Everything he's achieved, the experience he has. His actions are gonna be the first thing everybody sees, and I know that they're going to be out of a desire to win."
Before we get further, we should make this clear: The Braves have featured a strong clubhouse for years. They don't lack chemistry. In fact, president of baseball operations Alex Anthopoulos carefully considers the pieces he puts into his puzzle.
But people are different.
Sale, one veteran starter, is not the same as Charlie Morton, another veteran starter. He is not identical to Travis d'Arnaud, another leader in the clubhouse, or Matt Olson and Austin Riley, who are also leaders.
"It's a long season," Riley said. "I think you need a variety of personalities throughout the clubhouse, just to keep it going, keep things light. He's a winner. He's competitive. Those type of guys, you want on your team."
The Braves didn't need to change the environment in the clubhouse. But any team can improve, and the correct mix is essential in baseball. Sale might bring extra edge and ferocity.
They have d'Arnaud and Olson, Riley and Fried.
To add Sale's competitiveness and fire to a clubhouse that already features a lot of it?
"It fires us up even more," d'Arnaud said. "It gets us locked in even more, into every pitch even more. I think even for the fanbase, it'll get them into every pitch even more so than they already are. It's gonna be contagious and I'm really happy he's here."
Since debuting in 2010, Sale is a seven-time All-Star. He won a World Series in 2018. He finished top five in American League Cy Young Voting in six straight seasons — six! He was once one of the game's best starting pitchers.
And still, his competitiveness remains the same.
That says something.
"There's no level of comfort," Strider said. "That's not what we're after. It's greatness. That's difficult. It's not gonna feel good all the time, it's not gonna be easy all the time. It's a long-term project. You gotta validate and justify the desire to be great every day, and I think that's exactly who he is."
We shouldn't forget that the Braves acquired Sale because they believed he would upgrade their rotation. The trade's thinking lies in his ability to pitch.
In 2023, Sale posted a 4.30 ERA over 20 starts and allowed only eight earned runs over 25 innings in his final five outings. He proved he might still have it.
In 2018, Morton first met Sale at the All-Star Game in Washington at Nationals Park.
"And I just remember watching him, the stuff that was coming out of his hand when he went out there," Morton said. "Because he knew he was (going), like, an inning or two max. And watching that in person was probably some of the most ridiculous stuff that I've ever seen. Top five, no question.
"Watching him on the field, how he conducts himself, his demeanor, his personality, on the field, he's an animal, and I've heard nothing but good things from him off the field — from multiple people, right away, as soon as the Braves traded for him, like, 'You're gonna love this guy, he's great.'"
During this offseason, Morton knew Anthopoulos was in a position where he would probably try to add to the rotation.
The veteran had a thought.
"Man, I wonder how Chris is doing," Morton said to himself.
And now, the two are teammates.