Saturday, April 5, 2014
Chris Sale a one-of-a-kind pitcher
By Christina Kahrl
Chris Sale is taking the bump for the Chicago White Sox Sunday, and that's a beautiful thing. Maybe not for the unhappy few who have to step in against him, but for everyone who gets to watch the spindly southpaw pump strikes into the zone, he's one of the reasons we watch the game.
"I don't think I've ever played with a lefty with as good stuff as him," White Sox veteran Paul Konerko said. "I've seen Chris throw sliders to righties usually when a guy buckles, it's a lefty getting it over against a lefty, but he does that to right-handed hitters, and you don't see that much. It's like a [Justin] Verlander curveball to a lefty. He knows how to make right-handers feel uncomfortable because he can come inside on them. He's still young, still getting better, but on the days he doesn't have his best stuff, he still gets people out, which shows a lot of maturity."
Chris Sale, 25, was seventh in the American League in ERA (3.07) last season.
But what really makes Sale a treasure aren't those days or nights. It's the games when he reminds you that he alone is worth the price of admission.
"There's some nights when he gets going when he gets 10 strikeouts among 12 outs and you start thinking 25 [strikeouts] or something. A no-hitter? With some guys, you let yourself think it more than others. It's fun to watch, because you don't have as much to do, it's great," Konerko said with a laugh.
It's easy to draw a superficial comparison to the greatest towering lefty the game has ever seen, Randy Johnson. Perhaps understandably, the Big Unit is the pitcher Sale modeled himself after when he was growing up.
"Growing up, my favorite player was obviously Randy Johnson," Sale said in spring training. "Big, tall guy, left-handed, dominant, very intimidating on the mound. Watching him and how he went about his business. I have not met Randy, but that would be pretty cool."
But that said, the Sox aren't losing themselves in comparisons. "There's a benefit to putting a similar-type guy on him, and Johnson's probably the one who's closest to Chris, but he's unique. He's his own guy, with his own positives and his own risks," said White Sox general manager Rick Hahn.
Instead, the thing that's noticeably similar to someone the Sox are familiar with is Sale's commitment to his craft. "Make-up-wise, preparation, he's similar to Mark Buehrle. Different stuff, sure, and a little more fiery on the mound," Konerko observed, recalling the White Sox's former lunch-bucket lefty workhorse. "But between starts, he's very much like Buehrle."
Which is great, but I couldn't help but think that, coming back from the SABR Analytics Conference in Arizona a couple of weeks back, I was struck by how supremely confident so many of the panels being judged on their case for which pitcher would have the most value over the next five years were about one thing in particular: They wouldn't name Chris Sale, in no small part because he is an injury risk. That seems additionally interesting because people said much the same thing about Randy Johnson, up to and including the moment that the Montreal Expos dealt him to the Seattle Mariners in a package for Mark Langston back in 1989. How could it hurt? Somebody that tall and skinny couldn't possibly stand up to the rigors of pitching in the majors.
It's easy to understand why they think that. Like Johnson before him, Sale is unusual, a 6-foot-6 beanpole, and the mechanics going into his delivery are ugly. People have been pointing out for years that he has uncomfortable-looking mechanics to match his equally unusual build: Ben Lindbergh noted it at Baseball Prospectus in 2012, but he's far from alone. People fret over Sale's throwing motion, complaining about "the inverted W" and "scapular load." To hear some folks talk, he's doomed.
But do we really know that Chris Sale is going to get hurt? Is Chris Sale that much more of an injury risk than anybody else who pitches for a living in the major leagues? And even if he was, if you had him, wouldn't you want to take your chances with him right now? Since becoming a starter for the 2012 season, Chris Sale has the highest strikeout-to-walk ratio (4.3) of any major league starter over the past two seasons. He has the third-highest K/9 (9.3) in that time.
We all know pitchers get hurt, and we can probably accept that pretty much every pitcher is at risk. As Dr. Glenn Fleisig of the American Sports Medicine Institute (and who works with Dr. James Andrews) notes, "Major league pitchers are on a fine line between exciting, great performance and terrible injuries. If you're a pro pitcher, you're pushing your body to the limit."
But allowing for that, Fleisig observes, "A bigger pitcher doesn't have any more or less chance of getting hurt. If his bones, muscles, ligaments and tendons are all proportionally bigger, everything should be OK."
What can you do about mechanics? Fleisig strikes a moderate note: "All we can do is take a pitcher with documented talent and try to train him to optimize his chance of pitching well without getting hurt. To pitch with the most efficiency, to avoid getting hurt."
But what about anyone worrying about Sale's mechanics? Keeping it general, Fleisig notes, "With the 'inverted W' -- when I was in elementary school we called it the letter M -- a pitcher has his wrists still lower than his elbows at the time his whose front foot lands."
Is that Sale? A lot of the Chicken Littles who say the sky is falling will point to pictures in which you don't see his feet. If Sale takes a different path to get to the right place to deliver the ball but has his arm in the right place after planting, he might be OK.
"If someone is telling you someone is late or is throwing with an 'inverted W,' don't look at a picture of just his upper body, where you can't see where his feet are," Fleisig recommended, not just about Sale, but about any pitcher. "And don't look at a picture when he's in the middle of his stride. Try to look at him at the instant of front-foot contact, because that's a fair comparison -- we're comparing everyone at the same time. And ask yourself about that guy, 'Is his arm still upside down or not?' And whether it's Chris Sale or the next guy, if he gets to the right position at that time, he's good."
He might be on the exactly right team in that he's pitching for the White Sox. The combination of highly regarded trainer Herm Schneider and his staff and equally respected pitching coach Don Cooper have helped give the White Sox a track record for health and effectiveness few clubs can approach. From 2003-13, the White Sox have gotten more quality starts than any other club (970). Some of that has been a product of a willingness to take a few chances, part of that is playing to their strengths and knowing they can run them.
"I think I was very lucky coming into an organization with guys like them: Herm keeping guys off the disabled list, and Coop developing pitchers into great guys on the field. It was lucky for me because, especially early in my career, I was sort of thrown into it [the majors], and they just treated me like I was another guy," Sale recalled about 2011. "The beautiful thing about Coop is that he puts his heart and soul into each individual guy. He can tell you exactly how my last outing went, but also how [Jose] Quintana's last outing went, how [Maikel] Cleto's last outing went and know exactly the keys to success for each individual person. He doesn't play favoritism, he works on each individual person."
Fleisig suggests that it's the teams that hold the keys in this relationship. "They get the feedback from the player," Fleisig said. "After the game, when he's with the trainer, how does he feel? The feedback from the player and the trainer to the manager, is really the best information to prevent a guy from getting hurt."
While Sale might be one of the most visibly unique talents as well as one of the most successful pitchers in the game today, the way the White Sox treat him is as egalitarian as you'd want within a team sport.
"Everybody presents a unique challenge. They're all individuals, so you treat them as individuals," said Cooper. "First and foremost, we try and keep guys healthy. But as far as looking at a guy, we see stuff with our eyes. When a guy's struggling, our first thought is not to check with the biomechanical lab. I know about that stuff, but we go with our eyes, and video if we need to. Chris has his keys, everybody has their keys, but he's not really any different from anybody else."
Stop Chris Sale's delivery for an instant, and you can see why people worry about him.
"Starters and pitchers in general, it's about repeating your mechanics," Sale observed. "As soon as you come out of yourself, that's when bad things start happening, because you're doing things that your body's not used to doing. You can look at a guy and velocity, but there have games where I'm at my peak velocity late in the game, but I was kind of coming out of my mechanics a little bit. And Coop sees that, and he's: 'Hey, we're going to get someone else out there.' People look too much at those numbers, but if you're changing your arm angle or you're not striding out as far or you're quick out front, that's where the danger comes into play."
Hahn couldn't stress enough how important they are to his planning around his entire staff, not just Sale.
"Two of the things that make my job a lot easier are Herm Schneider and Don Cooper," Hahn said. "Not only because it allows us to expand the universe of pitchers that we're comfortable taking a chance on, but we've also got pitchers seeking us out, too. Guys who haven't unleashed their potential or who have injury issues contacting us and saying they want to be a part of what we're doing."
Which is another way of saying that the Sox seem pretty comfortable letting Chris Sale continue doing his thing, especially while he's been so committed to doing everything between turns that lets him keep going out there.
"Herm stays on top of me and on top of things," said Sale. "I go through two shoulder programs per week, and he's there every single day and goes through it. It's part of taking care of yourself. Pitchers might throw 130 pitches three starts in a row, but as long as you're doing everything on the in-between days to make yourself strong and hit your points, I think that's the key.
"I'm a pitcher, not a rocket scientist. I try to keep it as simple as I can. I go out there, pick up the ball, get the sign, throw the pitch, repeat. I don't get too much into video analysis and charts and the biomechanics -- I leave that for the smart guys. Baseball is more mental than physical; the more clutter you have in your mind, the more you can kind of get off track. Just go out there and pitch, keep it simple and leave it all out on the field."
Which Sale has done, even as he deals with the fact that there have been skeptics at every point, first questioning his ability to start, then his ability to last as a starter.
"Chris does take some satisfaction in proving skeptics wrong, even internally," Hahn noted. "There was a time when we got a little too public in our conversations about whether he'd be better off in the bullpen. And Chris fought that, to his credit. I know he wanted to prove all doubters wrong. Now he wants to show he's capable of being a 200-inning-plus guy every year to disprove some of the skeptics."
"I think since the day I got here, people have said, 'He's not going to last, he's not going to hold up, he's too skinny, his delivery's too funky,'" Sale said. "I try not to pay too much attention to it. As long as I'm doing the things I need to do, staying on top of my shoulder and arm work in the training room and staying strong in the weight room, I'm going to keep doing what I'm doing."
On the other hand, Sale enjoys proving people wrong on the subject of his durability. "Oh yeah, it's fun," he said. "It's like in grade school, when you're on the swings. And you're friend jumps off and says you can't reach that far. What's the first thing you're going to do? You're going to try and out-jump him. Anytime someone tells you that you can't beat them, your natural instinct is to go out there and prove them wrong."
It's that instinct that encouraged Hahn and the White Sox organization to stop worrying about Sale's mechanics and just embrace him for what he is and can be. "We're cognizant of the fact that guys with unorthodox deliveries are at slightly higher risk for injury," Hahn said. "But when we did Chris' contract, we decided we could assume one of two risks here. The risk that his frame or his mechanics or bad luck could lead to injury versus the risk that he continues on the path we're projecting him on and we can't afford to keep him in a White Sox uniform and he walks out the door. Given those two choices, it was extremely easy for us to choose to carry the injury risk."
And just like a Chris Sale start, that's a beautiful thing, whether you're a Sox fan or not. Because, really, given the opportunity to employ Chris Sale, wouldn't you want to?
With that in mind, here's what I would suggest, keeping Randy Johnson's singular career in mind: Let's set aside what we know -- or think we know -- about health risk and about mechanics. Let's congratulate Sale and the White Sox on striking a great bargain last spring, a deal that could keep him in Chicago through 2019. And most importantly, let's enjoy Chris Sale right now, for who and what he is. He's one of a kind.