The biomechanics of Chris Sale’s delivery paint the picture of a pitcher who will break down. One problem: Except for two stints on the disabled list with flexor tendon strains, Sale has not broken down. He pitched 226⅔ innings in 2016 and threw a major league-high six complete games.
The lefthander’s delivery puts a lot of strain on his elbow and shoulder because as he plants his front foot, his elbow is still high and his arm is way behind his head as it starts to whip across his body. Strange that Sale settled on this delivery, because in college he had a straight over-the-top delivery and changed to a three-quarters motion during a summer league in LaCrosse, Wis., while searching for something that felt good.
Brent Pourciau, a pitching mechanics expert, wrote this evaluation of Sale’s delivery for a training website called Top Velocity: “He uses an ipsilateral tilt to start his delivery, this is tilting towards the throwing arm side. He will then throw the elbows high into an inverted W before cocking the arm at about 90 degrees of shoulder abduction and then he drops below 90 degrees of shoulder abduction during external rotation and pitch release.”
This is apparently bad.
One prominent pitching coach said, “Sale has the high elbow, but he offsets it by throwing three-quarters rather than over-the-top.”
“We broke it down when we drafted him,” said White Sox executive vice president Ken Williams, who took Sale 13th overall in 2010. “I loved the stuff in the draft room. I was really hoping he would get to us, but before I put my stamp of approval on it I brought in our pitching coach, Don Cooper, and asked him to break down the delivery. We were concerned about the terms we used that he was a little bit ‘upside down.’ But after Coop looked at the video he said, ‘No, he’s right on the line. Three-quarter arm action makes it so we could keep him healthy.’ What is it now? Six years later, he’s still one of the best in the game.”
Cooper is bullish on Sale’s delivery.
“Who’s talking about his delivery?” snapped Cooper. “I want to know who’s talking delivery? His delivery is fine. Arguably he’s one of the top 10 pitchers in the world right now. People are asking about his delivery. Why aren’t they talking about the other nine guys? He’s got his delivery. He’s got his keys. I’m not going to talk about what those keys are right now. He knows himself really good. His delivery is solid.”
Cooper, as you can tell, loves Sale and will miss him.
“He’s got 5½ years of Hall of Fame-production numbers,” said Cooper. “We weren’t able to support him [with offense] as much as we would have liked and that happens and that’s baseball. A pitcher should not be graded on wins and losses. If you don’t get runs or don’t catch the ball, there’s nothing a pitcher can do.
“Chris Sale has three above-average major league pitches that he pours in and throws strikes. I don’t want to sound cocky, but I don’t think anyone saying stuff has a better idea about his delivery than me. If there is, I’d like to speak to that person.
“I’ve watched every single pitch he’s ever thrown. I’ve put a lot of years into this. The White Sox lead the world in keeping pitchers healthy. Our starters go to the post every five days.
“He’s put up Hall of Fame-credible numbers. And now he’s going to a team that is sparing no expense. Nothing stands in the way of them putting together the best team. He’s going to a team where he has a chance to put up even more wins. If he has 10 years like he’s had, he has a chance to have a Hall of Fame career.”
Cooper said Sale’s delivery works for him. Some believe that because of Sale’s build — he’s listed on the Red Sox roster as 6 feet 6 inches, 180 pounds — he doesn’t put the same kind of stress on his body that a bulkier pitcher would.
“He’s loose,” said a National League special assistant. “He’s proven for the last six years he can stay healthy. I suppose at some point people saying he’ll break down will be right, but I don’t see it.”
The thing Cooper stressed to Sale is to stay tall in his delivery and make sure his hands rest belt-high before he kicks and fires.
Cooper has also drilled into Sale’s head that he doesn’t have to throw max-effort on every pitch. He said the great ones know how to vary speed. A good example is Max Scherzer, whose delivery scared everyone early in his career. He may be the best pitcher in baseball.
“This year we made [Sale] a little bit of a hybrid,” said Cooper. “Two years ago he was trying to strike everybody out on the first pitch, second pitch, third pitch. We were looking for more efficient and quicker outs to stay longer in the game. I said to him, ‘How about you go eight innings and instead of 97 miles per hour on every pitch we drop pitches in at 91?’ He was more efficient with his pitches. Everybody loses stuff eventually. Stuff, location, and changing speed gets them out forever. He has the ability to change speeds with his pitches.”
Cooper insists that “to get to the upper echelon, you can’t have poor makeup and a poor delivery. You’re not going to throw strikes. The Boston Red Sox got themselves a hell of a pitcher. Chris is the most talented guy I’ve had.”
You wonder how Sale will be affected by losing Cooper as his pitching coach.
“He’s a big boy. He knows what he has to do,” Cooper said. “We’ve been building for six years. Every year we try to get better. He knows what we would have worked on this year. Pitching is a learned craft. It comes with time. I find the stuff we’ve been talking about a little bit more mental, more focus, confidence, conviction, controlling his emotions and being able to focus on the next pitch. If he had continued with us, there were a few things we would have tried to get better and I’m not going to bring those up now.”
Returning to Sale’s delivery, Cooper said, “He’s quick in his movements and he throws from lower angles than most guys. I didn’t see anything wrong [with that]. I’d be crazy to change anything. I’d have to have my head examined. I take every pitcher we get and watch the delivery and see if there are red flags or warning signs. I did that with Chris. I just saw a video of Michael Kopech, who we got in the trade from Boston. I look for certain things. I came away really liking Kopech.
“I remember one of my first conversations with [Sale] in Minnesota, and he was pitching in relief. He was pitching from the first base side [of the mound]. I told him when we start you, I’m moving you over [toward the third base side]. He rattled off what the advantages were. I knew right there he was a bright kid. He started telling me what this move would do for my fastball, changeup, and breaking ball.
“All I can say is, he’s been a pleasure. I had front-seat view for the first six years of his career. That’s the stuff I’m going to miss. I’ll feel it spring training and he won’t be there. While they’re with me, we’re going to be pursuing ‘how can I take the gifts I’ve been given and pushing them to the max so they can achieve their dreams?’
“We’ve tweaked a few things, but he’s the guy who has gone out for all of the innings and all of the starts. I feel fortunate to have been a part of it. I know him well. I know how he works. He can be too hard on himself.”
Apropos of nothing
1. Former Red Sox pitching coach Juan Nieves still mourns the loss of Jose Fernandez, who died in a boating accident Sept. 25. “I still can’t believe it,” Nieves said. “We’re all trying to cope. What surprised me most was the late hour of when it happened and that drugs were involved. Jose loved the ocean. He loved fishing. It turns out he lived by the ocean and died by it.” Nieves was referring to Fernandez surviving a turbulent boat trip to escape Cuba, when he dived overboard to save his mother from drowning.
2. Speaking of the Marlins, Medford’s Mike Pagliarulo was tabbed to replace Barry Bonds as hitting coach. Pagliarulo was manager Don Mattingly’s preferred choice last offseason, but owner Jeffrey Loria wanted Bonds, who was fired after one season. Mattingly and Pagliarulo were teammates on the Yankees. Pagliarulo gets very deep into analytics. One of the great innovators in his profession.
3. The Red Sox seem to be taking a leap of faith that they can replace David Ortiz’s production with Mitch Moreland, Pablo Sandoval, and the continued performance of Xander Bogaerts, Mookie Betts, and Jackie Bradley Jr. Is that realistic? Perhaps leaving the door ajar for Ortiz to return is not so crazy.
4. Phyllis Merhige and Katy Feeney, great allies of the BBWAA and great sources of information for major league managers, particularly at All-Star time, are retiring after long and outstanding careers with MLB. They will be missed.
5. What’s with the outfield market? The Nationals gave up a ton for Adam Eaton. It will take even more to get Andrew McCutchen from the Pirates. The Rockies want a mother lode for Charlie Blackmon. And the Yankees aren’t budging on their asking price for Brett Gardner (a left fielder in New York but a center fielder anywhere else).
6. Wishing the best for Rod Carew, who underwent heart and kidney transplants on Friday.
7. The Mariners and Tigers are looking for pro scouts and hopefully will hire a few of the very talented scouts who are out of work.
8. Could Allen Craig, 32, who is still under contract with the Red Sox at $11 million next season, have such a good spring training that he enters into the first base/DH mix? Nobody knows why Craig lost his mojo so quickly after his foot injury, but those who know him well think that at some point the once extremely productive righthanded hitter will reemerge.
Updates on nine
1. Junichi Tazawa, RHP, Marlins — Tazawa agreed to a two-year, $12 million deal last week. The money seems over the top, but the Marlins scouted the Red Sox frequently and saw Tazawa make a slight comeback toward the end of the season, when he showed an uptick in velocity. Tazawa could be a nice low-cost addition who might excel in the NL.
2. Derek Holland, LHP, White Sox — The White Sox replaced Chris Sale with Holland and got him for $6 million on a one-year deal. Holland is in a good place because he’ll have Don Cooper as his pitching coach and Cooper does great work with lefties. If he’s still there by the start of next season, Cooper’s biggest job will be straightening out righty James Shields, because there’s still a very good pitcher somewhere in there.
3. Ryan Braun, LF, Brewers — The Brewers would listen on Braun but there hasn’t been much interest despite his reasonable long-term contract and the fact he’s been a very good player since putting his PED use behind him. One team executive reasoned, “When a guy with that contract has been busted once, it’s hard to commit those dollars and those player resources because if he gets busted again, you lose all of your guys and you lose Braun. Nobody is saying he’d do it again, but while he’s a very good impact player, it’s just a tough one.”
4. Mitch Moreland, 1B, Red Sox — One scout who has watched a lot of Moreland thinks he’s a good fit for the Red Sox in a complementary role. “I think the Wall will benefit him. He’s a good guy in the clubhouse. He’s a good teammate. I think the only downside is some of the medicals. He’s had so many medical issues over the years,” the scout said.
5. Dan Duquette, GM, Orioles — He always does more with less. Unable to compete with the Red Sox, Yankees, and Blue Jays financially because of payroll limitations, Duquette has started up again with a good signing in catcher Welington Castillo, who should add to the Orioles’ offense and excel at Camden Yards. Duquette is trying to re-sign Mark Trumbo, but he’s also looking in other areas in case Trumbo decides to sign elsewhere.
6. Clay Buchholz, RHP, Red Sox — The Marlins could be a landing spot for Buchholz, even though his $13.5 million price tag for 2017 seems a little high. But as one major league source pointed out, “If they can offer Kenley Jansen over $80 million, they can afford $13.5 million for a starting pitcher.” The other interesting aspect from the Marlins’ perspective is Buchholz’s pitching coach in Boston in 2013, when he went 12-1 with a 1.74 ERA while missing three months with a neck/shoulder strain, was Juan Nieves, now the Marlins’ pitching coach.
7. Tyson Ross, RHP, free agent — Teams are evaluating how much of a health risk Ross is. Ross earned $9.6 million last season — when he pitched just one game and had surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome — and was headed to arbitration before he was nontendered by San Diego Dec. 2. The Cubs seem the most interested, but smaller-market teams such as Pittsburgh, Miami, and Arizona may be in the hunt, as well as Texas and Houston. Perhaps the Padres jump back in the hunt. Ross turns 30 in April, and some pitchers have had major problems following that surgery, including Daniel Bard, Chris Carpenter, and Josh Beckett.
8. Chase Headley, 3B, Yankees — The Yankees would love to move Headley but the market seems to be shrinking. The Braves may be the best bet as they attempt to build a serviceable team with which to open their new ball park. Others who could have interest include the Giants and Cardinals.
9. Jose Bautista, RF, free agent — Bautista knows he had a bad season given his injuries, but he’s the type of guy who plays with a chip on his shoulder. That chip may be bigger next year. We still believe the Blue Jays, Rangers, Astros, Dodgers, Yankees, and Indians have interest, and Baltimore may as well, even though Orioles fans hate him. He’ll be someone’s bargain.
From the Bill Chuck files — “In 2016, there were 742 different pitchers who faced at least one batter, breaking the record of 735 set in 2015. In 2006, there were 635 and in 1996, there were 538.” Also, “In 2016, Baltimore righty Chris Tillman was the only pitcher who started at least 15 games who did not allow a stolen base; runners were 0 for 4 against him.” . . . Happy birthday this weekend to Fernando Abad (31), Rudy Pemberton (47), Curtis Pride (48), Bobby Ojeda (59), and Rollie Sheldon (80).
Out of left field
Rick Porcello’s Cy Young Award-winning season was as unexpected as it gets in the history of the award. A middle-to back-end of the rotation pitcher coming off his worst season as a major leaguer, he had never received a vote for the award in seven previous seasons. Some other unexpected first-time Cy Young winners who were coming off unimpressive seasons:
Nick Cafardo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.