Sale confident in ability to duplicate success
Left-hander addresses concerns about mechanics, durability and velocity
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- In just a few live batting-practice sessions more than one full season, Chris Sale already has become one of the most talked about starting pitchers in the American League.
He finished sixth in the 2012 AL Cy Young Award voting. He fanned 192 over 192 innings, including 15 against the Rays on May 28, leaving him two short of setting the single-game franchise record. He posted an 11-3 mark after White Sox losses, tied with the Phillies' Cole Hamels for the best record in that category in the Majors, along with producing a 9-3 record and 2.30 ERA during starts made at hitter-friendly U.S. Cellular Field.
Those are just a few of the plaudits surrounding the good-natured 23-year-old. There also are a few questions that have stuck with the southpaw since his first start against Cleveland on April 9.
Not questions as much as concerns. MLB.com sat down with Sale and other key White Sox figures recently to find out the information and stories behind these topics.
His unorthodox delivery will lead to injury
The best way to describe the uniqueness of Sale's delivery is to have Sale describe it himself.
"Obviously, arm angle for one. Lower three-quarters," Sale said. "Kind of hunched over a little bit when I kind of come up to balance. I cross-fire a little bit.
"My landing foot is here [toward home plate] and my other foot is more toward first base. I've actually corrected it a little bit. I've moved it over three or four inches, but I still have that. Those are the main things that I do different from most."
Different, to the point that Sale might have dropped a few picks in the 2010 First-Year Player Draft because of longevity concerns. But not necessarily different, as in troublesome.
"When you have a guy who has a non-traditional or an atypical delivery, you have to look a little more closely in terms of where the pressure points are and where the leverage is coming from," said White Sox general manager Rick Hahn of one of the team's most valuable assets. "We have spent a fair amount of time breaking down his mechanics with video as well as with our coaches' expertise and eyes and feel like, given the angle he comes from, that there's not an inordinate amount of risk placed on him because of the mechanics."
"That old saying: If it's not broke, don't fix it. I would like to think it's not broke now," Sale said. "Obviously, it's not a pitching coach's or a GM's dream mechanics. But it works for me. It always has. Until it stops working or something happens, I see no reason to really change anything."
Don't take Sale's assessment as being dismissive. After the scare last year at the start of May, when he was temporarily moved into the closer's role because of elbow soreness, Sale began a strengthening program in his forearm and elbow using resistance bands and different arm angles and weights. The goal was to strengthen the muscles around a tender area and make it more durable.
But Sale believes that glitch and his late-season struggles were more about fatigue than anything else, as he set a new single-season innings high.
"People, they are entitled to say whatever they want," a smiling Sale said. "I've been throwing like this for five years now and, knock on wood, nothing really crazy has come up. I know the points that I need to hit and I like to think that I repeat my delivery more times than not. I feel like I'm safer than most people think I am."
"He's closed. He's closed up. I want guys closed," said White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper of Sale's funky delivery. "The only time that could be a problem is if he's not able to throw the fastball down and away to lefties or in to righties, and he does that. Chris Sale's delivery is a solid delivery. We've got to maintain it."
Too thin to win
For those who are envious of Sale's slender 6-foot-6, 186-pound build, know that it doesn't come from a lack of eating on his part. It's hereditary.
His grandfather's nickname is "Streamline," because he was a long, skinny swimmer. At 84 years old, he's still 6-foot-3 and "not very much," said Sale with a laugh. His father had a size 28 waist when he met Sale's mother.
As far as the White Sox are concerned, Sale's long-term success is not predicated on the pounds he gains.
"Day 1, when he came in, I told him it's not about a weight issue. It's about getting some strength gain and endurance," White Sox director of conditioning Allen Thomas said. "The negative part of Sale is he loves to train a lot. So, of course, being a high metabolism guy, it's not conducive to him gaining a lot. As far as his strength gains, I'm pleased with him. He always takes care of himself as far as being flexible."
"Just having core strength and having a good base is mostly what he focuses on," Sale said. "The thing I've noticed is I've been maintaining weight a heck of a lot better than I have in the past. Last year, I was 168 to 173 [pounds] at any given time. Now, I usually don't dip below 178 pounds, and I'm up to 186."
Up to 186 seems like a misuse of a phrase for an athlete standing at 6-foot-6. As Hahn points out, Sale did come to camp this year 15 pounds heavier.
"He's fortunate right now," said Hahn, joking about having a possible different weight issue when he's in his 40s. "Again, there's not a lot traditional about him with regards to mechanics or his frame. When we evaluate him as an individual, as well as the performance that his mechanics and his body yield, that's where the comfort comes from."
He's his own worst critic
During the final series of the 2012 season, Sale and reliever Jesse Crain engaged in a friendly game of ping pong before a contest in Cleveland. Crain beat Sale, and Sale was still bothered by the fact an hour or so later.
It's not that Sale would be classified as a poor loser. He's just that ultra-competitive and always comes down hardest upon his shortcomings.
"You know, it's funny. Guys get these things put on them," Hahn said. "Jake [Peavy] is a bulldog, and Jon Garland is California cool, laid back. And as you said, Sale perhaps is a little too cerebral in a [Paul] Konerko kind of way. What really matters is how they compete when they have the ball in their hands in between the white lines."
"I don't know if it's I like winning that much or that I just hate losing," Sale said. "I expect to go out there and win every single game. I don't accept failure at all."
That harsh critique extends even to Spring Training outings. Yet, as Hahn observed, it's nice for a kid Sale's age to have questions and examine his performance from different angles.
"Maybe I am too hard on myself sometimes, but I would rather be too hard on myself than not hard enough and just kind of be satisfied with an average game," Sale said. "It's kind of what pushes me. It's not one of those things where, 'I get hit around today, but I did this good.'"
Velocity drop was a sign of elbow injury
According to FanGraphs, Sale's average fastball velocity dropped from 96.3 in 2010 to 95.3 in 2011 to 91.6 to 2012. The drop was expected with Sale managing 100 to 115 pitches per outing, instead of 20 or 25. It was a 3-mph early-season dip out of nowhere, according to Hahn, that raised a red flag and sent Sale to the closer's role for one appearance in Cleveland.
Again, the White Sox believe it wasn't an indication of injury. Sale felt the same way, putting up a vociferous argument to then general manager Ken Williams to return to the rotation that both sides admitted after the fact almost crossed the line.
"Obviously, we were concerned to get out in front of it," Hahn said. "From my standpoint, that was probably an indication of fatigue/dead arm period that guys go through. Given what he was reporting in terms of not feeling any pain and structurally on exam there's no issues, it very likely was just that period of sort of whether it be from the new usage level or just something that happens to pitchers from time to time in terms of a dead arm.
"He got through that. We skipped a start and extended him out a little bit when he came back. The velocity was back and maintained for the most part the rest of the season."
The White Sox put Sale into almost a college pitching alignment, at times, with Sale working once a week. His goal this year is to be just like any other starter, especially deeper into the season, admitting he started feeling it last year after 150 innings.
"That's kind of what I'm working for now, kind of longer duration throughout the year to kind of get over that hump, instead of where I hit 150 innings and start withering away," Sale said.
Is he one of the best?
Statistics from 2012 would answer this question in the affirmative. Sale wants to prove it true on the field and in more than one entertaining season.
"I'm doing everything I can to be who I was last year and even better than that," Sale said. "But you can't throw the confetti and call in the credits after one good year. I'm not banking on anything I did last year.
"Who cares? Whatever I did, I was an All-Star, won 17 games, but that doesn't do anything for us this year."