How Chris Sale is Trying to Keep Himself Healthy

Certain guys, people just assume are going to get injured. For as little as we actually understand about pitching mechanics and injury risk, there are certain players who look like ticking time bombs. Chris Sale is considered one of those guys, and this is why:

saledelivery

Basically that simple. Sale is (1) a pitcher who (2) looks like that when he’s pitching. And Sale, sure enough, has had his injury scares. Earlier this very season, he was on the disabled list. But, a few years ago, Sale threw 192 innings. Last year he reached 214, and he still hasn’t had the disaster scenario. Sale’s kept himself healthy enough, and he’s recently made a change to try to keep it that way.

Thursday, Sale pitched against the Tigers, picking up a loss despite a winning effort. Three times, Sale had to go through Miguel Cabrera. Previously, when Sale and Cabrera matched up, Sale threw sliders a quarter of the time. But in the first inning, he threw Cabrera six fastballs and a changeup. In the fourth, he threw four fastballs and two changeups. In the sixth, he threw five fastballs. So, out of 18 pitches to maybe the best hitter in baseball, Sale didn’t throw a single slider, as he had often in the past. And to go beyond Cabrera, Sale struck out the side in the third on 13 pitches, and all three strikeouts came on changeups. It’s not a coincidence.

This is Chris Sale, developing. Sale has long had a changeup that was, at the very least, useful. It didn’t show up very often when he worked out of the bullpen. As a starter, for a while, Sale was fastball/slider, and the slider was plenty good enough. But not only do most starters eventually require a reliable third pitch — the slider, at least by reputation, is dangerous. Zack Greinke has talked about protecting his elbow by reducing his slider usage. Chris Sale is following suit. From an article by Dan Hayes:

Through four starts this season, Sale has relied on the changeup much more than he ever has. Part of it is longevity and keeping his arm in shape instead of relying on the slider.

For Sale, there are a few goals. One, he wants to keep himself healthy and able to pitch. Two, adding a better changeup should allow him to be effective longer within games. And three, Sale indicates that the changeup helps him keep his mechanics consistent. These things always sound good in theory, but Sale’s gone beyond theory, to the point where he’s genuinely executing. He’s dramatically cut down his slider usage. By our data, he’s increased his changeup usage by 12 percentage points, the biggest hike in baseball. According to Brooks, he’s actually second to Henderson Alvarez, but by the same source Alvarez used a changeup often in the past, so at least for Sale this is significant and new.

And Sale owns a career-high strikeout rate. He owns a career-low walk rate. Since he came off the disabled list, he’s posted a league-leading K% – BB% of 33%. Sale’s gotten better against both lefties and righties, and for an idea of the confidence he’s developed in his change, consider this 3-and-0 delivery to Cabrera from Thursday:

SaleCabreraChange.gif.opt

That’s a change that Cabrera wasn’t expecting, because you don’t expect a 3-and-0 change. It was in a good spot, it got weakly fouled off, and Sale came all the way back to whiff Cabrera two pitches later. Sale has simply swapped his preferred secondary pitch between seasons, and if we can’t prove it’s made him better, it at least hasn’t made him worse.

For another glimpse at how Sale has kind of phased the slider out, here are his rates of strikeouts for which the slider was responsible:

2012: 58% strikeouts on slider
2013: 52%
2014: 22%

Sale’s slider is still good. It’s still Chris Sale’s slider. This season it’s been knocked for all of three hits. But Sale hasn’t needed to rely on that pitch, as his changeup has been knocked for just 11 hits despite a large gain in frequency. The one Sale changeup hit for extra bases so far wasn’t even a bad changeup; it was a good changeup thrown to an amazing hitter. Otherwise, the changeup has gotten 20 strikeouts and ten singles. Righties have struck out against the changeup 17 times; they’ve struck out against the slider six times. Last season, those numbers were 34 and 79.

There’s another interesting fact — from last year, Sale hasn’t increased his fastball velocity. But his changeup is up a tick and a half, and his slider is up a couple ticks. I can’t explain that, exactly, but I felt like it belonged somewhere in here, and what it might suggest is that Sale has greater strength, and he’s just conserving his fastball heat for when he needs to still be strong later on. That’s just speculation, but clearly, Sale hasn’t just changed his mix; he’s also just throwing better.

Finally, I have one more thing to say, concerning Sale and hitters and their disrupted timing. A season ago, when hitters made contact against Sale, they fouled the ball off 47% of the time, hitting the ball fair the remaining 53% of the time. This season, Sale is at 58% fouls, which is the second-highest rate in baseball. That gain of 11 percentage points isn’t only baseball’s biggest; it’s baseball’s biggest by more than four percentage points. And, between 2012-13, this stat yielded an r value of 0.77, suggesting it reflects some ability. Sale might now be more able to induce fouls instead of balls in play, indicating a greater difficulty for hitters to square him up. More fouls can lead to more strikeouts. Fouls, after all, are strikes, and balls hit fair can go for hits. I haven’t studied foul-ball generation enough to issue strong conclusions, but it seems to me this is more a good thing than a bad thing. It’s more evidence that hitting against Chris Sale is a nightmare.

Sale, a few years ago, was worth five wins. Sale, last year, was worth five wins. Sale was already outstanding, averaging 0.17 WAR per start. This year he’s at 0.23 WAR per start, after making a change intended to both make himself better and keep himself healthy. Though he has already been sidelined, the White Sox and Sale will take the occasional brief DL stint provided there isn’t anything worse, and Sale believes he can improve his odds by regulating his slider usage. It’s good when a pitcher tries to stay healthier. When a pitcher tries to stay healthier and gets better in the process, that’s basically perfect.




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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.


16 Responses to “How Chris Sale is Trying to Keep Himself Healthy”

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  1. Johnny says:

    Does Chris Sale have the best contract in baseball?

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  2. Maybe? says:

    Sale’s contract is really good. But I think the best contract in baseball might have to go to Puig. http://www.fangraphs.com/statss.aspx?playerid=14225&position=OF

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  3. Ted Brooke says:

    With all the talk about 94 or 95+ or so mph fastballs leading to Tommy John surgery, it would be interesting to compare the percentage of sliders thrown by pitchers with, say, 150+ starts that required Tommy John surgery and those that did not. Is the slider an underlying culprit leading to Tommy John surgery among fireballers?

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    • Emcee Peepants says:

      I don’t think it is the velocity itself, it’s pitchers compromising their mechanics to get from 90-92 to 94-96, a la Matt Harvey. Guys that keep the ball up through their motion generally don’t have problems, guys that drop it down to get a little more whip out of their arm, like Sale in the pic above and Strasburg, are more likely TJ candidates.

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      • In the pic, Sale is demonstrating the “inverted W”, both elbows above the shoulder.

        Ither guys “cock the gun”, pulling the pitching arm shoulder towards 3rd base (for lefties) or 1st base for righting so their pitching arm is parallel to the ground when the front foot strikes.

        It is generally considered safer to have the pitching arm perpindicular during foot strike and during scapular loading (pulling your should blades together).

        Combine it with heavy slider usage and youre compiling the risk.

        That is assuming that what we know about pitcher safety and mechanics is correct.

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        • Paul says:

          Chris O’Leary doesn’t really know what he is talking about.

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        • yuh says:

          Sale is quite blessed to be born as lanky as he is, because to generate the strength necessary to propel a baseball that hard with that body mass means 2 things: He’s got very dense muscle fibers to provide that much energy, and they’re very ‘elastic’ to maximize the torque generated. Strong lower body mechanics help obviously, but this is why Randy Johnson’s arm unleashed tens of thousands of snapping sliders and 98 heaters without a single injury (and also why his back kept giving out).

          Unfortunately, Johnson’s arm action was miles better than Sale’s, and he’s currently just prolonging the inevitable. If he had the body type of your average pitcher, I guarantee he would already be under the knife.

          The so-called Inverted W has no issues in itself, except that nearly every instance of its use causes the forearm to be late in the moment of the delivery that the shoulders begin to rotate. Instead of the forearm only having to travel backwards to its maximum extension (when the forearm is lagging behind the elbow in the middle of delivery) from vertical, it has to travel the additional distance required to bring the arm into the same ‘cocked’ position while the arm is being accelerated, meaning more force is applied to the elbow/UCL at its maximum extension. It’s just like how you can slowly stretch a rubber band to its breaking point multiple times before it finally breaks, but doing it quickly could snap it then and there.

          The problem here is that pitching coaches and trainers are -deliberately- applying this tactic to their pitchers because it -does- increase velocity, significantly so in some cases, and people will do whatever it takes to light up the radar guns and get their big signing bonus. Without the Inverted W, Sale would probably struggle to top 95 at his best effort.

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        • Chris O’Leary didnt invent pitching mechanics analysis.

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    • bryan says:

      didn’t bill petti write an article a while ago about pitchers who threw their slider 33% or more had a severely increased risk of elbow failure?

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  4. sjcstavros says:

    Jeff, great piece! I agree there may also be something to the increased slider velo as also the movement profile on his slider has changed. Eyeballing it, it looks tighter (less frisbee) and it seems like he is able to spot it better. Looking at pitch fx it seems like x-mov has decreased a small amount but z move has bdropped a lot more. Time for Eno to do a grips piece? (Sweeeeeeeeet!!!)

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  5. Johnston says:

    By eyesight it looks to me like the more vertical the throwing slot(s) and the better the pitcher’s mechanics are the less chance he has of needing TJS.

    But we all know that our eyes lie to us.

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  6. Malon says:

    I’m pretty sure Corey Luebke was trying to do this the season he went down. Hopefully it works better for Sale.

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  7. Human Eyes says:

    Wow. This dude is incredible. Scherzer beat him but how many people would honestly take Scherzer over Sale after watching that?

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  8. Axis of Honor 25 says:

    Excellent article. Chris Sale is one of my favorite pitchers to watch right up there with Zack Greinke. I noticed Greinke’s use of the slider last year lessened and I was hoping it wasn’t because he was injured by Quentin.

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