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The 3 things that combine to make Chris Sale so special



Oct 5, 2017; Houston, TX, USA; Boston Red Sox starting pitcher Chris Sale (41) pitches in the first inning against the Houston Astros during game one of the 2017 ALDS playoff baseball series at Minute Maid Park. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

The Boston Red Sox acquired Chris Sale to function with David Price as dual-pronged foundational beams to guarantee the club would not just be good in every two games out of five, but great. Price’s elbow injury sabotaged that, but given the Red Sox’ win-now purpose, the massive package the Red Sox surrendered to the Chicago White Sox to acquire Sale was worth it during the regular season.

Finishing second in the AL Cy Young Award voting to Corey Kluber, it marked the sixth straight season in which Sale has finished in the top six in the voting. It was also his sixth straight season in which he made the All-Star team. He struck out 308 hitters – surpassing 300 is a relative rarity even with the ever-burgeoning number of strikeouts throughout the game – and he logged at least 208 innings for the third straight season.

Amid all those positives, Sale is unique in today’s game for other reasons. Let’s look at what makes him different and special.

Controlled chaos

When looking at his motion and still photographs where Sale appears to have every fiber in his body straining to get out of his skin and his lithe musculature appears ready to snap while he’s contorted in effort, it’s easy to boil Sale’s style down to an all-out, all-the-time “here it is, hit it” meathead strategy. If that were the case, however, his control and command wouldn’t be as good as they are and he’d surrender far more home runs than he does.

His velocity is remarkably consistent. The array of pitches he throws and their percentages of use have not changed in a significant way. The hitters know what’s coming and they can’t hit it. That’s the definition of a great pitcher.

Sale’s deliver looks wild, but if it were truly wild, there would be fluctuations in his performance. But he walks only two hitters for every nine innings and keeps the ball in the ballpark despite playing in an era centered around the home run, having pitched in two home parks – U.S. Cellular Field and Fenway Park – that are conducive to the home run.

Hitters are no doubt accustomed to seeing pitchers with the simple motion: small step to the side, moderate leg lift and fire. Sale’s elbows, arms and legs are flailing about and then he unleashes a mid-90s fastball, a low-90s sinker, a hard slider and a good changeup located wherever he wants them. It’s naturally chaotic and disruptive.

A temper that sometimes goes over the edge

Whereas many baseball players of this era are as big and substantial as professional football players from the 1960s, the 6-6, 180-pound Sale could portray the deranged psychiatrist Jonathan Crane — aka the Scarecrow — in the Batman comics, not just in appearance but in a borderline look of menace and how he carries himself. He makes a normally unintimidating type present the appearance that it’s probably safer not to mess with him.

Sale was a willing and fiery participant in a brawl between the White Sox and Kansas City Royals. When there was the disastrous dispute in the White Sox clubhouse over Adam LaRoche’s son having daily access, it was Sale who told Ken Williams, who was essentially his boss, to get out of the clubhouse. Sale, displeased with the construction of throwback uniforms the White Sox were set to wear, chose to cut them up and was sent home when he was scheduled to start that day.

One one level, these are not necessarily positive incidents to boost one’s standing, but they indicate that he takes action rather than talks. For the Red Sox, this attitude has slowly seeped away from how they were built in recent successful seasons.

Of course, his value, team-friendly contract, abilities — and the fact that the White Sox were going into full rebuild — played a greater role in him being traded for a giant package than any personality flaws, but his unhappiness with various aspects of what was happening with the White Sox played a role.

The Red Sox had been notoriously passive with personalities that were veering away from the Dustin Pedroia willingness to sacrifice his entire body to win. Sale brings that edge back.

The motion

Scouts look for pitchers with clean mechanics and stress-free deliveries not just because they’re valuing those factors over performance, but because it’s safer to recommend their employer make an investment in a pitcher whose motion is not deemed as potentially damaging to his durability. For many, having an explanation for the pick to save one’s job if it fails is preferable to basing the selection on how good he is. That’s how Mark Appel, with his massive size, clean motion, high level of intelligence and big fastball gets picked first, ends up a bust as a starter in the minors, and is traded with no one getting overtly roasted for it other than an “oh, it was a mistake” footnote.

Some teams are more willing to look beyond the basic factors of a pitcher’s mechanics and consider other attributes that could mitigate a less-than-perfect motion. Considering the pitchers drafted before Sale and that every one of them had either a classically designed delivery preferred in today’s clinics, it’s obvious that Sale’s motion scared some teams off.

At face value, those mechanics are an obvious red flag, especially for a starter, but he makes it work.

When watching Sale’s motion in real time, it appears unusual and not what one would teach a youngster. He’s max effort; he throws across his body; he whips the ball just barely above sidearm; his lead arm goes flailing off to the side; he arm-bullwhips depending on which pitch he’s throwing; and it’s perceived as difficult to maintain consistency or fix flaws with so many different moving parts.

He’s certainly not Greg Maddux with the ideal delivery mimicked every time, but it works for him and against the hitters. He hides the ball remarkably well; against lefties, it appears as if the ball is coming from behind them; his control is so pinpoint and his stuff is so dominant that righties don’t take advantage of a release point that would otherwise benefit them; and he’s remained healthy despite a delivery that would scare a large percentage of scouts away.

There are numerous examples throughout baseball history of pitchers doing everything “wrong” based on conventional wisdom and not only having success, but remaining remarkably durable. The White Sox were wise not just in drafting him, but in making the determination that he was ready for the big leagues quickly and not wasting his bullets in the minors. They also chose not to mess around with the way he threw. Teams that focus on velocity and believe they can fix mechanical problems are missing the big picture that some pitchers’ uniqueness makes them better than they otherwise would be.

Were Sale to clean his delivery to something out of a subjective pitching manual, the chances are he’d be more likely to get injured than he is now… and he wouldn’t be as good since he’s already one of the top five pitchers in the game.


Paul Lebowitz is the author of the novel Breaking Balls and his annual baseball guide. His work has appeared on AllVoices, FanIQ, and his personal site PaulLebowitz.com. He has been linked by Slate, ESPN, Keith Olbermann, Yahoo, and Baseball Think Factory. He lives in New York City.