Will Chris Sale's Mechanics Spell Big Trouble for Him Down the Road?

Matthew Smith@@MatthewSmithBRCorrespondent IIIMay 30, 2013

The Inverted W will spell trouble for Sale down the road.
The Inverted W will spell trouble for Sale down the road.Jeff Gross/Getty Images

Chicago White Sox left-hander Chris Sale is one of the best young starters in baseball. History tells us, though, that the White Sox should be very concerned about Sale’s longevity.

Sale’s mechanics put him in jeopardy every time he takes the mound, and the White Sox may not be doing enough to extend his career.

More on that in a second, but first, let’s look at the problem.

Sale employs what is referred to as the inverted W delivery. In layman's terms, both elbows are above his shoulder at the moment his front foot hits the mound.

The problem does not reside in the motion of the delivery—as is often assumed—but in the disruption the inverted W has on a pitcher’s timing as he reaches the "late-cocking phase."

SI.com’s Tom Verducci elaborated in an article from 2011:

To understand the danger of the glitch, first you must understand the most critical point of a pitcher's delivery. The pitching motion is a kinetic chain of events, carefully calibrated and timed, like a Formula One car's engine, for maximum efficiency. But above all others one link of the chain is most important: the ‘late cocking phase,’ or the phase during which the shoulder reaches its maximum external rotation with the baseball raised in the ‘loaded’ position (typically, above the shoulder) and ready to come forward.

Sale’s ball is not “loaded” when his shoulder has reached its “maximum external rotation." Verducci noted the resulting impact this has on a pitcher’s arm:

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Without the energy from the rest of the body, the shoulder and elbow must bear higher levels of torque in what in even optimum circumstances is a maneuver that taxes the physical limits of what an arm can bear.

And limits there are.

I reached out to Justin Stone, president of Elite Baseball Training, for some help visualizing the problem with Sale’s pitching motion. He provided me with an analysis done by EBT’s mechanics efficiency expert, Travis Kerber.

Note that the mechanical flaws begin as Sale raises his pitching arm, reach a critical point as he loads his scapula in advance of the "late-cocking phase" and continue through the end of his delivery.

The results of the strains Sale places upon himself are evident.

Last season, his turn in the rotation was skipped on more than one occasion, and he was shut down with what he described as a “dead arm” after a noticeable dip in his velocity. And while he and the White Sox downplayed the severity of the situation, some have rightfully argued that it was a sign that something was already wrong.

Kyle Boddy is one of them. In an article for TheHardballTimes.com last season, Boddy wrote,“Sale’s precipitous drop in velocity is a real problem and highly indicative of some sort of injury to the pitching arm.”

Then word came last week that Sale would miss a start because of shoulder tendinitis. That highlights a sometimes overlooked reality of the inverted W—the shoulder bears as much of the burden as the elbow does.

While much of the attention falls on the Tommy John surgeries that Steven Strasburg, C.J. Wilson, Adam Wainwright and Mark Prior have undergone, lasting damage to the shoulder is of equal concern.

After all, before Strasburg had his surgery, he suffered from shoulder tendinitis. Same goes for Prior, and the concern has to be whether or not Sale is next.

Now, on to how the White Sox—in particular, pitching coach Don Cooper—are handling this. 

It would seem that Cooper is speaking out of both sides of his mouth.

Back in 2010, Cooper told the MLB Radio Network that the inverted W delivery was “an upside-down arm action,” and that it would be difficult “to pitch a whole lot of innings” using it, per the New York Post.

You said it, Coop!

Fast forward to 2012 and he is singing a different tune. This is what he told Lindsay Berra from ESPN The Magazine:

I'm not going to let new-school ways get in the way of my old-school thinking. I don't need biomechanics. I have experience. I have my eyes. I just watch and look.

It makes little sense. Cooper went from having a completely pragmatic assessment of the inverted W, to refusing to acknowledge that Sale may need extra attention.

Here’s the thing—the injury history of pitchers who have an inverted W delivery is well documented. Empirical evidence or not, you will be hard pressed to find an audience that does not think that there is a correlation between the delivery and an increased injury risk.

“He's got a great delivery,” Cooper told the Daily Herald’s Barry Rozner during spring training this season.

Does that mean Sale is going to stay healthy, Coop?

“Get the delivery right and you'll stay healthy,” he said to Rozner.

Not so fast. A mechanically flawed delivery cannot be done the “right” way. It is not possible.

Sure, there are exceptions to every rule, and there has been no conclusive study done that scientifically backs up the technically circumstantial evidence before us.

So, what can be done?

Well, it’s too late to fix Sale's delivery. He is in his third season as a major leaguer, and that is well past the point of altering his delivery enough to mitigate the damage he does with each pitch.

What the White Sox can do is change the process moving forward.

They can limit Sale’s start total and thereby keep his innings at a minimum, because if the number of frames Sale pitches does not go down dramatically, he will—almost certainly—undergo surgery at some point.

What Allen Barra wrote in The Atlantic some time ago is apropos. "Perhaps it would be better for teams, young pitchers, and fans if coaches started recognizing the curse of the Inverted W before it has struck.”

Curse is a harsh word…but fitting.

The White Sox will be doomed to endure stints on the disabled list and rehab starts if Sale’s workload is not addressed.

Remember what you said back in 2010, Coop, and recognize the problem.

Follow @MatthewSmithBR

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