Chris Sale's 'Condor' Mechanics Made Him a Star, but Are They Too Risky?

Scott Miller@@ScottMillerBblNational MLB ColumnistAugust 19, 2015

Nam Y. Huh/AP Images

ANAHEIM, Calif. — Before long, Chris Sale is eminently capable of doing at least two things (and, probably, much, much more).

Winning his first American League Cy Young Award. He's finished in the top six in each of the past three seasons, including third last year. Mark it down: He will win. Oh yes, he will.

Being voted Big League Pitcher Most Likely to Fly Away.

Look, up in the sky! It's a bird, it's a plane, it's…whoa, is that thing wearing a Chicago White Sox cap and spikes?

"That's a style all his own," White Sox closer David Robertson marveled.

"You definitely notice that arm angle," Sox catcher Tyler Flowers said, voice filled with awe, suddenly a kid gushing over a natural wonder like the Big Dipper. "That cross-body, cross-fire action."

Long ago, Sale, 6'6", earned the nickname "The Condor" not simply because of his funky mechanics, but because of the way his enormous wingspan expands as he reaches forward with his glove hand and slings his left arm from somewhere behind his ear to somewhere below the right side of his belt while delivering a pitch.

Condors are the largest flying land birds in the western hemisphere, and while they are beautiful, graceful creatures, they're not much for pitching.

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Which maybe is partly why Sale has been dogged by armchair pitching coaches and doctors since the White Sox made him their first-round pick in 2010.

"Quacks," White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper snarled. "I've devoted my life to mechanics. It's something I've put a lot of time into. And I resent all of that: Is he going to be healthy? Is he going to stay healthy? Is he going to need Tommy John surgery?

"These are quacks. Show me your credentials."

Since Sale was drafted in June of 2010 and debuted in the White Sox bullpen less than two months later, this is what the club has done to try to change him, fix him, modify him:

Absolutely nothing.   

At least, nothing with his mechanics.

Instead, as they broke Sale in in their bullpen in '10, Cooper said they had just one thing in mind.

"When we make you a starter, this is where we're going to have you stand on the rubber," Cooper told him. "All the way to the third-base side."

"That makes sense," Sale replied. "From there, my two-seamer and change-up will be more on the plate."

"Which," Cooper said this week, "was the correct answer."

Apr 30, 2015; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Chicago White Sox starting pitcher Chris Sale (49) and catcher Tyler Flowers (21) walk to the dugout before the game against the Minnesota Twins at Target Field. Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports
Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

The game's most unique windup and delivery do not go back maybe as far as you would think. All of those angles, the flying elbows, the cross-body delivery, were not honed in Little League.

In fact, they were not even honed during his freshman year at Florida Gulf Coast University.

"When he came to Florida Gulf Coast, he was straight over the top," said Dave Tollett, baseball coach at FGCU since the Eagles baseball program started in 2002.

Meaning, he had a conventional delivery, his arm angle moving from 12 to 6 on a clock.

"His freshman season of fall ball was probably the worst I've ever seen a kid have," Tollett, 49, said. "It was pretty frustrating for Chris."

So, during the summer between his freshman and sophomore seasons, Sale, who grew up in Lakeland, Florida, trudged off to La Crosse, Wisconsin, to play in the collegiate Northwoods League. Like college kids everywhere, he used the warm, lazy months to experiment, learn and discover a few things about himself.

The La Crosse Loggers' pitching coach was Derek Tate, who, at the time, also worked as Tollett's pitching coach. Another coach was former major league outfielder Greg Vaughn.

As Sale searched for something that would work, Tate helped him with conditioning and evaluation. Vaughn's contribution, as Sale said, smiling, "was with my mentality, doing the same things over and over."

Jun 19, 2015; Chicago, IL, USA; Chicago White Sox starting pitcher Chris Sale (49) throws against the Texas Rangers in the third inning at U.S Cellular Field. Mandatory Credit: Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports
Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

By summer's end, Sale threw from a low three-quarters angle, same way he throws today: As he bends and kicks his right leg into the air, his knee going belt-high, he reaches back far behind his left ear with the ball. As he turns his momentum toward the plate, he whips his arm across his body, landing on his right foot as his left leg swings across like a gate.

"It was just something you kind of evolved into," Sale told Bleacher Report. "It's always a work in progress. There are some things you want to stay on top of."

The work-in-progress part is endemic to a pitcher of such height. It took Hall of Famer Randy Johnson, 6'10", nearly until he was 30 to learn to control his body enough to throw strikes consistently.

"When he came back to school, he just said, 'I experimented with a lot of arm slots and this seemed to work for me," Tollett said. "So I said, 'Let's see.'

"I don't think he had a hiccup after that."

Eyes opened with every one of his starts thereafter.

And despite the fact that you may think many coaches might have messed with him since then, trying to tinker with an unconventional delivery, they didn't.

"Not really anybody," Sale said. "I have a few key points to stay on top of but, other than that, not a whole lot."

Cooper pointed to two keys.

"[Staying] tall is the big one," Cooper said.

The other is where his hands are during his windup (they should rest about belt high before he kicks and fires).

Apr 20, 2015; Chicago, IL, USA; Chicago White Sox starting pitcher John Danks (50), Chicago White Sox catcher Geovany Soto (58), Chicago White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper (99) meet at the mound during the game against the Cleveland Indians at U.S Cellul
Caylor Arnold-USA TODAY Sports

"Looking back on the whole time he's been here, one or two times a year I go to the video room and look at certain things with everybody," Cooper said. "With Sale, there will be a couple of games where he'll walk more people than usual, or he hits a guy, and I'll go back and look because usually, he doesn't do that."

Uh, no. This year, he leads the American League with 208 strikeouts and has walked only 32. Sale currently is on pace to notch a White Sox-record 290 strikeouts, which also would be the most K's in the majors since 2002, when Arizona's Randy Johnson (334) and Curt Schilling (316) each crossed the 300 threshold. Sale's current rate of 11.9 strikeouts per nine innings would be the highest in club history.

In holding the Cubs to one hit over seven innings in the White Sox's 3-1 win Sunday, Sale also became only the fifth lefty in major league history, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, to record at least 15 strikeouts with one or no hits allowed. Randy Johnson (four times), Clayton Kershaw, Jon Lester and Warren Spahn (once each) also did it.

Teammate Jeff Samardzija often is Sale's catch partner, and he thinks much of the critics' angst over Sale's mechanics is overdone; Samardzija sees during their catches that Sale, throwing similar to how he pitches, is using a natural motion.

Tollett, in Florida, agrees.

"If you've ever watched him play catch, this is where he plays catch from," the Eagles coach said. "This is almost like his natural slot."

Said Samardzija: "I think a big problem today is that everybody wants kids to throw the same way, like robots. For me, it's all pitch selection and location and how you get it there.

"People talking about mechanics. For me, a lot of times, it's hot air so you sound like you know what you're talking about."

Whenever Sale falls into a rut and they sit down, Cooper said, it always goes back to whether the left-hander is staying tall in his delivery or where his hands are. When he's not right, Cooper said, Sale's angle is higher than his typical three-quarters arm slot.

"Repetition, really," Sale said. "I think it's the same for any pitcher, getting a lot of repetition and just working at it."

While Cooper has become an expert on mechanics during his 27 years in the White Sox organization—he's been the big club's pitching coach since July 2002—he also makes it a point not to make his pitchers too conscious of them. Whether it was with Mark Buehrle, John Danks, Jose Contreras, Jon Garland or Sale, he's been consistent.

"I don't want them thinking about their right earlobe or their left testicle or their big toe," Cooper said.

Instead, he looks for keys, trigger points, that become touchstones for adjustments.

"The last two or three years, Tommy John surgeries have gone sky high," Cooper said. "We've been on this for 30, 35 years. I'll tell you why guys get hurt: bad deliveries. And another key is arm action: knowing what works.

"You can't change arm action."

So, no, like Tollett and Florida Gulf Coast before them, the White Sox never tried to change Sale. Never were tempted to. Never wanted to.

"He's not your typical left-hander; he's a little different," Cooper said. "Different is not bad.

"We want everybody to be themselves. When someone comes here, we don't want him to think we want to change this, this and this. I want him to be himself, to succeed and to help us win another World Series."

With Sale leading the way, that thought is not pie-in-the-sky. Perhaps Condor-in-the-sky, but definitely not pie.

Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.

Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball.

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