Project Prospect will be extremely MLB Draft heavy in the coming weeks as want to prepare you for a few of my personal favorite days of the year. We’ll have rankings, lists, statistical analysis, sleepers, and much more. I figured we’d start today with an in-depth look at one of the most divisive prospects in this year’s class: Chris Sale.
For the unfamiliar, Sale is the Friday-night ace for the Florida Gulf Coast University Eagles. While FGCU isn’t a traditional baseball powerhouse, Sale jumped onto scout’s radars with a dazzling effort in the 2009 Cape Cod League. Showing both stuff and command against advanced competition, he's catipulted himself into consideration for a top 10 overall pick, and nothing he’s done this spring has made his believers question his promise.
There are three things at a pitcher’s disposal: velocity, movement and location. If a pitcher has two of those things going at any given time, then he has a good shot retiring batters. At his best, Chris Sale can boast all three.
Fastball: Sale works predominately off his two-seamer, which sits 90-92 mph with late, sinking movement that should lead to a lot of groundballs. According to collegesplits.com, 61% of his batted-ball outs have come on the ground this year. Sale is an aggressive strike thrower with above-average command of his heater. He can touch 95-96 mph without losing much in the way of movement, but can only flash that sort of velocity over short bursts.
Changeup: Sale’s main off-speed pitch is a swing-and-miss changeup at the college level with a lot of movement. The change will register 81-83 mph, which is a decent speed differential from his fastball. Most changeups have value based on their deceit. A hitter sees fastball and swings but the lower speed throws off his timing. Sale’s changeup may be easier for advanced hitters to pick out because it has so much movement. The ball comes in on a slightly different plane than his fastball, possibly reducing part of its effectiveness against high caliber hitters.
Even if the pitch isn’t a slam dunk, Sale still commands it well and the speed differential plus movement give the pitch a high ceiling. It would not be a stretch to say that both Sale’s fastball and changeup have the potential to be true plus pitches.
Breaking Ball: Sale has experimented with both a curveball and a slider, with the slider being the more advanced. His curveball has big, loopy break and is easily identified by hitters. The slider is harder and has tighter break. Sale’s low 3/4 arm angle is more conducive to a slider than a curve, in general. Either pitch, but especially the slider, looks like it will be death versus left-handed hitters but may not be as valuable against righties. There is a chance the slider turns into a quality pitch, but it is currently below-average.
The big left-hander’s raw line looks like this:
Sale’s 146 strikeouts are tops among all Division-I pitchers and his K:BB ratio of over 10:1 is other worldly. For comparison, Stephen Strasburg struck out 195 batters in 109 innings last season, but walked just 19. If he keeps up this pace, Sale will finish his junior season with almost the exact same junior K:BB ratio as Strasburg.
According to the greatness of BoydsWorld.com, Florida Gulf Coast’s home park is perfectly neutral (100 PF) but several of FGCU’s opponents play in hitter-friendly parks. The Eagles’ total park factor is 105, meaning hitters have a slight advantage for the average FGCU game. Quality of competition is an obvious concern, but BoydsWorld.com ranks FGCU’s strength of schedule as 101.8 – just a touch harder than the average college team. While humming along versus Belmont may not tell you a lot (as Sale did on April 23, complete game one-hitter, 15K and just 1BB), Sale has also beaten Wichita State and Clemson – both top 25 quality teams.
After being used primarily as a reliever during his freshman year, Sale was impressive as a sophomore – they don’t invite just anyone to the Cape Cod League. This type of multi-year performance is extremely important when trying to project future big league performance. The quality of the major leagues is so high that nearly every player was dominant going back to the time when they were 19, 20-years-old.
Sale posted a terrific baseline, with his outstanding 2009 performance and then improved in every key area in 2010.
Any way you want to slice it, Chris Sale has been one of the most dominant pitchers in college baseball this year.
Looking strictly at future potential, Sale could have a plus fastball, plus change up and average slider to go with well above-average command. If he can stay healthy, that’s solid No. 2 starter upside. Let’s take a closer look at that last prepositional phrase.
Special thanks to Baseball America's Conor Glassey who took the video used below. Follow Conor on Twitter @conorglassey.
Up until now the picture of Sale’s prospects has been pretty rosy. A team looking to draft him in the top 10 is likely relying on his stuff/production combo. Those who rank Sale lower, will do so predominately because of concerns about his throwing motion.
Standing nearly 6-foot-6 and weighing 47 pounds (approximate), Sale could be broken in half by a strong wind. On the one hand, he has plenty of room to mature physically, adding functional muscle. On the other, if this is what he looks like after the freshman 15, his body just might not be made to handle a lot of weight.
On the positive side, Sale's mechanics are certainly deceptive. Even though they are unorthodox, he does seem to repeat his motion well. Even the ‘best’ mechanics don’t mean much if a pitcher can’t repeat them.
On the negative side, while Sale’s motion hasn't caused him much of a problem so far, it does put him at an elevated risk of possible injury.
He begins his motion by flexing his torso and leaning his upper body towards first base. This may disrupt some hitter’s sight as they try and focus on the area in which they expect the ball to be released. However it is also a needless expenditure of energy. The only pitchers who successfully pull of a similar move are submariners who use that shoulder tilt to create their arm angles. Sale releases the ball in a normal, upright stance. His unusual torso bend reduces both his ability to apply force to the ball directly in the driveline and minimizes hip/shoulder separation – the key to velocity.
While the ideal mechanics may vary from pitcher to pitcher, the idea behind the motion is that of an efficient kinetic chain. Energy starts when a pitcher drives off the mound. It continues when he rotates his hips, then shoulders and at last that energy makes its way into the ball. Sale appears to get little drive from his legs and doesn’t maximize his hip rotation.
He seems to throw mostly with his upper body. He flexes his torso out towards first base and reverse rotates his shoulders. He actually dips his front shoulder down slightly and has to flex upward in order to release the ball – fighting against his body’s natural weight shift and gravity as he strides down the pitching mound. This reliance on the upper body to produce most of the force in the pitching motion results in ‘whip’ in which the pitching arm is rapidly – and perhaps unsafely – accelerated.
At some angles, it appears as if Sale’s pitching side elbow reaches well above his shoulder, a process known as hyperabduction. However I believe that is not as severe as it looks, since Sale lowers his front shoulder, the elbows and shoulders are actually much closer to staying in their acromial lines, the line is just angled upwards.
The biggest problem, however, is a severe timing flaw in Sale’s delivery. Whenever his shoulders start to rotate – which is earlier in his delivery than most – the ball is not in a position to be accelerated towards home plate. Instead of being up, with his forearm vertical, the ball is still at, or slightly below, shoulder height. Late forearm turnover appears to be a significant predictor of future injury.
To put it simply, there is energy rushing through Sale’s arm at footplant that is not being used to project the ball towards the home. That energy doesn’t just go away, it gets transmitted into muscles, ligaments, tendons and bones. None of this guarantees a future injury for Sale; it’s possible he can withstand the added stress. But it does make it somewhat unlikely that Sale will able to withstand a consistent starter’s workload.
There are many factors that go into an injury. Rest and recovery time, genetic factors, diet, pitch counts, workload and dozens more. The average pitcher is likely to get hurt sometime in his career. But Sale’s unique mechanics appear to put him at a higher than average level of risk. Nothing certain, just elevated risk level. That level of risk can never reach zero, but if I were a scouting director or general manager and about to invest several million dollars in a prospect, I would want the level of risk to be as low as possible.
I do not know of another pitcher who has been a durable starter with a motion similar to Sale. Players who share the extent of Sale’s timing flaw tend to have injury riddled careers. The closest comparable I can think of, in terms of having similar mechanics, is Anthony Reyes (hat tip to Pat Hickey who first brough up this comparison in the Project Prospect forums)
Chris Sale is an extremely productive left-handed pitcher with advanced control and good stuff. He can crank his fastball up into the mid-90’s with outstanding movement and his change has a chance to be a very good pitch. He has a chance to rack up high strikeout totals, low walk rates and good ground ball rates. If he reaches his upside, he’s a very valuable player. But Sale’s mechanics put him at a very high level of injury risk. If you believe that a pitching motion can contribute to injuries, it’s likely that Sale’s will. He appears unlikely to be able to handle a consistent starter’s workload. His long-term home appears to be in the bullpen. I’d have a hard time taking a closer in round one.
Shoot Lincoln an email LHamilton@projectprospect.com or follow him on Twitter @LHamiltonPP