Never tell anyone to throw like Chris Sale. His motion looks like something more suited to throwing a large stick into the woods instead of painting corners at the major league level. He steps the wrong way, his right arm flies open, and he falls off to the left side on his follow through. Yet, here we are, watching Sale put together another incredible season. So, what gives? How can this odd confluence of bizarre motions result, repeatedly, in dominant starts?
Below I will look at how these motions aren’t so bizarre when used together, and how Sale is successfully using his body to produce results, albeit in an unorthodox manner.
First, a slight tangent. If you read my previous piece about Kelsey Plum you understand how elated great throwing mechanics make me. When I am first working with someone to help them throw better, I first need to see a couple things. Where is their natural, comfortable arm slot? Are they intrinsically stepping properly? I am talking mostly about kids in T-ball or Little League, where you might often see them step with their right foot when they’re right-handed. These are important times because every person is different, which means you can adjust quite a bit to help them settle into solid mechanics while still giving them the freedom to stay comfortable.
The reason I mention this is I imagine a pitching coach’s job becomes increasingly difficult as they decide how much they want to change about someone’s mechanics or approach. Too much change in too little time, as an example, could mean extended work back to previous repeatability. However, many times these suggestions and changes are done with the idea of helping to prevent injury, or to insulate an investment in the future of the athlete. It is why pitchers in their early teens should not be tinkering with many types of breaking balls. There is no reason to overstress their elbow while they are still physically maturing.
Then you have people like Chris Sale. Durable, reliable, crazy mechanics, and completely fascinating. Sometimes you leave well enough alone and tinker within the confines of what you have. Play the hand you’re dealt. Sale is listed at 6’6” and 180 pounds. I am 5’8” and 185lbs. At my best (20+ years ago) I could hump up the ball to around 82 mph. At less weight, but significantly more wingspan Sale, is throwing darts in the low-to-mid 90s. As I break this down I will keep coming back to a central theme for Sale: His right leg is the fulcrum on one huge rotation where he generates all his power. Let me show you what I mean.
- Front leg – This is a high kick to start the windup, which is fine. Watch how he brings his right leg back behind his left leg as his knee comes up. Due to this rotation, his hips turn slightly to the left as do his shoulders. This is the start of his energy storage, think of it like a spring, you pull it back to start generating the forward energy on release. This backward motion also starts a slight rocking, which will carry through in terms of forward momentum as his motion continues.
- Back leg – Sale stands tall on the mound, but does have a slight bend in his back leg. This is important because even as the raising of his front leg starts the energy build-up for his throw, the bend in his back leg helps him to conserve and apply it. Having a slight bend makes his back leg more like another spring instead of a board, in which the energy would more easily disperse.
- Stride – From this angle Sale’s stride may look unremarkable and normal. When we look from directly behind you will see that is absolutely not the case. Even from this angle there is something very interesting happening. Watch his toes. As he begins striding forward his toes are pointed more toward the first and second basemen than anything else. He is also very quick to extend his leg out to an almost straight position. He is actively swinging his leg out to where he plants it versus striding to his plant point. Remember that fulcrum and one big rotation? It’s already started thanks to his toes. For comparison, look at Jon Lester’s mechanics, which are far more standard and balanced:
- Plant foot – Extended locked knees are generally not a great idea in any throwing motion. As Sale comes down on his plant foot he has a good bend to his knee that evaporates into a locked knee. Watch the way there is even a shock bounce back effect right around release. Watching the Lester gif you may quickly argue that there appears to be a locked event there too. I would agree, but look how fast it is gone on his follow through. Sale’s locked knee is an active part of his throwing motion as soon as it happens. Every part of me wants him to stop doing this, but there is a purpose. This locked leg is now the fulcrum of his entire, massive, mostly horizontal rotation. If you have ever played tetherball, you can envision how fast that ball comes around the rigid center point with a good hit. Now imagine the middle part of that post was flexible, the rotation would wobble and be wildly inconsistent. Now go look at Sale’s plant foot, this time while looking at him from the centerfield camera.
His plant foot and leg develop into that same rigid pole for his huge rotation. This angle also shows the leg swing I mentioned earlier in his stride. There is one last peculiar item regarding his plant foot: It is pointed into the left-handed batter’s box. Again, this is nowhere near ideal, yet serves a purpose for his mechanics.
- Direction of plant foot – If I stepped in that direction I would hit Jackie Bradley Jr. in the clip above. Actually, at my age, JBJ would calmly step backwards as something not quite as fast as Tim Wakefield’s knuckleball floated towards him. A straight line from the direction of Sale’s toe to the backstop would land in that Dunkin Donuts ad. No, not the one behind the catcher, the other one. When someone steps closed, they generally sacrifice a couple of very important things with their throw: speed and accuracy. Speed – because they are changing the direction of their momentum and energy that is inconsistent with their target. Accuracy – because people generally throw where they look and step toward. Given those two factors, what in the world is happening here? Speed clearly isn’t an issue and Sale just doesn’t walk many batters. Accuracy, I believe, just comes down to repetition and repeatability (muscle memory). Sale has thrown like this for a long time and is consistent with his release point. Speed comes next.
- The “Big” rotation – Rotation of hips and shoulders is critical to the energy transfer to the pitching arm, which then travels through its own rotation, delivering the ball to release and carrying on through the follow through. Those rotations are first on the horizontal plane with the hips and shoulders as they come square with the plate, and then more vertical with the arm. That can vary, depending on release point. At least, normally, that’s how it goes. With Sale, his release point is so close to sidearm that the angles of his two major rotations (hips/shoulders and arm) are nearly identical, with only slight wobble between the two. What this does is near-immediately transfer the spring coiled momentum he has been building since his leg kick through his shoulder and into his throwing arm, which is now extending about as far as it can go from his body to maximize speed and torque. In that respect, it is an elegant energy transfer. One that I would not recommend to anybody if they did not have a natural aptitude to approach pitching this way. Fantastic, lots of torque, but what about that lost energy from stepping toward the batter’s box? Well, in Sale’s case he isn’t losing much. In fact, I think it’s part of why he is so successful.
- Plant foot, again? – You bet, one more time on this one. Keeping his plant foot closed allows Sale to get to his solid pivot point sooner than stepping straight on. This step allows his momentum to carry that leg into its locked position, allowing the “big rotation” to have a stabilizing force, like the pole in tetherball. He is now the spring becoming uncoiled, transferring all his remaining energy to the ball. With his significant wingspan, this is important as it allows enough time for that rotation to occur. Simply put, his delivery doesn’t work if he stepped directly at the catcher. His right leg would be too bent on his release, his arm would drag through, and he would likely be desperately wild to either side of the zone.
- Release – Sale’s release is masterful. He has almost no margin for error in this regard because of his mechanics. He is more like a sling, or catapult, than a traditional hurler. For that to work he needs incredible precision on his release point, and his career stats speak to that precision. His arm angle and release point also help with his deception as there is very little time to pick up and see the ball once Sale has started his motion.
- Follow through – In terms of follow through, his line really does stay in rotation around that front leg. He is resetting from a lot of side-to-side motion. Watch his left arm on his follow through, it will often swing back around close to his release point. His right arm has a tendency, after a good tuck, to also swing wide. That right arm coming back out reminds me of the way we all put our arms out when trying to balance on something thin. Sale is cork screwing himself on each throw, the wide arms help bring his body back under control. Also, this accounts for his back-foot landing as well. It is simply swinging around that same fulcrum and landing in a spot to allow Sale to keep his balance. This is in contrast to a more traditional landing, which would see the pitcher gather themselves towards the front of the mound given that their energy had all been directed on that line.
I mentioned that Sale’s throwing motion isn’t so bizarre once you break it down. Question: If you want to throw something heavy a long distance, what do you do? I know what I do, I start spinning it around and then heave it like a hammer throw in the Olympics. That’s Chris Sale, except he’s doing it in just one rotation. The goal of his motion is to spring-load horizontally, and given his considerable length, he can achieve the force to do it. The rest of the oddities, such as the closed step and wide open flying arms, benefit this approach and allow a 180-pound man to perform at the highest levels, for around 200 innings a year, that we all get to enjoy.
In summary, don’t throw like this, you are liable to hurt someone or yourself. OK, maybe a wiffle ball, and make sure there are no small children around.