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The Chris Sale Project Leaves The Harbor

Hey, it's an overview.
Hey, it's an overview.

Hello all and welcome to an exciting new feature this season on SSS we're inventively calling "The Chris Sale Project". As the title would suggest if I were more creative, I'll be following the lanky lefty as he progresses over the season in his new role as a starter. I'll throw various stats around but I also intend to give opinions on his mechanics, where I think he's at mentally, etc. Sort of a start to start close reading of his performance and body language. That is, it will be less about addressing the prevailing wisdom proffered by non-bloggy media sorts and more about totally overanalyzing everything that happens on the mound while he's out there. Jim will cover the former more than thoroughly I don't doubt.

For the moment though, let's consider various reasons why some have suggested he might not stick as a starter. The worst/dumbest reasons have to do with massively overvaluing the value of even the best relievers. Larry demolished a rambling piece of nonsense--no doubt intently scrawled in crayon--by Joe Cowley that seemed to take that point of view. Even if Cowley had managed to be more coherent he'd still be wrong. No, I want to address another sort of Sale-to-starter criticism that will help us establish a baseline for analysis going forward, namely that of Keith Law.

Yes, yes I know. He's definitely the worst and I'm not here to lend him credence considering his self involved insistence on not coming to terms with being obviously wrong. But way back in 2010, KL actually laid out a spot on rubric by which we may judge Sale's suitability as either a starter or a reliever:

If you like Chris Sale, you see a 6'6" left-hander with an arm slot close to Randy Johnson's, a plus fastball and change, and a potential front-line starter. If you're a skeptic, you see a sidearming lefthander without an average breaking ball and a long arm action that will be tough to repeat 100-plus times an outing. I'm more in the latter camp than the former, and I think Sale's pro future is reasonably likely to come in the bullpen.

He'll sit 92-93 as a starter and has touched 96 a handful of times this spring, with good sink on the pitch that comes from the low slot, helping him generate groundballs. He turns his low-80s changeup over well, surprising given his arm slot, but it's more of an action change that relies on its downward movement and big-league hitters will lay off it when it's out of the zone. He's thrown a loopy curveball and a harder slider, with a better chance to make the slider work from that low slot, but neither is an average pitch and he primarily works with the fastball and change.

His arm action is ugly, long and complex in the back with a high elbow, and he drifts forward in a crouch more commonly seen on sidearmers and submariners. If I did draft him, I'd see if I could raise his slot just enough to get him better angle on the slider and get him to take advantage of his height. His current delivery, slot, and repertoire make him look a lot like a reliever to me.

In sum, the velocity isn't in doubt. It's a matter of mechanics and secondary offerings that have and will determine his future. Which brings us to Sale's first two starts. Unfortunately Brooks has been down for me all day, so I don't have the varied and obscure bits of data that normally I would bring to bear in such an analysis. But if you saw either or both starts, you certainly didn't see a pitcher lacking in either confidence or skill in throwing a major league slider.

Against Cleveland he pitched backward a surprising amount. By which I mean he threw a lot of sliders early in the count and looked to get outs with his fastball rather than vice versa. In that mode, he got batters to whiff on nearly 40% of their swings against his slider. I'll grant that Cleveland's lineup is lackluster, but it definitely suggests that the offering remains a quality one. Today, Sale was more traditional in his approach: he threw just one off-speech pitch of his first 11 pitches. But even with a different strategy, he was still very successful. By my count, he induced 11 swings and got five whiffs, including two on Fielder and one on Cabrera.

Much more subjectively, his delivery of the pitch seems to vary somewhat. He knows to trust the game AJ calls, but I think some dissonance develops when AJ puts down slider and Chris is thinking fastball. A lack of conviction isn't necessarily the problem (though that's what Hawk suggested). Any time you're knocked out of your groove and start to think about the process of pitching, about what you're throwing, you're not at your best. Now that he's starting, Sale knows his stuff isn't going to be quite as good. And he knows he's got to save a bit for the 6th and 7th.

Allowing that kind of vulnerability to occupy any sort of conscious brain space is problematic and I think that's been a persistent feature/bug of his first two starts. He nibbled throughout against the Indians. On Sunday, he seemed to be telling himself to be sure not to bounce his slider. He's also consistently gone to a 90-91 mph fastball, almost like a note on his bag lunch. "Remember to pace yourself. Love, Your Perhaps Excessive Self-Awareness".

I don't think this is a long term issue, as experience and hence his unconscious will gradually take back control over more and more of those moments. At which point that conscientiousness will hopefully be applied more fruitfully after games, buoying his confidence during struggles and reining in his ego in successes.

Or maybe that's not it at all. It's only been two damn ass starts. You guys got any thoughts on nicknames?