What's wrong with Chris Sale? 'Spaceman' Bill Lee thinks he has some answers


I had the opportunity to talk to baseball physicist, kinesiologist and overall pitching expert Bill “The Spaceman” Lee this week about the state of Chris Sale. As I suspected, when I called the Spaceman he had been scouting Sale closely for over a month which is exactly why I called him. He had a lot to say about what’s happening with Sale now and why. He also detailed what needs to change for Sale in the future. Below are the key points from our conversation:

What do you see as Sale’s biggest issue right now?

Lee: “Wear and tear. He’s a thrower, not a pitcher. He does everything hard. Even his changeup is hard. His changeup is 89. That was my fastball!”

At the core – what do you see specifically?

Lee: “He throws across his body, which gives him the ability to throw harder. It makes you pitch inside hard but he cannot pitch away. He has to back door you away but none of his stuff pronates. Everything I did went away, then I bit inside. With Sale ... he pounds inside but can’t go away. When he hangs his changeup or if he takes a little off and throws a cutter and makes a mistake, it’s going into the right-handed hitters’ power and they’re wearing him out.”

So what does he need to do from your perspective?

Lee: “He’s got to come to the conclusion that he’s got to call his own pitches, he’s got to be Frank Tanana and make an adjustment. (Tanana was a flamethrower in the 70’s with the California Angels, who transitioned to being a junk-baller for the Detroit Tigers in the 80’s once his lightning bolt arm forced that transformation). I like Sale. I love his guts. I love the way he approaches the game. I love the way he works out. It’s just the fact that he doesn’t call his own pitches. It’s like a bird that lays her eggs in another bird’s nest.”  

If his situation is more physical, as I have written and as you are talking about here, why does calling his own pitches matter?

Lee: “I’ve never seen a pitcher agree with his catcher like Sale. I never agreed with my catcher. It helps with putting doubt in the hitters mind.”

Give me an example ...

Lee: “I would shake off the fastball when I was basically an off-speed pitcher and they (the hitters) would always think an off-speed pitch was coming, then I would sneak a fastball by them.” 

Makes sense. I want to get back to the pitching adjustment. You mentioned Tanana, an obvious one, let’s go deeper on that:

Lee: “I equate him to Frank Tanana. Slowly, Sale has to stop throwing across his body and in increments, bring his arm back to a Greg Maddux like 90 degrees. Here’s how you do it; you keep one foot inside the other and come straight down at the hitter. That will allow him to pronate more and turn the ball away from the right-handed hitter.”

I’ve written this a couple of times; that he’s in a period of transition and his future is as a closer:

Lee agrees: “It’s either a period of transition or you give him the closer job and just let him go.”

David Price seemed to change from elite fastball pitcher to relying more on command and control while keeping hitters off balance. To his credit, he’s been able to do it on the fly and has been pretty successful doing it. However, what you’re talking about sounds like a complete change in the way Sale pitches; my question is, how long does a transition like that take?

Lee: “Well a lot of left-handers have done it. Mike McCormick (1950’s and 60’s), Johnny Antonelli (1950’s and 60’s) and me after my injury in 1976. I won 16 games with the Expos after breaking my shoulder in 76’ and never had Sale’s stuff. Way back, Carl Mays with the Red Sox came up with Babe Ruth and learned how to throw submarine as many pitchers did in those days. Everybody scraped their knuckles on the ground at that time…it saved their shoulders. I would like to see Sale, if he’s across his body and he’s already kind of a sidearmer, three-quarter out of the slot, I would like to see him try to come back as a submariner.”

Lee expands on the pitching techniques and problems:

“What happens when you come down and over the top and pick up your back foot, you do not decelerate properly. It puts way too much strain on the rotator cuff and labrum and that’s why they break down.”

Note – Lee is now 72, still pitching competitively and is 40 years past his most serious shoulder injury.

More on the long-term solution:

Lee: “Here’s the main thing…he needs to learn to pitch away slowly. If he can do that then you don’t have to throw 97. Once you get a hitter to commit to go the other way, he’s meat on the inside of the plate at 92.”

So he needs to reverse his pitching approach to make this transition right?

Lee: “Oh yeah. Like this Trevor Bauer kid. He’s smart. I love the way he works, but he seems to rub managers the wrong way and so did I! But you know of all the managers I played for, only one is in the Hall of Fame (Dick Williams) and he’s the only one who liked me.”

Right now what’s Sale’s biggest problem?

Lee: “Physically he cannot pitch away softly. It comes back into the plate and that’s when he gets hit.”

Before Sunday’s loss in New York, his previous two outings were solid. Why the inconsistency?

Lee: “The health of his shoulder is part of it. He has the velocity and not the command. It’s like real estate. Location, location, location. Command with no velocity is better than velocity with no command.”

Let’s say he lives at 90-92 MPH. Can he be successful?

Lee: “He needs a changeup. Like Fernando (Valenzuela), Tug (McGraw), Pedro, me, Carl Hubbell… he needs to learn to pronate and you can’t pronate when you throw across your body. How did Greg Maddux become so good with such weak s@#$? He carved you up on both sides and came back door on both sides and he had a devastating changeup. He could also field his position.

“I may not be the smartest pitching coach out there but I doubt it.”

Well played. How much of his inconsistency in mental right now? My take is that his initial mistakes right now are physical or mechanical, but after that it becomes mental. Fair assumption?

Lee: Voice changes, more sullen: “Oh yeah. It gets in there mentally. You start questioning. He never questioned himself when he was in Chicago or when he first got here and now mortality is catching up with him. It’s like that Ernest K. Becker’s ‘Denial of Death’ that eats us all. He’s got to get around that.”

The inevitable transition:

Lee: “Well you can’t do it now (during the season), he’s got to think of his future. I know how to do it. You have to slowly move his foot away when throwing that cutter, in fact file the cutter. The cutter is going to get him into trouble. Just throw the four seam fastball with max velocity inside and the breaking ball. Then learn to pronate the changeup away, away, away. And slow it down about 5 miles per hour. Tuck it in more, back into his palm. Get the ball out of his fingertips because that gives him velocity. Get it back in his palm a bit more and he’ll be unhittable.”

Do you agree with me that his future is as a closer?

Lee: “His immediate future is in the pen if he doesn’t change but all he has to do is throw that changeup 3-5 mph slower and make it go away. If he can change and get Carl Hubbell’s screwball he’ll be in the Hall of Fame. He’ll win 300 games. That’s all he needs.”

Lastly, do you remember that game Sale pitched in Oakland back in April?

Lee: “Yeah he pitched backwards. He pitched like me. It’s who he needs to be and now we know he can do it.”

Live from outer space with the legendary Bill “The Spaceman” Lee. Now back to Earth as the Sale watch continues with a little more meat on the bone. Thanks to Bill.