What Bartolo Colon and Chris Sale Have in Common

The resemblance isn’t striking. (Photo: Arturo Padavila III and Keith Allison)

You probably couldn’t find two more different-looking pitchers than Chris Sale and Bartolo Colon. The former resembles a slingshot made of chopsticks and a rubber band, while the latter is what might happen if a 19th-century howitzer were to assume human properties. Each pitcher throws a bunch of sinkers, sure; otherwise, though, their arsenals are a study in contrast, as well. Colon’s all fastballs, three-quarters release, right side. Sale has bendy stuff coming from a low, left-handed sidearm slot.

There’s one thing, though: they’ve both lasted longer than people thought they might. And there’s a quality they possess in common, something about their approaches, that might be helping in that regard.

Early in 2016, everyone noticed that Chris Sale wasn’t hitting the same big numbers on the radar gun. For a player who supposedly had mechanics that were going to lead to injury, it was worrisome. No worries, the pitcher told us, this was on purpose.

He talked to Scott Merkin about it and gave a few reasons for the change.

“That’s probably the biggest part of my change, is not throwing every single pitch as hard as I can every inning, every out. I waste a lot of pitches doing that,” Sale told MLB.com prior to his Saturday start against the Twins.

“There are still times to overpower guys,” Sale said. “But when you are going through a game, there’s no reason to throw a 0-0 pitch as hard as you can just because you gave up a hit before that. Now you are 1-0 and now you are more mad than you were before, so you rear back and try to throw one harder.”

“Innings for a starting pitcher, and starts, are the most important things because if you are getting the innings and out there every time, good things will happen. Everything else will fall into place.”

There’s a whiff of “pitching to contact” in his response — and, maybe with stuff as bendy as Sale’s, contact isn’t so scary, even as most of the league moves to maximizing whiffs. But look closer and you’ll also see that he mentions innings and wasted pitches — he’s talking about longevity, too.

That makes a lot of sense. After seeing preliminary evidence that pitchers are pitching closer to their maximums in the postseason, I reached out to the American Sports Medicine Institute’s Glenn Fleisig to explain his research. Fleisig has demonstrated that pitching closer to personal max causes more stress on the arm.

“The data showed that there is a strong correlation within a person, that the faster you throw, the more torque you produce on your elbow,” Fleisig said as a way to sum up the to-be-published findings. “But there is not a strong association between the two among people, meaning that there are other factors that the radar gun doesn’t show — what their mechanics are and how big and strong you are. Looking at one person, the faster you throw, the more torque you put arm.”

We previously studied this by using the difference between average velocity and maximum velocity, but because there are still errors in velocity recording and because one errant high-velocity pitch may not describe maximum velocity well, I’ve used the difference between average velocity and 90th-percentile velocity here.

Thanks to Jeff Zimmerman and Sean Dolinar, who helped greatly with the data, we can see which players have the largest discrepancy between their average fastball velocity and their 90th-percentile velocity. You probably can guess who appears at the top.

Fastball Velocity Range Leaders
Name Average Velo 90th Percentile Velo Difference
Bartolo Colon 87.8 91.0 3.2
Chris Sale 94.3 97.1 2.8
Carlos Martinez 95.7 98.4 2.7
Carlos Rodon 93.3 95.9 2.6
Andrew Cashner 93.3 95.8 2.5
Reynaldo Lopez 94.6 97.1 2.5
Mike Foltynewicz 95.1 97.6 2.5
Rick Porcello 91.1 93.5 2.4
Zach Eflin 92.5 94.9 2.4
German Marquez 94.8 97.2 2.4
SOURCE: Pitch Info
Starting pitchers, 2017, all fastballs lumped together

The causes of pitching injury are numerous. As such, we don’t find a collection safe-and-sound starters at one end of this list and just a landscape of shattered bones and shredded ligaments at the other. It is interesting to see hard-throwing Carlos Martinez and his inconsistent mechanics alongside Sale here, though. And three pitchers who shared the same pitching coach recently, in Don Cooper of the White Sox.

Oh fine, let’s take a look at the other side.

Fastball Velocity Range Laggards
Name Average Velo 90th Percentile Velo Difference
David Paulino 92.7 93.8 1.1
Jason Hammel 92.1 93.3 1.2
Jordan Zimmermann 92.2 93.4 1.2
Marco Gonzales 91.7 92.9 1.2
Clayton Kershaw 92.9 94.1 1.2
Felix Hernandez 90.7 91.9 1.2
Alex Cobb 91.7 92.9 1.2
Garrett Richards 95.8 97.0 1.2
Jake Faria 91.7 93.0 1.3
Marco Estrada 89.8 91.1 1.3
SOURCE: Pitch Info
Starting pitchers, 2017, all fastballs lumped together

While these guys are stressing their arms to get the most velo out of it, Colon and Sale are throwing free and easy, trying to rack up the innings, stay healthy, and leave gas in the tank. Maybe Sale can throw until he’s 44. Wouldn’t that be something nobody predicted?

With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.

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Is there a way to find a full list for this? This is really fascinating stuff, and I’d love to give some of my favorite pitchers a look to see where they fall.


I agree, very interesting stuff. I find it interesting that Carlos Martinez shows up on the Fastball velocity Range Leaders list. Just based on his pitch mechanics and follow through it appears he’s always giving max effort but apparently he isn’t. He’s had a nice innings increase progression capping off his first 200+ IP season this year. Maybe he’ll be there next horse like Verlander or Scherzer.

Travis L
Travis L

It’s possible Martinez is going max effort, but that doesn’t result in max velocity every time because his mechanics get inefficient in some pitches.

I wonder if comparing velo intra-game would be a better route.

Jetsy Extrano
Jetsy Extrano

Yeah, this. I wonder if we could get at “holding back” versus “screwy mechanics” by looking at game situation? In a high-leverage 3-2 you’re not likely to throw a weak heater on purpose, but you could by accident.

Plot velocity achieved against the situational desire for velocity. LI would do for a start.