GLENDALE, Ariz. -- When asked about White Sox pitchers and their decade-long run of good health, don’t be surprised if Rick Hahn scans the room for the nearest exit.
The White Sox general manager jokes he doesn’t want to discuss how the team’s pitchers have managed to stay healthier by a significant margin than their competition over the years.
He’s afraid if he acknowledges the subject matter, it might reverse course on him and the team.
But facts are facts: Even with recent long-term injuries to Jake Peavy and John Danks, White Sox pitchers stay healthier longer than anyone in baseball.
The team’s track record gives Chris Sale confidence he’ll hold up in 2013 although he has been identified as an at-risk pitcher because of a sharp increase in innings pitched last season. Sale has seen the positive effects of a rigorous strength and conditioning program designed for pitchers that takes them from the gym to the training room and pays attention to their workload in games. But asked about the most important aspect of it all, Sale said one variable stands out.
“There’s a lot of things that go into it, but the main thing is communication is open,” Sale said. “Everyone’s being honest with everybody and letting everybody know how they feel. No one’s really trying to be a hero and go out do something that would hurt themselves.”
From 2002-2011, the White Sox had the fewest pitchers go on the disabled list in Major League Baseball and were one of only two teams with fewer than 50 DL trips by pitchers, according to a study done by Fangraphs.com.
Last season, the team had the second fewest overall days on the DL in the majors and their pitchers ranked fifth.
The team’s pitchers lost about 1,800 days to the DL from 2002-2011, roughly 400 fewer than the next lowest franchise (Minnesota Twins). Every other team in the majors had at least 2,800 days of injuries to pitchers and the Texas Rangers lost pitchers for more than 6,000 days in the 10-year window.
“It’s an everyday thing we manage,” pitching coach Don Cooper said. “We’re probably one of the top organizations with running guys out there and keeping them healthy. We’re proud of that because again we’re setting out to say, ‘How do we keep these guys healthy number one?' Things come into it. Delivery is certainly a big part of that. The conditioning they do with (director of conditioning Allen Thomas), the training they get from (trainer Herm Schneider) and the communication with Robin (Ventura) and I on when guys need days.”
Protect the investment
Now in his 34th season, Schneider has some strict rules for pitchers to adhere to when they step into his domain. There’s no debate -- “If you’re a pitcher on the White Sox, you’re going to do the shoulder program,” Schneider said.
Schneider describes the detailed program he and assistant trainer Brian Ball apply to pitchers as hygiene.
“You brush your teeth every day, you take a shower every day, you do the shoulder program when needed,” Schneider said. “They’re really good about it. Our group understands how important it is, how good it is. Do they like doing it? I can’t exactly say that, but they also understand it’s very monumental to them and the reward at the end of the road is pretty great when it becomes contract time.”
At least twice a week, pitchers enter the training room for 45 minutes and participate in 32-35 exercises aimed at strengthening a pitcher’s shoulder. Schneider accepts nothing less than perfection, which means players can’t listen to headphones and they need to display good posture and textbook form.
The team’s trainer since 1979, Schneider asks pitchers to “make deposits” to allow them to comfortably make withdrawals every time they pitch.
“It’s very simple: if you spend more money than you make, you go broke,” Schneider said. “You withdraw more than you deposit, you come up with shoulder problems. When you explain it to guys like that, they grab it.”
While Schneider handles the elbow and shoulder, Thomas deals with the rest. A former White Sox minor leaguer, Thomas has worked as a strength and conditioning coach since 1996. Though they have made minor adaptations, Thomas said the program is very similar to how Schneider had it designed when Thomas switched from the diamond to the weight room 17 years ago.
But Thomas said the training staff doesn’t deserve all the credit. He compliments scouts who find pitchers with good mechanics and the players for their willingness to take part.
“It has been tweaked, but the core program is still based on some of the same principles,” Thomas said. “We won’t change. It’s worked. It’s not a two-year or three-year thing. It has been more than 10 years. There’s some luck involved. You can’t really put it all on us. It’s on the player. They have to really buy into what we’re trying to accomplish. They’re to be commended for coming in with an open and listening what we have to say.”
Operators are standing by
A smile spreads across Sale’s face when he’s asked about contact with Cooper.
“Everyone knows Coop’s not afraid to talk a little bit, so the lines of communication are always open,” Sale said. “He’s very involved. He knows exactly what’s going on at all times.”
The two had plenty of opportunities to test their communication last season. Whether it was the temporary move in May from the rotation to the bullpen and back to the rotation, skipped starts in August or talks about an extra day of rest, Cooper and Sale successfully navigated a 192-inning season, up from 71 the year before.
In dealing with Sale and rookie Jose Quintana, who completed a career-high 136 1/3 innings, Cooper said he looked for a number of different warning signs. A varied arm slot, decreased velocity and the way the ball comes out of a pitcher’s hand are indicators. A pitcher’s body language sometimes can provide a nonverbal form. Yet another comes from the response of players when asked questions, which Hahn said helped tremendously in Sale’s case.
Because Sale offered up how he felt, the White Sox gave him extra days in between starts or skipped him when they could and now they’re reaping the benefits as the second-year starter is on the same schedule as other White Sox starters this spring.
“It was a big part of it with Sale last year in particular and being able to respond to not just what our eyes see in terms of how a pitcher is mechanically adjusting, how the ball is coming out of his hand, but even more importantly what he’s saying. How he feels the day after he throws or after he throws a sideline and being able to alter the off-day program and respond accordingly,” Hahn said.
Even though Sale and Quintana tired and struggled late in the season, Cooper believes the franchise handled both well. Now, both know what it’s like to pitch in September and what they need to do to endure.
“I think I saw both of those guys brought to the brink, brought to their max,” Cooper said. “We didn’t exceed their max, but with those guys we wanted them to get the full experience of being a starting pitcher in the American League. They both have that coming into this season.”
He never pitched in pain down the stretch. His two-seam fastball velocity dipped from 92.3 to 91.8 and his four-seamer dropped from 93.0 to 92.3, according to TexasLeaguers.com's pitch f/x database. But Sale -- who went 2-3 with a 4.11 ERA in six September starts -- is confident that was a function of a career-high workload finally catching up with him.
“It’s not like my arm was sore or I was pitching through pain or anything,” Sale said. “You make 25 or 26 starts and start getting a little tired. It was a learning process and last year was definitely a great year for everybody involved and it was fun. It’s something to build off of. … It was orchestrated very well and went very smooth.”
Hahn and Cooper hope for more of the same in the near future.
Both say Sale will enter this season as a pitcher without any restraints. The focus is on how he can improve and not if he’s healthy. They’re not gripped with fear about how they’ll have to manage the left-hander’s workload because they’re confident in the process from the gym to the trainer’s table to the clubhouse.
Just don’t ask Hahn too many questions about it or he’s liable to run.
“That’s just begging to jinx (it),” Hahn said with a smile. “”We have in the recent past had a fair amount of success keeping guys healthy. That’s a testament to Herm and Brian Ball and AT and a throwing program that has been in place since Coop was the pitching coordinator back in the early 1990s. … No one’s immune from injury, especially pitcher injury. But part of our success over the last decade-plus has been our ability to get our most innings out of our quality starters.”