Last night, Jhoulys Chacin was simply spectacular, mixing and matching his fastball and his slider as he held the Kansas City Royals to two runs over seven innings of play. It wasn’t his first gem of the season, but I wonder if it ought to be his last as a starter for the Padres.
Don’t get me wrong; I realize A.J. Preller signed him to one a year deal primarily to eat up some innings over the course of the season, but Chacin is far too talented to waste away at the back of the rotation for a team that is going nowhere this season.
Perhaps the “far too talented” remark sounds like crazy talk considering Chacin has registered a miserable 5.35 ERA in thirteen starts this season and owned a similarly awful 5.07 ERA between the Angels and Braves last season; however, there are a couple of plus pitches in his arsenal that could make him an interesting reliever. And if that worked out over the next month and a half, the Padres might very well be able to land a future piece in exchange for an expiring contract, which is certainly more than they are going to receive for him as starter. So why not roll the dice?
Didn’t the Angels Try That Already?
After a handful of starts with the Braves last season, the Angels acquired Chacin for a low end prospect (a 22nd rounder from the 2014 draft) to try and bolster one of the league’s worst rotations. It apparently didn’t take long for Los Angeles to grow weary of his meager results because they shifted him to the bullpen a month and a half later.
For the next month, the Angels deployed him as a long reliever, and he responded reasonably well, putting up a 2.55 ERA and a robust 29.4 percent strikeout rate. But opportunity arose not long after, and Chacin was thrust into the starting lineup once again for severa games before being shuffled back to the bullpen.
Upon returning to the pen, Chacin got lit up for five runs by the Mariners, so his overall reliever numbers look don’t reflect how truly impressive he was. When you take out that one game, his ERA as a reliever is a sparkling 2.60.
Of course, you don’t get to pick and choose what games actually happened, but that stat is something the Padres can sell a little more if he can replicate it ver the next two months, especially when they can also argue that Chacin has yet to have time to be fully devoted to fitting his game to a reliever role.
Earlier in his career, Chacin was a quality and promising starter, who flashed a higher ceiling because of his diverse arsenal, featuring a curveball and slider that have been virtually unhittable. Injuries and fastball issues robbed him of realizing that potential, but we’ll get back to that here in a bit.
Instead, let’s turn our attention to Chacin’s best two weapons, his slider and his curveball. For starters, just look at the wRC+ that Chacin’s slider has allowed opposing hitters to produce since he’s been in the league.
In the last five seasons, Chacin’s slider has held opposing batters to at least fifty percent less runs than the average pitch. I can tell you that not even Corey Kluber’s or Chris Archer’s charts look as consistently dominant as this one; in fact, the only one more impressive for a starter that I could find belong to perennial Cy Young contenders Max Scherzer and Clayton Kershaw.
Regardless, let’s look at Chacin’s slider use for a moment. He mixes in a hard slider at times, but he generally works it in the low 80’s with a combination of horizontal and vertical movement that few can match. Quite frankly, some might mistake it’s deadly movement for a curveball if he didn’t already have one with even more vertical break to it. He spoke to his strategy with the slider a bit last night, saying, “I’ll throw one slider slower, knowing I can throw that more for a strike…But then when I’ve got two strikes, I can come back with a hard one.”
And there is no question he does the latter as he uses it nearly 40 percent of the time when a hitter has two strikes, wiping them out at a rate greater than a third of the time.
Here it is in action.
Now, he doesn’t toss the curveball all that often (just 10 percent of the time), but it’s every bit as limiting as the slider. The career batting average against it remains under .175 and the slugging percentage remains only about 75 points higher than that. With those sort of results, it’s uncertain why he doesn’t utilize it more except for a little difficulty harnessing it; nevertheless, it appears he’s more inclined to use it when he has a southpaw on the ropes than against a right-hander.
So there is a growing trend in baseball of relievers who rely on heavier breaking ball usage than we have typically seen because of the stress it puts on the elbow; for example, the Cleveland Indians rode the arms of a couple of those relievers throughout the playoffs. Cody Allen and Andrew Miller threw 39.3 percent and 63 percent breaking balls in the postseason with the latter destroying opponents with his signature slider. While Chacin’s slider isn’t quite as deadly, he possesses a second very effective breaking ball that could enable him to be a similar breaking ball heavy reliever; though, he would likely be more in that Cody Allen range, which is coincidentally the type of usage he’s had this year with the slider alone at round 34 percent.
After all, his fastball has been a real weakness, allowing all star level numbers, so it makes sense that he would move in that direction. While it’s absolutely normal for the fastball to have over a 100 wRC+ because they are easier to hit and wRC+ doesn’t breakdown by pitch type, Chacin allows far too many extra base hits and baserunners with the fastball. What if he could mitigate that damage more by showing the pitch even less?
Another distinct issue in Chacin’s game is his struggles against left-handed hitters; as you can see below, they’ve been the difference between being a strong major league starter and a scrub, especially since he started dealing with shoulder and elbow issues.
There is an interesting development that doesn’t show up on this chart since it’s a year by year picture; when utilized as a reliever in 2016, his FIP against southpaws was a mere 2.61 compared to a 2.84 against righties. So what did he do differently?
For one, he eliminated the cutter from his repertoire against southpaws and started chucking the four-seamer more, which may seem like a peculiar move given what we said about his fastball earlier, but it has been significantly more effective against lefties. More precisely, it has held hitters to around a .200 batting average. Yet, it gets better than that as the only other type of pitch that landed for a hit was his sinker while his breaking balls and changeups befuddled batters.
Interestingly, there wasn’t a major change in location other than that he avoided leaving pitches high in the inside to middle. It sounds simple, but when you have a penchant for giving up the long ball to southpaws, you want to keep the fastball low unless you have some serious heat.
In 2014, Chacin had quite a bit of shoulder issues and then Tommy John Surgery in 2015; he just now has seen his velocity return to average and his max touch upwards of 95. Despite seeing an increase in horizontal movement, it has suffered because that change has been accompanied by more vertical movement that has understandably sent his HR/FB rate soaring. As a result, the pressure is on him to be more precise with fastball location, especially when he doesn’t have elite velocity, and unfortunately, his numbers indicate that he hasn’t been able to do that effectively the past couple of seasons as a starter.
To be fair, his numbers have been much better in the confines of Petco Park with the HR/FB rate down around 9.4 percent and his fip around 3.25 compared to 21.2 percent and 5.69 away. With those sort of numbers, there is value to be had as a starter for the Padres, but the splits make him nearly un-tradeable as a starter, at least for anything of value. If the teams moves him to a relief role and it flops, then what difference does it make? The Padres have nothing to lose by converting him to a reliever and everything to gain by trying to flip him at the deadline to a bullpen needy team. He has the stuff to make it happen if the Padres are willing to take the chance.