With Better Pitch Sequencing, Jhoulys Chacin Might Be Biggest Steal of Offseason

You’re going to hear much more about the names at the top, but the real value will be found further on down the line. Buried deep in this year’s free agent pitching class is Jhoulys Chacin, a 29-year-old righty who might be one of the most underrated signings of the winter.

Of course, Chacin’s career numbers are average at best. In just over 1,000 innings, he’s logged 7.10 K/9 and 3.67 BB/9, both of which factor in a 3.93 ERA and 4.08 FIP. But most of his time was spent in the launchpad that is Coors Field, where he pitched for the Rockies from 2009-2014. That actually makes Chacin’s career 0.85 HR/9 look pretty good, and he was able to log his highest fWAR seasons — 2.0 (2011), 2.7 (2010), and 3.9 (2013) — in Denver.

Soon thereafter, though, the 6-foot-3 hurler succumbed to pectoral and shoulder injuries and didn’t pitch regularly again until 2016 with the Braves. The upper extremity maladies that haunted Chacin’s 2014 and 2015 seasons now seem to be part of his past, as he totaled 32 starts and 180.1 innings with the Padres last season and recorded a line — 3.89 ERA, 4.26 FIP and 2.3 fWAR — that aligns closely with his career marks.

Chacin proved last season that he can prevent runs, and I’m convinced that he’s got more proving to do. That’s because he spins pitches with more movement than basically every right-handed starter in the game.

Only Max Scherzer’s slider was more valuable in 2017 than Chacin’s (Chacin wSL = 22.0; Scherzer wSL = 30.0).

Three of Chacin’s five pitches moved more than 82 percent of all of their respective counterparts thrown in 2017. For instance, his sinkers tailed away from lefties with more movement than 83 percent other changes. His curve cut inside to lefties more than 93 percent of others. Basically, his Uncle Charlie could beat up your Uncle Charlie.

But his bread and butter was a slider that rated as one of the nastiest pitches in 2017. Only a handful of pitches were thrown with more movement than Chacin’s average drift.

What if I told you Chacin’s slider is in the same tier as Max Scherzer, Clayton Kershaw, Chris Archer, and Luis Severino? You’d probably laugh, but you’ll quiet down once you read the following: Only Max Scherzer’s slider was more valuable in 2017 (Chacin wSL = 22.0; Scherzer wSL = 30.0). Even Chris Archer, who throws a slider nearly every other pitch, didn’t prevent as many runs (wSL = 16.9) with his filth.

Knowing how devastating that slider was, I couldn’t understand why the 29-year-old hasn’t been better than his relatively pedestrian ERA. Perhaps pitch sequencing is one of his problems.

To see if that’s the case, let’s compare Archer to Chacin. The Tampa Bay ace consistently threw a four-seam after showing a slider (17.8%). In sharp contrast, Chacin went with that same combo 2.6 percent of the time. When the free agent threw a four-seam, it was usually first pitch or directly after throwing another fastball. Simply put, Chacin rarely threw a four-seam after dishing a breaking or offspeed pitch.

As a result, Chacin’s fastball might not have been disguised as well. If the four-seam was hidden in a manner similar to that employed by Archer, Chacin’s wFA of -6.8 (that’s fastball value expressed as runs saved) last year — which was 75 percent worse than other MLB starters — might’ve been better, and his overall ERA and FIP could’ve followed suit.

When Chacin threw a four-seam, it was usually first pitch or directly after throwing another four-seam or sinker. Simply put, Chacin rarely threw a four-seam after dishing a breaking or offspeed pitch.

Granted, Chacin only throws a four-seam 15 percent of the time, whereas Archer throws it almost half the time. But just because he doesn’t throw many fastballs doesn’t excuse him from suboptimal sequencing. Being that his fastball was his only pitch with negative run value last year, you have to think there’s a way to prevent him from getting hit hard when throwing it.

On the surface, Chacin looks like an average pitcher who will likely sign an inexpensive contract. Digging deeper, however, we see a pitch repertoire with movement matched by only the league’s best pitchers. Except in Chacin’s case, these pitches might not have been sequenced well enough to prevent runs on par with the likes of Max Scherzer or Chris Archer. Sequencing is very fixable, though.

I might be crazy, but Chacin is suddenly feeling like the one guy that I think the Cubs can’t miss out on this offseason.

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