Jhoulys Chacin Will Be a Fun Brewers Project

According to reports, the Brewers are working to sign Jhoulys Chacin to a two-year contract worth about $16 million. Chacin isn’t great. The Brewers are coming off a surprising season, but they don’t look as good as the Cubs or the Cardinals. The Chacin terms are similar to the terms for Tommy Hunter, or Juan Nicasio, or Pat Neshek, or Joe Smith, or Anthony Swarzak. Chacin’s primary job will probably be to just help keep the rotation afloat while everyone awaits the return of Jimmy Nelson. These aren’t earth-shattering developments taking place.

With that being said, let me tell you why I think this is interesting. Even just looking at this simply, Chacin turns only 30 in January, and he just made 32 starts, with a sub-4 ERA. He’s been about a league-average starter two years in a row, which makes this a perfectly solid investment. Without digging in the least, you can see why the Brewers wanted to do this. Still, there’s further upside to try to mine. The Brewers would be happy if Chacin just pitched like Chacin, but I imagine they see something better than that.

Earlier in his career, Chacin suffered from some shoulder problems, but based on his success and velocity, those appear to be behind him. It’s probably worth noting, too, that he has a career 91 ERA-, to go with a 99 FIP- and a 105 xFIP-. A partial explanation for the difference between the first two numbers would be that Chacin is a strong defensive pitcher. Over his career, he’s averaged about +5 defensive runs per 200 innings. He’s been as good as, say, Mike Leake. Chacin isn’t afraid of handling ground balls, and he’s also allowed just 34 steals, to go with 23 failures. Chacin effectively shuts the running game down, which works to his incremental benefit.

Still, that isn’t even what I want to address. One of the distinctive Chacin traits is that he’s always had a large platoon split. He’s a righty who likes to throw a sinker and a slider, and so it should come as little surprise that lefties have gotten much better looks.

The slider is very good. It’s been one of the more effective sliders around. Not familiar with Jhoulys Chacin’s slider? Here’s what it looks like.

Although it’s a few ticks slower, it has a similar movement profile to Corey Kluber‘s breaking ball. Ditto Yu Darvish’s slider, or Joe Smith’s. The slider is a weapon, and pairing it with a sinker has allowed Chacin to keep righties under control. Over the past three seasons, as a starter, Chacin against righties has run a K-BB% of 15.4%, with a 3.23 FIP. The problem is that, against lefties, Chacin has run a K-BB% of 3.6%, with a 5.48 FIP. Both of those are larger splits than average.

You can find further confirmation in the Statcast data. Over that same three-year span, Chacin has held righties to a lower exit velocity by 2.6 miles per hour. He’s held righties to a lower expected wOBA by 58 points. Just this year, Chacin’s expected wOBA against righties ranked in the 88th percentile, but against lefties, he ranked in the 30th. Most righties have a platoon split, but few righty starters have such a large one.

This hasn’t prevented Chacin from being acceptable overall. If need be, he’s been able to pitch around tough lefties, if there are righties on deck. Yet here is where I think there’s untapped upside. Chacin isn’t just fine across the board. Depending on the handedness of the batter, he’s either great or a problem. I have to imagine the Brewers are going to work with Chacin on making him better with lefties in the box.

One thing they could do, which they did with Chase Anderson just last year — move Chacin on the mound. Like most pitchers, Chacin assumes the same positioning on the rubber, regardless of who’s up. It’s kind of the default strategy. But Anderson made a change, standing on the third-base side of the rubber with a righty up, and moving to the first-base side when facing lefties. The idea was to give Anderson the best angles possible, and while it wouldn’t work for everybody, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Brewers had Chacin try it out. No, he doesn’t have Anderson’s changeup, but you could still see a difference.

Looking at a different example on a different team, there’s also Brad Peacock, whose repertoire is more similar to what Chacin throws. Peacock did the opposite of what Anderson did; he stood on the first-base side against righties, and on the third-base side against lefties. Peacock still wound up with a large platoon split, by wOBA, but he also ran a career-high strikeout rate against lefties, even while mostly being a sinker/slider righty. There are tweaks to attempt, is the point.

Beyond that, the Brewers might try to get Chacin to bring his cutter back. It’s a pitch he’s basically phased out. Alternatively, they could try to get him to throw high-inside four-seamers to lefties. Or, he could prioritize developing a front-door sinker. When lefties have been up, Chacin hasn’t often targeted the inner half of the zone. Just by opening up that area, Chacin could make all of his pitches more effective.

Juan Nicasio makes for an interesting point of comparison. He’s another fastball/slider righty who long had a big platoon split. This past season, against lefties, he had a career-high rate of strikeouts, and a career-low rate of walks. Lefties actually hit him worse than righties did, and Nicasio didn’t change his pitch usage. He just threw with more confidence inside. It also required him to make little tweaks to his slider, and Chacin might not want to do that, but if he could work on a cutter while keeping it separate from his bread-and-butter breaking ball, the platoon problem could be possibly conquered.

Generally speaking, you should bet on the track record. Chacin has looked like an average starting pitcher with a platoon split, so he’s likely to be an average starting pitcher with a platoon split. And teams have long tried to help righties get better against lefties, and vice versa, even before this present information era. But my guess is that the Brewers have some ideas here, ideas backed up by new-age pitcher data. If it doesn’t work out, Chacin can still be fine, but the Brewers will likely make it a priority to help him get lefties out. If he can clear that hurdle, he’d be a whole new kind of value.

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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I think the Padres largely fixed Chacin’s Lefty problem last season. They had him throw his to lefties WAY MORE last season, but instead of fishing for swinging strikes, they had him position it away for the lefty strike, and it worked; his wOBA against LHB after he committed (around May 28) was .310 and he struck out more LHB than he had since 2010.