The Next Scherzer: Low Strikeout Candidates by Tony Blengino March 4, 2014 A couple weeks back we took a look at the batted-ball profiles for Andrew Cashner and Jeff Samardzija, two hard throwers potentially poised to make a Max Scherzer-esque breakthrough in 2014. Today, let’s do the same for a totally different type of pitcher – the type that relies much less on missed bats, instead almost totally relying on inducement of weak contact. As we shall see, there is more than one way to “dominate”. Jhoulys Chacin, 26, and Travis Wood, 27, have been dutiful mid-rotation mainstays for the bulk of their relatively brief major league careers. Chacin has had the higher peaks, but also has had the dicier health record of the two, missing most of 2012 with a pectoral nerve injury, and currently being held back from throwing due to shoulder soreness that may jeopardize his readiness for Opening Day. Wood, who has a deceptive career record of 26-35, was the Reds’ 2nd round draft pick in 2005, was sent to the Cubs prior to the 2012 season in exchange for Sean Marshall. He has a clean medical history, making all of his starts the last four seasons, though 2013 was the first time he made all of them at the major league level. To get a better feel for their respective 2013 seasons, let’s take a closer look at their K and BB rates and batted-ball frequencies by type. FREQ Chacin % REL PCT K 15.9% 80 10 BB 7.7% 98 55 POP 6.1% 79 31 FLY 25.4% 90 28 LD 23.5% 111 85 GB 44.9% 105 65 — — — — Wood % REL PCT K 18.4% 93 29 BB 8.4% 107 71 POP 11.9% 152 92 FLY 33.0% 117 89 LD 21.5% 101 49 GB 33.6% 79 9 The frequencies above are expressed in raw percentages, relative to MLB averages (scaled to 100), and in percentile rank form. Chacin’s K rate has quickly and steadily declined throughout his career, with his BB rate also declining, though not as steeply. In 2010, his rookie season, his K and BB percentile ranks were 92 and 89, respectively, both way above the MLB average. His batted-ball profile has been much more consistent over his career, with a strong ground ball tendency the focal point. His line drive rates have swung wildly from 98 in 2010, down to 4 in 2011, and way back up to 85 in 2013. Line drive rates are quite random compared to the other batted-ball types, but those are some pretty insane fluctuations. Your guess is as good as mine as far as Chacin’s 2014 line drive rate – he’ll require major improvement to take a strong step forward. Wood’s K and BB rates have both been moving in the wrong direction over his four seasons as a regular major league starter. In his 2010 rookie season, his K and BB percentile ranks were 74 and 21, respectively, almost the exact opposite of what they were last season. Like Chacin, Wood’s batted profile has been quite consistent over the years. Unlike Chacin, Wood is an extreme fly ball pitcher with a consistently high popup rate. After running high line drive rates during his first two seasons as a starter, his line drive rate has been below MLB average the last two seasons. Wood’s ground ball rate has consistently been among the lowest in the game. Next, let’s take a look at the production allowed by both pitchers in 2013 by batted-ball type: PROD Chacin AVG OBP SLG REL PRD ADJ PRD ACT ERA CALC ERA TRU ERA FLY 0.255 0.582 69 48 LD 0.669 0.937 110 104 GB 0.196 0.203 66 101 ALL BIP 0.303 0.447 83 84 ALL PA 0.252 0.308 0.372 91 92 3.47 3.54 3.57 — — — — Wood AVG OBP SLG REL PRD ADJ PRD ACT ERA CALC ERA TRU ERA FLY 0.243 0.593 67 72 LD 0.577 0.772 78 93 GB 0.229 0.250 94 98 ALL BIP 0.271 0.430 71 80 ALL PA 0.218 0.282 0.346 78 86 3.11 3.01 3.31 For both pitchers, the actual AVG and SLG allowed on the three major batted ball types is listed. In the “REL PRD” column, these actual results are translated to a run value relative to the MLB average, scaled to 100. That figure is then adjusted for ballpark, defense, luck, etc., in the “ADJ PRD” column. The K’s and BB’s are added back in the last row, and the last three columns list both pitchers’ actual ERA, their calculated component ERA based on actual AVG and SLG allowed, and their “tru” ERA, which takes into account ballpark, defense, luck, etc.. All SH and SF are counted as outs, and HBP re excluded from the OBP calculation for purposes of this exercise. The most eye-catching aspect of Chacin’s batted-ball production profile is his amazing ability to limit damage on fly balls. His actual fly ball relative production figure of 69 would be impressive if he played his home games in Safeco Field or PNC Park, but he plays them in Coors Field, of course. Adjusted for context, that fly ball relative production is adjusted to an ever more stellar 48, by far the lowest number I can find for any 2013 regular starting pitcher. Chacin did allow quite a bit of damage on line drives last season, but once Coors Field and other contextual factors are taken into account, his adjusted relative production figure on liners of 104 is much closer to the MLB average. Chacin held opponents to a very low 66 actual relative production figure on grounders, but that was aided by a very strong infield defense. His actual hard/soft grounder rates suggest league average production, so that figure is adjusted upward to 101. Overall, his overall BIP adjusted production figure of 84 ranked in the upper tier of MLB starters. His low K rate allows that figure to creep upward to 92 once the K’s and BB’s are added back into the equation. His “tru” ERA, which is based upon that adjusted relative production figure, is 3.57, just a bit above his actual 2013 ERA of 3.47. For Chacin to make a significant breakthrough this season, a couple things need to happen. First and foremost, he must be given a clean bill of health, and must retain the full measure of his fly ball contact management skills, a key given his home address. He also needs to recover some of the bat-missing skills he possesses earlier in his career without compromising his control, which given his stuff is a perfectly reasonable possibility. Chacin also needs to get his line drive rate out of the stratosphere where it has resided in two of his three seasons as a full-time starter. If all of this comes together, National League opponents might have a monster on their hands. Wood, like Chacin, does a very good job of limiting damage on fly balls. For Chacin, this is imperative because of his home park, while for Wood, this is imperative because of the sheer volume of fly balls he allows. His actual fly ball relative production figure of 67 is even lower than Chacin’s, though when adjusted for context it creeps up to 72. Wood also allowed relatively little damage on line drives – 78 relative production, adjusted up to 93 for context – still one of the best marks in the majors. He allows so few grounders that they barely impact his overall profile, but the relative authority allowed is still better than MLB average (adjusted relative production of 98). On all BIP, Wood’s adjusted relative production figure of 80 tied with Matt Harvey for third best among regular starters last season, behind only Justin Masterson (75) and Clayton Kershaw (79). Add back his K’s and BB’s and it creeps up to 86, for a “tru” ERA of 3.31, a bit higher than his actual 2013 ERA of 3.11. How does Travis Wood take the next step? It’s all in the K’s and BB’s – there’s simply not much room for improvement in his batted-ball damage management, from either a frequency or production perspective. If Wood can cut his walk rate to near his 2010 level – a realistic scenario – he becomes a different cat. If he can raise his K rate to the 2010 level without hampering his batted ball profile – admittedly a bigger stretch – then he becomes elite. Physically, there is a world of difference between the righthanded Chacin (6’3″, 225) and the lefthanded Wood (5’11”, 175), but in many ways there is a great deal of similarity between them with regard to workload/durability. For their careers combined they’ve completed a grand total of two games (both by Chacin), and have established a seasonal innings ceiling of 200 (Wood in 2013) to date. Chacin averaged 90 MPH on his fastball last season, while Wood’s averaged 89 MPH, both below the MLB average. Chacin has a standard four-pitch repertoire – fastball, curve, slider, changeup. His slider is a plus pitch, both missing bats and inducing weak contact, while the rest have yielded average results. He gets better than average sink on his fastball, hence the ground ball tendency. Wood throws those four pitches plus a cutter, which has become his most effective pitch. While his control has been spotty, his fastball command within the zone is one of Wood’s foremost assets, and has keyed his ability to limit damage on balls put in play. Both have large, normal platoon differentials – Chacin’s, in particular, is quite large for a righty, and is driven by the effectiveness of his out pitch slider against righties. Every year, certain starting pitchers take large steps forward toward the very top of their class. Normally – but not always – the ones who take those steps are power pitchers. Jhoulys Chacin is in the process of developing a track record of success in Coors Field – no small feat. He keeps the ball out of the air, though when he doesn’t, the ball still tends to be hit weakly, a big plus in his home park. Travis Wood generates lots of free outs via the popup, and is also adept at accumulating weak fly ball contact. Neither has been a big strikeout guy of late, but they did show hints of such ability earlier in their respective major league careers. If they can regain even some of the ground they’ve lost in that regard, and/or make positive strides in some of their other areas of need, these two could buck the odds and take that Scherzer-esque next step despite the absence of gaudy whiff totals.