Wei-Yin Chen, the Marlins’ New Mark Buehrle

There’s a pretty dramatic difference between the two leagues. Anything, of course, could go on to happen, but the American League and the National League are looking at some wildly different 2016s. In the AL, you’ve got a whole gradient of could-be or would-be playoff squads. No single team appears to be dominant, and no single team appears to be a non-contender. Everyone should have some kind of chance, and there’s currently no obvious favorite. In the NL, meanwhile, there are two tiers. There are the clear contenders, and there are the others, those being the teams either admittedly rebuilding or the teams that should be. People talk about “tanking” as an industry problem. The bad teams are all clustered together.

In between the two NL tiers, there are, I think, two clubs caught in the middle. Two clubs that would fit in the AL picture, two clubs that could end up going either way depending on certain breaks. One of them is the Diamondbacks, who have spent the offseason trying to beef up. And then there are the Marlins, who have too many good players to be bad, but too little depth and reliability to be great. The Marlins want to be a contender, though. Believe it or not, Jeffrey Loria hates to lose. So now the Marlins have addressed a team weakness on the free-agent market, spending pretty big to lure Wei-Yin Chen. Chen is no one’s idea of a major splash, but he is, at least, a healthy starting pitcher, which is something the Marlins have sorely lacked.

The surface terms: Chen is getting five years, and $80 million. Those are the same terms pulled by Mike Leake, so that’s an obvious comparison, but the structures are different, as are some other considerations. The Marlins, for one thing, have back-loaded Chen’s contract, as they do. Unlike Leake, Chen was extended a qualifying offer, so the Marlins will lose their second-round draft pick. And Chen has a second-year opt-out clause. Ken Rosenthal fills in details:

The opt-out, as always, is good for the player. The compensation, as always, is bad for the team. The Marlins, at least, have a protected first-round pick, so the value of the pick lost here is relatively small, but it is a factor. Or, at the very least, you’d think it would be a factor, but this is the Marlins, and they operate in their own kind of way. I’m not entirely sure what they prioritize.

I want to throw something at you. Between 2009 – 2011, Mark Buehrle was a durable lefty starter, and he posted an 89 ERA- with a 103 xFIP-. The Marlins gave Buehrle a four-year contract worth $58 million. Between 2013 – 2015, Chen was a durably lefty starter, and he posted an 89 ERA- with a 101 xFIP-. The Marlins gave Chen a five-year contract worth $80 million. Chen’s a bit younger, so he gets the longer commitment, but he also got the opt-out. And if you include the signing bonuses, Buehrle got 36% of the contract’s value in the first two years. Chen’s lined up to get 35% of the contract’s value in the first two years. The roles here should be similar, and the team dreams are similar, and the contract structures are similar. Buehrle lasted a year before he was traded. I don’t know what the Marlins might elect to do, but one of the known risks here for Chen is that he shouldn’t get too comfortable with wherever he lives. Scott Boras probably got him the most money, but it’s not all upside.

Chen will slide in behind Jose Fernandez. He has nothing like Fernandez’s raw talent — as free agents with similar commitments go, Chen is all about the high floor, while Jeff Samardzija is all about the high ceiling. Chen has two primary selling points. One, he’s always had a healthy arm, which should provide some relief to a ballclub whose rotation was ravaged by injuries last season. And Chen is a reliable strike-thrower. He’s consistently thrown about two-thirds of his pitches for strikes, and last season, among regular starters, only Max Scherzer threw a higher rate of his pitches while ahead in the count. Chen doesn’t really have swing-and-miss stuff, but he compensates for that by getting and staying ahead, and so he succeeds. He’s less about limiting good contact, and more about limiting walks.

One interesting thing: Over time, Chen has gotten more aggressive about pitching right-handed hitters inside. Last year, only Clayton Kershaw and Jeff Locke threw inside to righties more, as southpaw starters. Mind you, this hasn’t erased any platoon splits, but Chen has gradually evolved, and pitching in Miami instead of Baltimore, he ought to have a greater margin of error. If he’s the rare Marlin who remains a Marlin, he should age more gracefully than he might’ve in a less-friendly ballpark.

When you talk about Chen, you can’t get around the idea of him as a potential peripherals-beater. I noted above, over the last three years, there’s a 12-point difference between his ERA- and his xFIP-. He hasn’t actually been outstanding at homer suppression, nor has he been outstanding at hit suppression. Rather, what we have here is good timing. Over the last three years, 80 pitchers have thrown at least 100 innings with the bases empty, and with runners in scoring position. Here are the 10 biggest differences in wOBA allowed, favoring pitchers with good timing:

Situational wOBA Allowed, 2013 – 2015
Pitcher wOBA, Empty wOBA, RISP Difference
Wei-Yin Chen 0.343 0.225 -0.118
Alex Wood 0.318 0.257 -0.061
James Shields 0.332 0.272 -0.060
Hector Santiago 0.332 0.273 -0.059
Mark Buehrle 0.340 0.292 -0.048
Bud Norris 0.360 0.314 -0.046
John Lackey 0.314 0.272 -0.042
Roberto Hernandez 0.336 0.297 -0.039
Cole Hamels 0.311 0.273 -0.038
Jeremy Guthrie 0.347 0.310 -0.037

It’s Chen by a landslide. He’s been the league-leader in wOBA allowed in run-scoring situations, and there’s probably no better way to keep more runs off the board than people would expect. The average split for the 80 pitchers is -0.001. Chen’s lead is 57 points on second place. The split is sufficiently extreme you have to think there could be something there, but most likely, this is something you should heavily regress. Maybe Chen is better at avoiding hard contact with runners on second or third, like Tom Glavine was for a stretch, but even Greg Maddux was less successful with runners in scoring position, over his career. Chen’s command isn’t impeccable. He’s presumably more like a league-average starter than a true No. 2 starter, with the main positive being that Chen should be able to make just about every start for which he gets scheduled. He makes the Marlins better, but not because he’s fantastic.

Now we just get to see where this goes. Because of the Marlins’ history, it’s easy to figure Chen is a goner. Alternatively, he could make it two years and then opt out. He’d be opting out of three years and $52 million, which would be far from automatic, especially as a 32-year-old. The situation should be good for him, statistically. It might not be so good, psychologically, since no one runs a team the way the Marlins run a team, but I know there’s always a part of me that wants to believe this time, they won’t do what they’ve done every other time. I’ve always wanted to trust the Marlins, and at least now they have contracts with Giancarlo Stanton and Christian Yelich. And Wei-Yin Chen, and maybe Dee Gordon, soon. Maybe there’ll be something here. At the very least, there are enough parts for the 2016 club to win more than half of their games. Loria will be watching, closely.

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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At the start of the offseason, I certainly didn’t peg the Marlins as a possible landing spot for him.

It’s an interesting move for both parties. The Marlins get a solid starter who should do well in that park. The team should be better with this move. On paper, that rotation is … solid. If a couple things break their way, it’s not hard to see them in the playoff mix. Of course, as noted, margin of error is thin.

I can’t help but think the opt out is less about getting the player back on the market (the chances of Chen getting more than 3/52 in 2 years … seems slim … although maybe Boras thinks that, in that park, Chen could excel and maybe he could get him a 4 year deal?), and more a “get out” card for Chen. Of course, in some respects, this can be useful to the Marlins in some respects. The first 2 years are under-market value, and if the Marlins are struggling, it’s not hard to see them shop him this summer.

All in all, may be a move that makes sense for both parties.