In a lot of ways it feels like what Jhoulys Chacin is doing this year is going under the radar. That tends to happen with players on a losing team in the Mountain time zone; their accomplishments don't get trumpeted far and wide. That's just the way it is. But here we are, as August comes to a close, and Chacin is turning in a truly remarkable year.
According to Baseball Reference, Chacin has the 9th most Wins Above Replacement. Let that sink in for a second. Not just among pitchers; among all baseball players. His 6.1 WAR is bested only by Chris Sale and Clayton Kershaw among pitchers. Fangraphs, whose WAR measure is more peripheral based, has him as the 11th most valuable pitcher in the league (at 4.2).
But WAR is a somewhat abstract measure. How does he look in a more traditional stat? After seven brilliant innings two days ago, Jhoulys owns a sparkling 3.08 ERA. That's second only to Ubaldo Jimenez's spectacular 2010 season (2.88) as the best a Colorado starter has ever achieved in a minimum of 150 innings (more on Ubaldo later). And frankly, no other season really comes close. The next best mark is Ubaldo again with a 3.47 mark in 2009. Interestingly, Jorge de la Rosa looks like he'll break that mark this year too, as he sits at 3.28 (how do we have a losing record again?).
Chacin is suppressing runs in a befuddling way too, because his strikeout rate is the lowest of his career. Right now he's striking out 5.79 per nine innings. So the majority of his outs are coming on balls in play, which typically spells death for a pitcher who plays half his games at Coors Field. But that hasn't happened; can we pinpoint why?
There are three obvious variables that have helped Chacin. The first is walk rate. Jhoulys is walking only 2.55 batters per nine innings, which is very good (but not otherworldly; that rate ranks 40th among qualified starters). Never before in his career has he walked fewer than four per nine innings. Limiting base runners has been absolutely key for his great year.
The second factor leading to Chacin's great ERA has to do with the players behind him. This year the Rockies as a whole have the 9th best defense according to Fangraphs. Guess where they ranked last year. Go ahead. Wild guess.
So apparently defense matters. Nolan Arenado has been the biggest upgrade, replacing the lousy Chris Nelson and Jordan Pacheco with platinum-gloved awesomeness. He's been the fourth best fielder in baseball for crying out loud! he rest of the infield has been studly as well; we all know about Troy Tulowitzki's sure-handedness and range, but DJ LeMahieu has also been well above average too. With these three rangy gloves filling out the infield, and the metrics finally approving of Carlos Gonzalez and Dexter Fowler, balls put in play are being converted into outs. That'll help any pitcher.
The final piece in the Chacin puzzle is home run rate. Jhoulys is just flat-out not allowing long balls. His 0.37 home run per nine innings is ridiculous, easily the lowest in Rockies history. It's second in the league, behind only Matt Harvey. But Matt Harvey plays in Citi Field, where home runs are naturally suppressed. Jhoulys pitches at Coors, which is once again the most hitter friendly park in MLB, humidor or no. Frankly, it's unbelievable.
Ubaldo Jimenez's 2010 gets all the attention as the greatest Rockie pitching season of all time. As well he should. His 2.88 ERA and 7.5 rWAR were insane. Comparisons to Bob Gibson were thrown about and he started the All Star game. Jhoulys Chacin's 2013 isn't far behind him, but he wasn't invited to the All Star game and the national headlines have been in short supply. True, Ubaldo had a ridiculously hot start and the Rockies contended for much of 2010, but it's important to cherish what is shaping up to be one of the best pitching seasons in Rockies history, from one of the best pitchers in Rockies history.
Walt Weiss says he wants to add first base to Wilin Rosario's skill set, in order to keep his bat in the lineup. If this happens only a few times a year, sure. But making that a frequent occurrence is a mistake. Wilin has a very good bat for a catcher (career 106 wRC+, or six percent above average), but at first he would lose that advantage over his peers. And frankly, the only thing worse than Wilin's defense behind the plate is his defense at first. The best course of action for 2014 is to pursue a hard hitting true first baseman and leave Rosario behind the dish, where he has improved from last year.