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2010 Rockies Player Review: Jhoulys Chacin, Venezuelan Man of Mystery

Jhoulys Chacin is truly an unknown commodity.  After posting a 3.0 WAR season and leading all NL rookies in strikeouts, he failed to earn even one Rookie of the Year vote.  In fact, if you ask anyone outside of Colorado who the best rookie year for a pitcher in Rockies history, you're likely to get several Jason Jennings answers.  He did actually win the Rookie of the Year award, after all.  Chacin easily outpaced Jennings, as expertly displayed by Bryan Kilpatrick last month.  But I'm not just talking about the national spotlight.  

He tossed up a 3.28 ERA in 21 starts, which would have easily broken Ubaldo Jimenez' franchise record  set in 2009 for starters with 20+ starts, had Jimenez not reset that record this season.  Yet despite that relatively unknown fact, I am not just talking about his "unknown" status with Rockies fans either.

No, the 22-year-old Venezuelan is also an unknown commodity to the Rockies and the entirety of the baseball world.   Chacin debuted in Rookie-ball Casper in just 2007 and was rated as just a "C+" prospect by John Sickels.  Despite dominating in lower levels of the minors, he did so with "excellent well as plus control" as written by ESPN's Keith Law last offseason.

2010 - Jhoulys Chacin 9-11 28 21 0 0 0 0 137.1 114 64 50 10 61 138 3.28 1.27

Chacin never walked more than 8.1% of batters faced in the minors until 2009, when he debuted at the big club.  Suddenly, his control has waned, as he has walked more than he ever did in the minors.  That isn't altogether unusual, but the corresponding change is. In his 2009 cameo, he struck out 10.64 per 9IP in a small sample size, and held that remarkably high in 2009 by striking out more than one batter per inning in the majors.  Neither Ubaldo Jimenez nor Justin Verlander managed that strikeout rate.  Pitchers, especially 22-year-old rookies, don't often see their strikeout rate grow so strongly when suddenly facing major league competition.

That isn't all.  In addition to his fantastic control, Chacin was known as an elite groundballer.  At every stop in the minors, his groundball rate was over 60%, sans his stop in Tulsa with a still-strong 55%.  But once Chacin arrived in the big leagues, that plummeted to a quite average 46.6% (lower than even Jeff Francis in 2010).  

So Jhoulys Chacin has magically transformed from an elite control and command groundball machine to a bit of a wild strikeout machine.  Strange.  He is a completely different pitcher than we thought he was.  Fans vilified the front office for babying Chacin in the minors while Greg Smith and company gave away games early in the year, but that is an easy criticism to launch after seeing his major league success.  The truth is, it is pretty foolish to suggest the Rockies knew such a transformation would take place.

Oh, and that isn't all that has changed for the 22-year-old Venezuelan.

YO-LEESE was lauded for fastball command in scouting reports, and Baseball America named Chacin as having the best changeup in the Rockies organization last offseason.  Keith Law echoed the assessment, calling his change-up his plus pitch, while "his main area for improvement is the curveball."

Fangraphs has "pitch values," which essentially grade the efficacy of every pitcher's pitches based on the results of every pitch.  These results are then set into "runs saved above average" and "runs saved above average per 100 pitches thrown."  While these numbers are abstract, a bit specious, not necessarily sustainable and limited in terms of gauging pitches used as "set-up pitches," it gives us at least a starting point for pitchers' strengths.  

We were told Chacin's strengths were the changeup and fastball with his weaknesses being breaking stuff.  Naturally, that isn't at all what Chacin posted in 2010.  Both his fastball and changeup actually graded out at slightly below average, while his breaking stuff was downright exceptional.

The following table shows Fangraphs' pitch value rankings of Chacin's breaking pitches and his rank against all MLB pitchers with 130+IP.

Pitch Stat Name Unit MLB Rank
Slider wSL 12.1 Runs Saved above Average    14th
Curveball wCB 9.4 Runs Saved above Average per 100 pitches    7th
Slider wSL/C 3.75 Runs Saved above Average    4th
Curveball wCB/C 2.93 Runs Saved above Average per 100 pitches    2nd

Only New York's Mike Pelfrey bettered Chacin in terms of runs saved per curveballs thrown.  As for the slider, only Scott Feldman, Mark Buehrle and Brian Duensing were better.  And despite much lower playing time, he still ranked amongst MLB's best overall.

Does this mean Chacin suddenly has elite breaking stuff?  Not likely.  This research by Sky Andrecheck from this March suggests there is a large influence of chance/luck in Fangraphs' pitch values.  But even taking this into account, his curve and slider would still be the most effective pitches in his arsenal.  This is yet another part of Chacin's 2010 game that flies in the face of what we knew him to be in the minor leagues, making him truly an unknown commodity for everyone, including the team he earns his paycheck from.

Grade: A.  The Rockies could not have dreamed to get more production from their Venezuelan prodigy.


2011 Outlook

What does all of this mean?  Jhoulys Chacin has taken a remarkable step forward every season since coming to the United States in 2007.  Even a cautiously optimistic fan is tempted to forecast yet another large step forward for him, resulting in a 4-5 WAR season at just age 23.  Just dropping his walks to minor league levels would mean a big step forward.  That kind of step up would be like adding a very effective Type A starter in free agency.

However, his 2010 season could have the opposite effect.  He may have capitalized on teams operating on scouting reports that led them in the exact opposite direction of the correct approach.  While opposing teams (specifically the Dodgers) did not particularly hit him any better after seeing him once, it is certainly possible the scouting report will get out.  That breaking stuff won't be a surprise anymore, and that could have a negative impact on his strikeout rate, resulting perhaps in a negative effect to his confidence

He has proven to be a quick learner though, and a 3.0 WAR season should be very much in his reach in 2011.  Converting Bill James' projections yields right around 3.0 WAR.  I will personally choose to expect that range and be pleasantly surprised when he takes the world by storm and garners a few Cy Young votes.