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As Freeland returns—how did Chi Chi González fill in?

Colorado Rockies news and links for Tuesday, May 25, 2021

The Rockies aren’t looking at the same Chi Chi González they non-tendered last winter.

He has the second-highest ERA+ among all Rockies that have made a start this year.

Colorado has all but announced Kyle Freeland as tonight’s starter after sending Lucas Gilbreath to Triple-A. González would otherwise be in line to start in New York tonight, having last pitched Wednesday in San Diego. If the standard five-man rotation stays healthy, González’s time as a starter could be coming to an end.

If so, how did he do while he covered for Freeland? Perhaps more importantly: How can he continue to be an unsung catalyst?

Sixth starter turned fifth

When Freeland went down on March 23, the club was forced to pursue other options to fill the rotation void. The Rockies rolled with González as a fill-in after declining him a contract last winter.

González was the frontrunner out of spring training, ahead of current Triple-A starter Dereck Rodríguez. The Rockies brought in old friend Jhoulys Chacín hours before Opening Day and set him as a long reliever; this would stay the case for most of the year, as González pitched suffice enough for no changes to be made. (Chacín would only make one start in the time it took Freeland to return, and it came days after a doubleheader.)

González eased his way into the regular season with a two-inning relief appearance on Opening Day, on-ramping after a collection of shorter Cactus League appearances. He would toss three innings in his first official start of the year, the first of an eventual eight starts leading up to now. González recorded five innings in five of those starts, and his most notable performance came on May 13 as he shut out the hot-hitting Cincinnati Reds over seven innings.

Starting rotation comparison

There are a few outings that weaken González’s season figures—but if we remove one start from his campaign, how would his season compare to the rest of the rotation?

The big outlier: May 8th vs. STL. González: 4 IP (L), 7 ER, 8 H, 1 BB, 1 K.

The big outlier removed:

Starting Pitcher ERA: April 1 - May 24, 2021

Starter ERA
Starter ERA
Márquez 4.82
Gray 3.59
Senzatela 5.01
Gomber 4.56
González 4.54
González sans 5/8 3.35
*Updated through the end of 5/24 (includes Gomber’s 8 IP, 2 ER)

The true test of a body of work is just that—a ‘body’ of work—and there are definitely outings by other starters that, if ignored, would bolster their numbers (i.e. Germán Márquez, May 4: 23 IP, 8 ER). It still reasons well that González, a presumed long reliever up until Freeland’s injury, was able to adapt back to traditional starter norms in a mostly-stable manner.

The fact that one outing skews his figures so much is staggering; the fact that his collective ERA and ERA+ is still ahead of all but Jon Gray is head-turning.

The slider from nowhere

González has reintroduced his slider to the tune of 23.8 percent usage, an 18.3 percent increase from last year:

His least-used pitch in 2020 is now his second-most used pitch in 2021, and a revised arsenal could be reason behind an improved ERA, FIP, xERA and xFIP from a year ago.

Chi Chi González - Slider by Year

Pitch/Year MPH (average) Spin Efficiency Spin-based axis Observed axis Total pitches
Pitch/Year MPH (average) Spin Efficiency Spin-based axis Observed axis Total pitches
SL - 2020 85.0 33% 10:45 10:45 12
SL - 2021 85.7 31% 10:15 9:45 151
+/- 0.7 -2% -30m -1h 139
Data courtesy Baseball Savant

By looking at his spin efficiency and velocity, it would appear as though González has not pursued a structural change to this pitch. His slider sample from 2020 is extremely low (12 pitches), and paired with the gyro-style action that González throws his slider with, his axis figures could have a lot of unintended noise when compared to a pitch like a high-efficiency fastball with a more ‘pronounced’ axis (or less gyro angle).

His slider movement would suggest some sort of change, however. Check out how he’s seemingly broke the spin rate code:

Chi Chi González - Slider Movement by Year

Pitch/Year Spin rate (RPM) Vertical Break (in.) Horizontal Break (in.)
Pitch/Year Spin rate (RPM) Vertical Break (in.) Horizontal Break (in.)
SL - 2020 2397 33.3 0.7
SL - 2021 2618 33.8 4.0
+/- 221 0.5 3.3
Data courtesy Baseball Savant

A baseball itself is about three inches in diameter, so a 3.3-inch change in horizontal break has allowed González to use this pitch more freely—especially at elevation.

González’s ground ball percentage has increased from 33.3 percent to 40.7 in a year. His hard hit percentage (42.8) is down a marginal four percent from last year (46.8), but both hard hit figures are the two highest of his five-year career. González’s FIP this year is reflective of the good work he has done keeping that hard contact on the ground; a 4.54 FIP is the lowest of his career, and a huge improvement from 5.53 last year.

3.3 inches of horizontal slider break could be the difference.

The road ahead: What’s next for Chi Chi?

González may be at the end of his starter rope, as Ryan Rolison now looms in the Triple-A wings. It would make reasonable sense for González to transition into a long relief role with the ability to spot start; that role has been virtually nonexistent in May, however, as Jhoulys Chacin has not pitched in 10 days and last pitched as a starter.

To make room for Freeland, the Rockies sent reliever Lucas Gilbreath to Triple-A after Monday’s game. This could mean González will take on a multipurpose reliever role going forward, perhaps reminiscent of his two-inning appearance on Opening Day. At 29 years old, González does not have any minor league options remaining. The decision to further keep Chacín suggests the Rockies will get clever when it comes to defining bullpen roles into June.

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Steve Cohen asks for help as Johneshwy Fargas goes down in Mets loss | New York Post

The New York Mets have been left battered and bruised in this young season; seven of their nine Opening Day starters have missed time due to injury at some point in 2021. Outfielder Johneshwy Fargas was the latest to be pulled due to injury after he slammed into the right-center field fence on Monday night.

No better time for Jacob deGrom’s return to Mets | New York Post

Speaking of once-injured Mets: Jacob deGrom is set to return tonight. It may be a tough billing for Rockies hitters, but at least Colorado can celebrate an injury return of their own when Freeland graces the mound in the bottom of the first. Tonight will be deGrom’s second start against the Rockies on the year.

On the farm

The Isotopes have a little bit of a streak going, winning their third straight on Monday night courtesy of a three-hit showing by Greg Bird and four shutout frames by Dereck Rodríguez. Bird left the yard in the fourth inning and Rodríguez punched out eight. He struck out Cody Bellinger twice.

Albuquerque outfielder Wynton Bernard and second baseman Scott Burcham had multi-hit games. Joe Harvey also appeared out of the bullpen; his ERA remains at a perfect 0.00 through 7 13 innings of Triple-A relief work.

★ ★ ★

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