Jhoulys Chacín has signed to a minor league deal with the Minnesota Twins, according to Robert Murray. This move raises the floor of the starting rotation with no risk, and Chacín has a history of being a dependable mid-rotation starter. However, that history was clouded by a terrible 2019, which is why the Twins were able to sign Chacín to a minor league deal.
Chacín’s major league career to this point can be summarized in four acts:
ACT I: Colorado High (2009 - 2013)
608 IP, 37 W, 41 L, 3.61 ERA, 3.94 FIP, 126 ERA+, 9.6 fWAR
Chacín broke into the league with Colorado in 2009 at the age of 21 for a cup of coffee. He pitched extremely well during the majority of his Rockies tenure, considering the environment that the Denver altitude brings. Chacín posted a 2+ fWAR in each of his first two full major league seasons in 2010 and 2011. Chacín was injured and ineffective in 2013 (5.14 FIP with a 0.4 fWAR), but he would go on to post a career high 4.1 fWAR in 2013.
ACT II: Injuries, releases,and minor league deals (2014 - 2016)
234 IP, 9 W, 16 L, 4.81 ERA, 4.30 FIP, 86 ERA+, 2.2 fWAR
The shoulder-related injuries at the end of Chacín’s Rockies tenure led to his release in March of 2015, and Chacín spent the next two years signing minor league deals. After cameos of five games each for Arizona (2015) and Atlanta (2016), Chacín was traded by Atlanta to the Los Angeles Angels where he had decent success as a swing-man (29 games, 17 starts). That season was the first sign of Chacín’s renaissance, as he would post a 1.6 fWAR with the lowest FIP of his career (4.01).
ACT III: Career Renaissance (2017 - 2018)
373 IP, 28 W, 18 L, 3.69 ERA, 4.14 FIP, 112 ERA+, 5.7 fWAR
Fresh off the heels from his impressive stay with the Los Angeles, the San Diego Padres gave Chacín his first major league deal for the 2017 season. Chacín rewarded San Diego with a 2.3 fWAR season in 180 IPs. He also posted the highest strikeout rate (20%) since his 2010 season, driven by the increasing use of his slider. Chacín threw his slider for roughly 20% of his pitches in his career to that point, but in 2017 it jumped to 35.3%.
Chacín used his 2017 success to sign the largest contract of his career with Milwaukee prior to the 2018 season, for two years and $15.5M. Chacín had an even better season in 2018, posting a 2.4 fWAR and a 4.03 FIP. He also made the first postseason appearances of his career, going an effective 2-1 in three starts, with a 1.46 ERA against the Rockies and Dodgers.
ACT IV: Rock Bottom? (2019)
103.1 IP, 3 W, 12 L, 6.01 ERA, 5.88 FIP, 67 ERA+, -0.1 fWAR
This is the area I want to dissect with the most detail, because Chacín’s 2019 is the reason why that the Twins are signing him to a minor league deal on February 1st.
Heading into 2019, Milwaukee was certain that Chacín was going to be a cog in the starting rotation after his strong regular season and postseason results. That was sadly not the case, as everything that could go wrong for Chacín, did. Milwaukee ended up releasing Chacín in late August after 19 starts. The Boston Red Sox picked him up on August 31st, but Chacín would post even worse numbers in five starts to end the season.
Chacín’s troubles in 2019 can be explained most simply by changes in the contact, and a few unlucky trends. Chacín’s hard hit rate of 42.3% ranked among the 7th percentile for major league pitchers (MLB average was 34.5%). The hard contact was coming in a new area for Chacín - in the air. Chacín is known as a groundball pitcher, with a career groundball rate of 46.6%. In 2019, his groundball rate was the lowest of his career at 37.5%, and his linedrive and flyball rates increased accordingly.
More danger came with more flyballs, as Chacín averaged 2.18 HR/9 last season, and hitters had a HR/FB rate of 21%. While increased flyballs will lead to increased home runs, home run rate can fluctuate wildly. Chacín was tied for the 8th highest HR/FB rate among pitchers with at least 100 innings last season, something that should regress a bit in future seasons.
Balls contained within the fences also found holes against Chacín. His BABIP (Batting Average on Balls In Play), was also inflated last year at .307 (45h highest in MLB), compared to his career BABIP of .281. The abnormally high HR/FB and BABIP numbers from Chacín suggest that he was unlucky when the ball was in play or in the air.
It's also important to point out that Chacín went on the injured list in July with an oblique strain after two rough outings, so it’s possible some of his woes were health-related. However, in any way you slice it - changing contact trends, bad luck, or injury - Chacín had a terrible 2019 season.
Reasons For Optimism?
The Twins signed Chacín as they are probably enamored by his slider (much like fellow offseason acquisition, Matt Wisler). Chacín’s slider use continued to rise in 2019 to 49.5%, which is extremely high for a starting pitcher.
The performance of his slider did decrease a bit, as the league knew what to expect from scouting reports. However, Chacín still easily outperforms the MLB average across several Statcast metrics.
The use of his slider can probably be assisted by his sinker/four-seam fastball combo becoming more effective. These pitches combined for over 44% of his pitches thrown in 2019, with dreadful results - a .652 SLG on his sinker and a 1.000 SLG (!) on his fastball.
Both the sinker and the fastball have been below average for Chacín dating back to 2015, but they became borderline unfathomably terrible last season. The only signs of optimism is that he had a higher whiff rate on both of these pitches, which helped increase his strikeout rate to a career high 21.5% in 2019 (one of the only bright spot metrics for Chacín in 2019).
Luckily, Wes Johnson has shown a tendency to add a few miles per hour to fastballs, or help pitchers develop a cutter or splitter (Chacín has thrown both minimally in the past), that can offset the frequently thrown slider. If Chacín can refine his repertoire of non-breaking ball/offspeed pitches, his flyball and home run rate should decrease closer to his career norms.
Overall, this is a very low-risk bet for the Twins that allows starting pitching insurance for the early stages of the 2020 season. The Twins can now afford to have one rookie pitcher in the starting rotation, rather than two, until the return of Michael Pineda in mid-May.
Despite all the concerns about 2019, Steamer projects Chacín to have very similar seasons to the rookie trio of Smeltzer, Thorpe and Dobnak:
- Chacín: 137 IP, 7.41 K/9, 3.56 BB/9, 1.54 HR/9, 5.05 ERA, 5.13 FIP, 1.2 fWAR
- Smeltzer: 75 IP, 7.21 K/0, 2.74 BB/9, 1.77 HR/9, 5.03 ERA, 5.20 FIP, 0.4 fWAR
- Thorpe: 42 IP, 9.16 K/9, 3.08 BB/9, 1.55 HR/9, 4.40 ERA, 4.54 FIP, 0.5 fWAR
- Dobnak: 90 IP, 5.95 K/9, 2.72 BB/9, 1.47 HR/9, 5.03 ERA, 5.05 FIP, 0.7 fWAR
With the performance so closely matched, I’d rather Chacín take up one of the two open rotation spots based on his experience and string of 2+ fWAR seasons just a few years ago. If Wes Johnson and the Twins can help Chacín develop a counter to his slider, Chacín should rebound a bit to become a serviceable back-end starter. With all the starting pitching reinforcements coming later in the season, the Twins just need Chacín to be a serviceable bridge - but he has the potential to be more.