The decision as to who would start on Opening Day for the Milwaukee Brewers in 2019 was a no-brainer for manager Craig Counsell. Jhoulys Chacin was the obvious choice, earning the honor based upon his fantastic first season for the 2018 NL Central champions. He established himself as the rotation’s leader, working a league-high 35 starts and tossing 192.2 innings with a 3.50 ERA. He was credited with 15 winning decisions, a career-high, and went on to allow only two earned runs across 12.1 postseason frames.
Recent history, however, has turned the privilege of starting the season’s initial game for the Cream City Nine into a dubious one, and Chacin has not been immune to that curse in 2019. His 12th and most recent outing, against the Pirates on May 31st, was nothing short of a debacle. He lasted only 2.2 innings and was charged with six earned runs, walking home three batters with the bases loaded in the third inning. By the time the dust had settled, his earned run average for the season stood at 5.74 through 58.0 innings pitched. Estimators like Field Independent Pitching and Deserved Run Average agree that Chacin’s overall output this season has been close to 30% worse than the league-average hurler.
For those paying at least a modicum of attention to the games that Jhoulys has started, his issue this season is pretty easy to pick out — he just isn’t locating the baseball like he was able to last season. His walk rate has ballooned to a career-worst 4.50 BB/9 and he’s experienced a four-point drop-off in his zone rate from last year, with his current 40.8% mark ranking in the bottom-third of big league pitchers. Chacin hasn’t been hitting his spots when he’s been in the strike zone, either; according to the Baseball Prospectus command metric “Called Strikes Above Average,” Jhoulys has been, by a wide margin, the worst among all 621 pitchers that have appeared at the MLB level this year when it comes to commanding the baseball. The gulf between Chacin and the second-lowest ranked pitcher by CSAA is roughly the same difference between #2 and #12 on the list.
Chacin is a unique pitcher in today’s game, as he relies more heavily on his slider (51.1% usage rate) than any other starter in the baseball. It is his most heavily selected offering against any type of hitter, regardless of handedness or count. It still clearly remains his best pitch, as batters are hitting only .186 against it and he’s generated a +7.9 wSL (weighted slider runs above average, #4 in baseball), but he hasn’t been able to put it where he wants it as consistently this season compared to last year.
For his career, Chacin has been able to spot his slider for a strike 36.91% of the time and has drawn swings on 47.95% of his offerings. Those totals were 35.20% and 46.14% last season, with 116 of his 156 punchouts coming against the slide-piece. This year, however, Chacin has been able to put his slider in the zone only 29.04% of the time. Batters are swinging at it less often (44.85%), and they are making contact more frequently when they do offer, as Chacin’s whiff rate with the pitch has plummeted nearly four points down to 10.48%. The right-hander’s overall swinging-strike rate has fallen to 7.4%, a point down from last year and on pace for his lowest total since 2012. His 6.83 K/9 rate and 17.1% strikeout rate would be his worst marks since his final year with Colorado in 2014.
The inconsistency that Chacin has displayed with his slider has allowed batters to sit on his hard stuff. Neither his fastball nor his sinker have been effective pitches for him historically, and that has held true in 2019. He’s thrown his four-seamer only 12.5% of the time this year and yet it ranks as the 17th-least effective fastball in MLB this year at -4.2 wFA; batters are hitting .381 with a .714 slugging percentage against it. Chacin’s sinker, which he has leaned on 30.5% of the time, is second-worst in baseball at -9.0 wSI. Hitters are torching it just like his four-seamer, with a .361 average and .611 slugging percentage.
Chacin seemed to be at a loss when asked about his struggles this season, telling reporters this when he was asked to describe his latest catastrophe:
“It’s really frustrating. My mechanics might have been off or something. I pitch every five days. The thing I want to do is throw strikes and get guys out. I didn’t do it today and I haven’t done it that much during the season. So far, it has been a frustrating season.
I won’t give up; I won’t put my head down. I’m going to keep working until I get better. I have to change something. Whatever happened last year, happened last year. I have to really focus on what needs to be done this year. I beat myself today...I have to do something different to pitch better because right now it’s not working out. Sometimes, it’s more mental than mechanics. I’ve been working on what I do best. This has never happened to me before, walking guys with the bases loaded. I need to do a better job if I want to keep pitching.”
Counsell wouldn’t commit to Chacin taking his next turn in the rotation when he was pressed about it on Friday, and as it turns out, the struggling hurler will be getting an indefinite break after he reported some back soreness and was placed on the Injured List earlier today. His exit from the rotation opens the door for the return of Jimmy Nelson and casts doubt on what his role will look like going forward. There haven’t yet been any early indications as to how long Chacin will be on the shelf, and once he is healthy, a lengthy rehab assignment to try and figure things out in the minor leagues could be in the offing. Jhoulys Chacin was an integral part in the deepest postseason run this franchise has experienced in more than a generation, but given this recent injury, his acute struggles this season, and the fact that he’s a free agent at year’s end, is it fair to wonder how much more of the veteran junkballer will we be seeing on the mound in the Menomonee Valley?
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs, Baseball Prospectus, and Brooks Baseball