Recently, reports indicated that the Yankees will pursue the free agent lefty Wei-Yin Chen. The team’s interest in adding starting pitching in general is not surprising. As Mike and many others noted, the rotation is full of question marks.
I will elaborate on this later but Wei-Yin Chen isn’t really a guy that brings uncertainty. He’s a solid mid-rotation pitcher that shows up, pitches solidly more often than not, but does not fit into that “ace” mold. He’s shown that for four seasons in MLB. Yanks probably won’t need to break a bank to get him a la David Price or Johnny Cueto, but he won’t be too cheap either (Boras client, market likes paying big bucks for a starting pitcher, etc.). It will all come down to how highly the front office thinks of Chen and how much they are willing to pay. (Also, if they want to sacrifice a draft pick for him, of course)
Barring a major injury or sudden decline, Wei-Yin Chen seems like he would perform as expected. In four ML seasons, Chen was a solid mid-rotation starter for the Baltimore Orioles. He compiled 9.5 fWAR in four seasons, averaging around 2.4 per season. Steamer projects him for a 2.6 fWAR season in 2016, which sounds about right.
In those four seasons, Chen posted all-around consistent peripherals: strikeout rate around 7.00 K/9, walk rate around 2.00 BB/9 and allowing dingers once in awhile (1.24 HR/9 in ML career). He’s also not a ground ball pitcher at all with a 38.5% GB rate. Barring a sudden change in approach, his style as a pitcher is pretty apparent: a control guy with an average strikeout ability who gives up fly balls.
There are two things in Chen’s performance that saw improvements though: LOB% and ERA. Well, those two things are very positively correlated so I’ll focus mainly on LOB% here. After posting a 72.8% LOB in 2012, which is right around league average, Chen improved steadily with runners on base with 76.0% in 2013, 77.5% in 2014 and 80.5% in 2015. That’s a pretty nice number for a starting pitcher, especially considering that Chen doesn’t really strike out hitters that much.
Chen had Camden Yards as his home stadium for past four years. That venue, by the way, has a park factor of 117, an extreme hitter’s park. Give the man a cookie. However, if he were to be a Yankee, it wouldn’t get much easier – YSIII has park factor of 119. Chen had a HR/9 rate of 1.32 this past season, which is not great. Unless if he undergoes a major overhaul in his arsenal and approach, don’t expect Chen to lower his home run rate under 1.00/9 anytime soon. I wouldn’t say he’s getting killed by long balls – but he is susceptible to it.
Luke Jackson, a Baltimore-based sportswriter (@luke_jackson10 on Twitter), pointed out few more kinks in Chen’s game. First off, he is not great against right-handed batters. In 2015, he allowed a .217/.250/.326 line against lefties but a .270/.318/.496 line against righties. He allowed 97 home runs total in his ML career and a whopping 79 of them have come off RHB’s. The split is quite stark, if you ask me. Buck Showalter, his manager with the Orioles, started Chen only twice versus the righty-heavy Blue Jays lineup in four years (none this year), which is incredible.
For what it’s worth, Chen also has three ML playoff starts under his belt. He beat the Yankees in 2012 ALDS Game 2 (6.1 IP, 8 H, 1 ER, 1 BB, 3 K), got hit around by the Tigers in the 2014 ALDS (3.2 IP, 7 H, 5 ER, 3 K, 2 HR allowed) and pitched a decent one against the Royals in the 2014 ALCS (5.1 IP, 7 H, 2 ER, 1 BB, 4 K).
Here is a YouTube video of all the pitches Chen threw in a July 12 game versus the Washington Nationals.
The Taiwanese lefty threw 65.6% of all pitches as fastballs and that approach didn’t seem to change at all through out the years. He mixes in a slider, curve and split/change as different weapons to show hitters. None of his pitches are considered elite but they are good enough to get by as a solid starter in ML.
According to Pitch f/x, Chen will use his fastball pretty much everywhere in the zone. He likes to bury his slider and curve towards RHB’s feet and away from LHB’s. As for split/change, he throws it below the strike zone – or keeping it middle-away from RHB’s. Doesn’t seem like he has a trademark killer pitch but he seems to have a strategy with different pitches to face hitters.
This is an interesting one. In the states, the only instance of Chen missing an extended amount of time was in 2013 with an oblique injury. Otherwise, he’s been able to start 30+ games each year. However, if you look beyond his MLB career, he’s been through few issues in NPB days.
Chen underwent a Tommy John surgery back in 2006. In 2011, he saw overall decrease in velocity after suffering a lower body injury preseason. Even though he had a solid 2.68 ERA, he struck out considerably much less hitters (94 in 164.2 IP) than before (153 in 188 IP in 2010). Here’s a video of a 2011 start – fastball sits more around the high-80’s, which is several notches below his usual self. Considering that he posted an eye-popping 1.54 ERA in 164 IP in 2009, had he been able to showcase his best stuff in 2011, he might have been targeted with much higher offers than the three-year, $11.3 million contract (with a 2015 team option) that he got from Baltimore.
So his injury history isn’t perfect but he’s shown he’s capability of handling the Major League schedule, which is longer than the NPB one. Well, his record faltered towards the later months of both 2012 and 2013 seasons but he held his own in late stretches in 2014 and 2015. Signing a pitcher for a long-term contract will always come with some kind of injury risk but it’s good to know that Chen does not quite seem Pavano-ian in terms of visiting the disabled list.
It’s been said that Chen wants a five-year deal, possibly six. I don’t know if he will necessarily get that length but given that 1) he’s a Boras client, and 2) there are a lot of teams hungry for solid starting pitching in the market, it’s not really out of the realm of possibility. I think there will be a good amount of teams comfortable giving him four years but the one that will offer him the fifth will come out as the winner. Will New York be that one? I don’t know.
He’s basically the best lefty starter in the market not named David Price. Teams that want a starter but not at Price, Zimmermann, Cueto, etc. prices will most likely consider Chen at some point, so yeah, I feel like him getting a big contract as a result of a bidding war is very much a possibility.
One major knock against pursuing Chen is that he was offered the qualifying offer from the Orioles and, of course, he declined it, meaning that Yankees would have to give up their first rounder if they were to sign him. Here are some projections/predictions of his next contract from different publications:
- MLB Trade Rumors: Five years, $80 million
- FanGraphs Crowdsourcing: About four years, $50 million
- Jon Heyman: Five years, $80 million
If you had told me back in the 2011-12 offseason that Chen would someday get a contract five times bigger than what the O’s gave him, I would have been pretty skeptical. But hey, life works that kind of way for some. The Orioles got an absolute steal in Chen and now he’s looking to get paid. A deal around five years, $80 million does not seem like an outrageous outcome at all.
I think Chen could be a very serviceable starter for the Yankees. He’s shown consistency as a solid mid-rotation starter in the same division and in a hitter’s park. At least for the first two or three years of the contract, Chen will be a nice guy to go for most days of the week.
He definitely won’t come cheap for Yankees though – in more ways than one. First off, he’ll get a big contract. He will be an attractive commodity to teams that aren’t willing to spend Cueto/Price money on FA starters and, in my opinion, that will certainly create some kind of bidding war, which could drive the price up higher than a lot of us could foresee. Once a team wins the bidding, then they’d have to give up a draft pick. New York could definitely get extra wins by having Chen for next few years versus not having him, but at what cost?
My gut feeling says that Yankees will monitor the market for Chen for awhile and, at some point, the price will go out of their comfort range. We’ll see how it goes though.