Scouting the Free Agent Market: Wei-Yin Chen

(Getty Images)

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)

Recent Performance

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).

The Stuff

Here is a YouTube video of all the pitches Chen threw in a July 12 game versus the Washington Nationals.

Here’s his velocity tabular data from Brooks Baseball.

Wei-Yin Chen velocity

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.

Injury History

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.

(Getty Images)

Contract Projections

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:

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.

Wrapping Up

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.

Friday Links: Braves, Upton, Severino, Chen, Marlins, Cuba

Upton and Simmons a few years back. (Presswire)
Upton and Simmons a few years back. (Presswire)

Hang in there, the weekend is only a few hours away. Here are a handful of stray links and notes to check out and help pass the time.

Yankees, Braves talked Upton and Severino last year

Last offseason the Yankees and Braves discussed a potential blockbuster trade that would have brought Jason Heyward and Andrelton Simmons to New York. Obviously things didn’t work out. Heyward was traded to the Cardinals last November and Simmons was traded to the Angels last night. The Yankees ended up acquiring Didi Gregorius to play shortstop and that worked out pretty well.

According to Jeff Passan and Mark Bowman, other iterations of the Heyward/Simmons blockbuster included Justin Upton — presumably instead of Heyward — and also Luis Severino. You’ve got to give something to get something, right? Last offseason Severino was still a Double-A pitching prospect who was ranked a top 35-ish prospect in baseball. Heyward fetched Shelby Miller, an established big leaguer, and Simmons by himself landed Sean Newcomb, a top 35-ish prospect.

A Heyward or Upton plus Simmons trade would have been mighty fun, though I’m happy with the way things turned out. Gregorius looks like a keeper at shortstop and Severino dazzled in his MLB debut this summer. Plus the Yankees can still sign Heyward or Upton this winter. That really would have been a fun trade though. Blockbusters are cool.

Yankees planning run at Chen

Last week we heard ex-Orioles lefty Wei-Yin Chen is a “possible target” for the Yankees this offseason, and now Mark Feinsand has corroborated the story, hearing the team will indeed make a serious run at Chen. The southpaw is said to be seeking at least a five-year contract. The O’s made Chen a qualifying offer as well, so the Yankees or whoever signs him will have to surrender a high draft pick.

I don’t doubt the reporting, but I’m not sure this one passes the sniff test. The Yankees seem disinclined to both spend big and give up their first round draft pick. And if they are going to spend big and give up a pick, there are better pitchers available in free agency, right? No knock on Chen, but you know what I mean. I can’t help but wonder if the Yankees are being used to create leverage. Them going after an AL East proven pitcher is believable, and hey, getting the Yankees involved is never bad for business. I dunno. We’ll see.

Donnie Baseball's new home. (Presswire)
Donnie Baseball’s new home. (Presswire)

Big market teams upset with Marlins

According to Jon Heyman, several big market clubs are upset with the Marlins and their financial situation. Miami generates the lowest revenue in baseball and thus receives the most revenue sharing money despite having a four-year-old ballpark. The big market clubs that pay into revenue sharing aren’t happy. “They’re a joke,” said one executive to Heyman.

The Yankees have paid more money into revenue sharing than any other club since the system was implemented, so it’s fair to wonder if they’re one of the teams upset with the Marlins. The Marlins receive roughly $50M in revenue sharing each year, according to Heyman. I’m not sure what MLB and the MLBPA can do about the Marlins — the union complained the team wasn’t spending enough money a few years ago, then poof, Josh Johnson got a nice extension — but getting rid of Jeffrey Loria is a good start. No reason to think that’s happening anytime soon though.

Yankees a candidate to play spring games in Cuba

At the GM Meetings earlier this week, commissioner Rob Manfred said MLB is looking into playing Spring Training games in Cuba next year. League officials visited different parks in Cuba recently and I guess gave the thumbs up, which is why Manfred is still talking about it. According to Joel Sherman, the Yankees are one of ten teams being considered for potential spring games in Cuba.

This makes a lot of sense, right? The Yankees are the most popular and most recognizable brand in baseball, if not all of sports. I don’t think selling out exhibition games in Cuba would be a problem no matter who plays, but getting the Yankees involved would create a lot more interest. Also, from a logistical standpoint, it’s a nice quick flight from Tampa. I don’t think MLB would drag teams from Arizona to Cuba in the middle of Spring Training. Either way, nothing is final yet. There are still hurdles to clear before exhibition games are played in Cuba next year.

Heyman: Wei-Yin Chen a possible target for Yankees this offseason

(Jim Rogash/Getty)
(Jim Rogash/Getty)

According to Jon Heyman, Orioles left-hander and impending free agent Wei-Yin Chen is a possible target for the Yankees this offseason, along with Jeff Samardzija. Although he’s only been in the big leagues for four seasons, Chen’s contract allows him to become a free agent before reaching six years of service time. That’s common for guys who played overseas.

Chen, who turned 30 in July, had a 3.34 ERA (4.16 FIP) in 31 starts and 191.1 innings this season. He has averaged a 3.72 ERA (4.14 FIP) and 176.2 innings per year during his four years with the O’s. The rate stats — Chen’s walk rate (5.2%) was great this year but his strikeout (19.3%), grounder (40.5%), and homer (1.32 HR/9) rates were below-average — suggest he’s a classic mid-rotation type.

The Orioles are going to make Chen a qualifying offer and he’ll reject it, because he will easily clear $15.8M guaranteed this offseason. (He’s a Scott Boras client.) My guess is he gets something in the three-year, $39M (Francisco Liriano) to four-year, $48M (Ervin Santana) range. I tend the underestimate free agent contracts, so maybe something like five years and $80M (Anibal Sanchez) is more realistic.

Chen is unspectacular but he is a quality pitcher who would improve most rotations. The Yankees do have seven starters either under contract (Masahiro Tanaka, CC Sabathia) or team control (Nathan Eovaldi, Luis Severino, Adam Warren, Ivan Nova, Michael Pineda) next season, but pitching depth is never a bad thing. Tanaka, Sabathia, and Eovaldi all have some level of injury concern right now.

My thinking is the Yankees are unlikely to forfeit their first round draft pick for anything less than a player with high-end skills — Jason Heyward or even Samardzija, who’s an ace on his best days, for example. Chen’s a very good AL East proven pitcher, and there is value in reliability, but I wonder if the Yankees will to shoot higher this offseason. They have a lot of mid-to-back-end starters as it is.

Then again, Chen could be the “second” signing. For example, the Yankees could give up their first rounder to sign Heyward, then only give up their second rounder for Chen. That would allow them to trade someone like Pineda to fill a need elsewhere. That’s how the Yankees tend to operate — if they’re going to forfeit a pick, they might as well forfeit two or three. It’s better than giving up your first rounder every winter.

I like Chen. There’s nothing sexy about him but he’s reliable and has been relatively healthy throughout his MLB career. Well, his arm has been healthy. He had some oblique and knee trouble in 2013. The Yankees are not shy about bringing pitchers into the AL East — Eovaldi last offseason, for example — but Chen’s experience in the division has to be a plus, right?

ALDS Pitching Preview: Wei-Yin Chen

The Yankees took Game One from the Orioles last night, and in Game Two tonight they’ll give the ball to the playoff-tested Andy Pettitte. The Orioles are starting a left-hander of their own, but not a veteran like Pettitte. Rookie Wei-Yin Chen will be on the bump for Baltimore, the first playoff start of his MLB career.

Chen, 27, was born in Taiwan but spent the 2005-2011 seasons pitching for the Chunichi Dragons in Japan, where in 2009 he posted the league’s lowest ERA (1.54) in more than 50 years. He was not only the sole Orioles’ pitcher to remain in the rotation from Opening Day through the end of the season, he was also the only pitcher to make more than 20 starts for the team. His 32 starts and 192.2 innings are both career highs (including his time in Japan, obviously), and Chen appeared to hit a bit of a wall in September. It’s not just the raw starts and innings totals, it’s also going from a once-a-week schedule to a once every five days schedule.

2012 Performance vs. Yankees

Date Tm Opp Rslt Dec IP H R ER BB SO HR HBP ERA BF Pit Str
Apr 10 BAL NYY L,4-5 5.2 7 4 2 1 6 1 1 3.18 27 101 59
May 15 BAL NYY W,5-2 W(4-0) 7.0 4 2 2 2 4 1 0 2.45 26 105 65
Sep 1 BAL @ NYY L,3-4 L(12-8) 6.2 4 4 3 2 4 1 0 3.79 26 101 67
Sep 7 BAL NYY L,5-8 L(12-9) 4.2 6 7 7 1 4 3 1 4.06 22 68 43
Provided by View Original Table
Generated 10/7/2012.

Chen’s first ever start in the big leagues came against the Yankees, who have handled him well three of the four times they’ve faced him. For whatever reason, the left-hander always seems to keep them off balance the first time through the order before the Yankees get to him the second and third times through. Maybe I’m wrong, but it just feels like that’s the case. The two underwhelming September starts fit the whole “hitting a wall” narrative.

Pitch Selection (via Brooks Baseball)

Chen may throw five different pitches, but his sinker and curveball are rarely used fourth and fifth offerings. He’s primarily a fastball/slider guy against lefties while going fastball/changeup against righties, which is not uncommon at all. The four-seamer resides in the 90-91 mph range and the velocity held constant throughout the year, which doesn’t fit the whole “hitting a wall” narrative. Chen’s slider sits right around 80 while his changeup is more or less in the mid-80s. The sinker is at the same velocity as the four-seamer while the curve is a slow bender in the low-70s. Yes, the low-70s. As the data in the table shows, Chen likes to pitch backwards a bit, especially against lefties. He’ll start them out with a breaking ball four out of ten times.

Performance & Results

vs. RHB 598 0.323 4.37 17.1% 7.0% 36.1% 42.0% 21.8% 11.9%
vs. LHB 220 0.298 3.76 23.6% 6.8% 40.1% 42.2% 17.7% 11.3%

The story of the Orioles’ rotation is “small sample size,” as their starters in each of the first three games of the series only have one year of data to look at. Game One starter Jason Hammel completely changed his pitching style this season, and both Chen and Miguel Gonzalez (the Game Three starter) are first-year big leaguers. It sucks, but it is what it is. Anyway, opponents made sure to platoon their lineup against Chen and for good reason — he strikes righties out at a lesser rate than lefties while also generating fewer ground balls.

After carrying a 3.46 ERA (4.01 FIP) through his first 22 starts, Chen pitched to a 5.34 ERA (5.17 FIP) in his final ten starts of the season. That’s where the whole “hitting a wall” thing is coming from. He allowed at least five runs four times in those ten starts, and completed six full innings of work only five times. Right-handed batters tagged him for a .316/.356/.580 batting line with eleven homers in 192 plate appearances during that time, though the southpaw did hold fellow lefties in check (.220/.246/.356 in just 62 plate appearances). I assume Eduardo Nunez will get the start at DH over Raul Ibanez, and it goes without saying that the righties will have to carry the torch offensively against the Baltimore starter.