Bruce Chen, Saber-Savvy Southpaw

Bruce Chen isn’t getting younger. The journeyman left-hander — currently with the Kansas City Royals — celebrated his 36th birthday yesterday. Since signing out of Panama, in 1993, he has made 365 big-league appearances. He has played for 10 teams.

Chen has gotten smarter as he’s gotten older. He has long survived on guile, and in recent years, he’s developed an appreciation for advanced stats. Not surprisingly, it came via a former teammate known for his analytic ways.

“The guy who introduced me to it was Brian Bannister,” Chen said. “He’s really big into it. I don’t use data to get ready for a game; I’ve been around long enough to know the teams. But I do look at it to see how I’m pitching. Am I being lucky or not really lucky? If a guy has a 4.50 FIP and is consistently pitching at 4.00 or 3.80 [ERA], that has to mean something. Or if he has a 4.50 FIP and is pitching at 5.00, that is something too. There has to be something going wrong.”

Bannister had a lot go wrong, and Chen is learning from that, as well. While a shoulder injury is what ultimately derailed Bannister’s career, many feel he hurt himself by changing his approach. Chen wants to use data to his advantage, but he also doesn’t want to over-think.

“I want to continue to learn about [advanced stats], but I also want to be careful about getting into too much detail,” Chen said. “I think maybe Brian got a little too involved in that. He was like, `If I can strike out six or seven guys in six innings, I should only give up one or two runs.’ That didn’t work, so he was like, `OK, I have to make sure my ground balls are a lot higher; then my ERA will be lower.’

“I don’t want to be like that. I have to stay true to who I am, which means keeping the ball on the ground and limiting walks. I primarily look my vertical movement, my ground-ball rate, and my strikeouts-to-walks ratio. At the end of the game, if I’ve given up five fly balls and 10 ground balls, I’m good. I don’t want too many balls in the air, because one out of 10 is going to be a home run.

“Sometimes you just need to pitch,” he added. “I know you can look at [data] on FanGraphs and think ‘This is the way,’ but when I’m out there, I can’t be thinking, ‘OK, this is going to give me a much better chance of getting this guy out.’ No matter what the count is, or who is hitting, or what the ballpark is, I just want a ground ball. I have to keep it simple.”

Therein exists the paradox for a saber-savvy pitcher. Data can be extremely helpful — especially for a pitcher who lacks over-powering stuff — but you also can’t allow it to get in the way of what makes you successful. It ultimately comes down to execution, and the value of the data behind that execution is in the eye of the beholder.

“Most guys don’t want to hear about it,” said Chen, who admits he might someday want to work in a team’s front office. “We have so much stuff going on that it’s the last thing they want. Guys just want to go out there and make their pitches. At least that’s what they’ll tell you. But in reality, we all watch video and want to know a hitter’s tendencies. Some of us just look deeper into it than others.”




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David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from February 2006-March 2011 and is a regular contributor to several publications. His first book, Interviews from Red Sox Nation, was published by Maple Street Press in 2006. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA

9 Responses to “Bruce Chen, Saber-Savvy Southpaw”

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  1. astrostl says:

    I would love to see Bannister get some kind of pitching advisory position.

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  2. payroll says:

    “I primarily look my vertical movement, my ground-ball rate, and my strikeouts-to-walks ratio. At the end of the game, if I’ve given up five fly balls and 10 ground balls, I’m good. I don’t want too many balls in the air, because one out of 10 is going to be a home run.”

    That’s a really great distillation of how to pitch to sabermetrics.

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    • Cus says:

      Or simpler still, ‘finish your pitches’ and ‘keep the ball down’. Two classic, but accurate, pitching coach cliches.

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  3. Wobatus says:

    Bannister never got his K rate out of the 5s in the majors, so I don’t think trying to get it above 9 caused the problem, just the inability to actually do it. Ya know, i’d be making million in the majors, all I need to do is get my K rate above 9, walk rate below 3 and gb rate above 50% and I’m golden.

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  4. dannyrainge says:

    As the article mentioned, he had a shoulder injury. He not only tore his rotator cuff, HE PITCHED THROUGH IT for five more starts.

    After a poor 2008, Bannister started the 2009 season with AAA Omaha before promptly being called up a week later to fill the number 5 spot in the rotation. After adding a new changeup to his repertoire, his ground ball rate increased and he had a 7-7 record and a 3.59 ERA into early August, ranking in the Top 10 in the American League in ERA and being the subject of numerous trade deadline rumors. Unfortunately, he suffered a season-ending right rotator cuff tear in a 117 pitch game August 3 against Tampa Bay. After attempting to pitch with the injury and losing five consecutive starts, he was placed on the disabled list for the rest of the season. He finished the year compiling a record of 7-12 with a 4.73 ERA.

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