Jhoulys Chacin and the Miraculous Record

Thanks to our friends at Baseball Info Solutions, we have batted ball information dating back to 2002, which gives us data on 11 full seasons and 60% of the 2013 season. It might not be quite as catchy of a time frame as the “Dead Ball Era” or “Steroid Era”, but it’s our own little stretch of baseball that we care about. Sometimes I refer to it as the “UZR era”, since that’s one of the more common stats cited that uses batted ball data, but other stats have the same timeframe here on the site.

One of the more common batted ball stats cited around here is HR/FB ratio, as the data has shown to be not particularly predictive, yet can have a huge impact on a pitcher’s results. If he’s giving up fly balls that are staying in the yard, that can lead to very good results — hello, Matt Cain and Jered Weaver — but those results can also be kind of fickle, as 2013 Matt Cain is demonstrating with aplomb.

Still, despite the inconsistent nature of seasonal HR/FB ratio, we have enough data to establish some norms for Major League pitchers. From 2002 to 2012, only one pitcher in Major League history had thrown 100 innings in a season and allowed fewer than 4.0% of their fly balls to leave the yard; that pitcher was, of course, Matt Cain, in 2011. 2011 Cain represented a pretty realistic floor, as it was the best HR/FB season from the biggest HR/FB outlier in the game.

Okay, so Cain’s 3.7% HR/FB ratio isn’t held in quite the same esteem as Joe DiMaggio‘s 56 game hitting streak or Cal Ripken‘s 2,632 consecutive games played, but hey, it’s still a record. A FanGraphs record, sure, but I have no problem counting it as a record, since I write for FanGraphs and all. It might not be the most prestigious record on the books, but it’s still a mark that represents a pretty neat accomplishment.

It’s also an accomplishment that is currently under fire from one of the least likely sources on the planet. Right now, Jhoulys Chacin has a 2.8% HR/FB ratio in 120 innings pitched, making it the best season by that mark since BIS started tracking batted ball data. That list includes 1,654 pitcher seasons of at least 100 innings. Not a single one of those 1,653 other seasons has resulted in a lower HR/FB ratio than what Chacin is posting right now.

Jhoulys Chacin pitches in Colorado.

Even with the humidor, Coors Field is still one of the most homer friendly ballpark in the Majors. Our data has the park with a home run factor of 114, meaning that a pitcher for the Rockies would be expected to post a home run rate 14% higher than they would pitching for a team that plays its home games in a neutral ballpark. The humidor has offset some of the effects of playing at altitude, but it hasn’t eliminated them entirely. And so Chacin is making a run at posting the lowest HR/FB ratio in recorded history while playing half of his games in a ballpark that specializes in turning fly balls into home runs.

Perhaps most amazing is that Chacin hasn’t really demonstrated any kind of special home run prevention skills prior to this season. Coming into the 2013 season, 10.9% of his fly balls had gone over the fence, pretty much in line with what you’d expect from a Rockies starter. He’s not a fly ball pitcher who gets a ton of infield popups, as other HR/FB outlier pitchers are. He doesn’t get a ton of strikeouts either, which has been identified as a marker of a pitcher who can post a slightly lower than average rate of homers on fly balls. He’s not left-handed, he doesn’t throw the knuckleball, and he doesn’t play in an extreme pitchers park.

If you had been told before the season started that a Major League starting pitcher was going to make a run at posting the best HR/FB ratio in the last 12 years, Chacin might have been one of the very last people you took. Joe Blanton probably would have been the very last, but Chacin would have been standing around looking at Blanton when everyone took their final picks. And yet, here we are, and after 19 starts, he’s allowed just three home runs. Kelvin Herrera gave up as many home runs in one appearance — which lasted 2/3 of an inning and involved him facing six batters — as Chacin has while facing 493 batters all year.

You might say “aha, more proof that steroids testing is working, and driving all the power hitters out of the game”, except the average NL pitcher is giving up home runs on 10.3% of his fly balls this year, which is right in the same range it has been since the data started getting collected. There’s no real evidence that contacted balls are flying over the fence at a reduced rate now than they used to; there are just fewer contacted balls. Chacin, though, isn’t one of the pitchers driving up the league’s strikeout rate. He’s a pitch-to-contact guy, and he’s a pitch-to-contact guy in a ballpark where contact is most harmful.

You probably don’t need me to tell you that Chacin is unlikely to keep this up. There’s outlier performances, and then there’s this. There’s still two months to go, so odds are good that Cain’s record will stand by the time Chacin finishes the season. But it’s kind of incredible that we’re even talking about this. Jhoulys Chacin pitches in Colorado, and he pitches to contact, and he’s not giving up home runs.


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Dave is a co-founder of USSMariner.com and contributes to the Wall Street Journal.

29 Responses to “Jhoulys Chacin and the Miraculous Record”

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  1. White Blood Cells says:

    Wow! Neat!

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  2. TKDC says:

    “Joe Blanton probably would have been the very last, but Chacin would have been standing around looking at Blanton when everyone took their final picks.”

    Bronson Arroyo says hi.

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  3. Urban Shocker says:

    Jason Marquis chuckles, who is actually your 3 year leader. Sorry Joe.

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  4. MrKnowNothing says:

    “You might say “aha, more proof that steroids testing is working, and driving all the power hitters out of the game”

    No, I don’t think anyone would say that about a dude in COLORADO not giving up HRs. They might say that when referencing the lack of 60+ HR seasons, or a potential downturn in HRs league wide (if that’s even true), or Ryan Braun (who hits a few HRs here and there) getting suspended for the rest of the season for using PEDs, or something along those lines. But I think most everyone who has ever heard and thought about HR/flyball ratio (that is, someone who isn’t old old guard) would appreciate the wacky “baseball is weird” aspect of this.

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  5. Jim says:

    Using “one pitcher in Major League history” to describe the period since 2002 seems pretty disingenuous.

    I mean, just using recent examples of pitchers who threw more than 100 innings, I would have to guess that, if we had the FB data, Cain’s rates would be crushed by Mariano Rivera in 1996 (107.2 IP, 1 HR), Dave Righetti in 1981 (105.1 IP, 1 HR), Nolan Ryan in 1981 (149 IP, 2 HR), Greg Maddux in 1994 (202 IP, 4 HR), Joe Magrane in 1989 (234.2 IP, 5 HR), or Reggie Cleveland in 1976 (170 IP, 3 HR).

    Special props go out to Slim Harriss in 1926 (170 IP, 0 HR). Also, with the deadball era caveat, Walter Johnson in 1916 (369.2 IP, 0 HR).

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    • Travis L says:

      You are absolutely correct.

      I still don’t like how you just crapped on a pretty neat, frivolous article that I found interesting.

      I respect your appreciation for the facts while disliking you personally.

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  6. All three with two strikes if I’m not mistaken.

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  7. DD says:

    Now we just need Jeff sullivan to provide GIFs of each HR he gave up, analyzing each in great detail, and we have a complete story here.

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  8. Semi Pro says:

    Walter Johnson in 1916: 369 2/3 innings, 0 HR. Obviously not recent, and also part of the deadball era, but whoa.

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  9. placidity says:

    “Our data has the park with a home run factor of 114, meaning that a pitcher for the Rockies would be expected to post a home run rate 14% higher than they would pitching for a team that plays its home games in a neutral ballpark.”

    Is that really what it means? Or does it mean that, when he’s starting at home, he’s 14% more likely to give up dingers, but when he’s starting on the road at SD or LA, he’s less likely than average to give up dingers? So then his net across all starts would be something closer to average (but still significantly above because he’s made ~2/3 of his starts at home). I assumed it was the latter, but legitimately don’t know.

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  10. Bab says:

    So which gets a higher rating on the Astonishing Fact scale: Votto’s pop-ups or Chacin’s HR/FB COL rates?

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    • Travis L says:

      In season, I’d say Chacin.

      If you’re looking at Votto’s popups in the last 3 years, it’s incredible (plus his BABIP on balls pulled to RF, and his complete lack of pulled-into-stands foul balls).

      Guy is amazing. He’s like a mix of Ichiro, Ty Cobb, and 25 HR power.

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  11. rustydude says:

    Nice setup in this piece. I’m mostly an American League watcher and fan. And although I know Chacin is a pitcher in the NL, I wasn’t aware he pitched in Colorado until it was revealed… halfways through this piece. Nice job. And good for Chacin.

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  12. Al Ojeda says:

    5.4 K/9 is low….at least he is winning games, that isn’t luck.

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  13. Wobatus says:

    This reminded me of Eno’s interview with Chacin in April about how he stopped throwing his curve and indeed was pitching to contact: http://www.fangraphs.com/blogs/jhoulys-chacin-on-ground-balls-curve-balls-and-colorado/

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  14. Jon L. says:

    Chacin will now definitely let up a home run in his next start.

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  15. Jeremiah says:

    A commenter posted yesterday on Purple Row that since 2002, only two starters have a sub 3.00 ERA with at least 200 IP on the road: Roger Clemens and Jhoulys Chacin.

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  16. Andrew says:

    While we’re on the subject of Rockies pitchers, Jorge De La Rosa just threw six scoreless again last night. He has a 2.97 ERA, 150 ERA+ and the second highest ground ball rate of his career. In fact, De La Rosa, Chacin and Tyler Chatwood are statistically the best group of three starters in the division. The lack of offense is the main reason the Rockies aren’t winning more.

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    • Jeremiah says:

      What’s more is that although Chacin is the most extreme in terms of HR/FB, all three are posting rates that would be considered outliers for pitchers on normal teams, but ridiculous for Rockies pitchers. Coupled with the 100 pitch limits, one has to wonder if there is some sort of organizational philosophy behind this, or if it’s just really really bizarre luck.

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      • jfree says:

        IMO – what the Rockies have now is a fresh pitching coach who spent the last few years as a bullpen coach. Bullpen coaches are far more comfortable working with their pitchers during a game. This is one instance where a change in coaching may have been the difference maker.

        Apodaca was quite visibly burned out last year after 10 years of dealing with the injuries and rotation experiment and Coors uniqueness and pitcher turnover and play-calling. now he can move to the front office and deal only with the bigger picture long-term stuff (where his in-game experience at Coors gives him a huge advantage over his predecessor). And Wright can deal with the day-to-day stuff and pitch calling better than Apodaca (who seemed to let pitchers “figure out Coors” on their own in between games).

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    • Baltar says:

      That is like totally amazing, dude.

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  17. yeah says:

    Jhoulys Chacin and the Miraculous Record was always my favorite in the Jhoulys Chacin series.

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  18. BigLeagues says:

    I read Chacin discuss his approach earlier this season. And often that can be more fascinating and revealing than digging to deep into the numbers.

    This is a guy who LOVES the craft of pitching and who feels he has strikeout stuff, but doesn’t use his curveball much because of the increased risk of giving up flyballs at Coors.

    I mean read what he says here in an MLB.com interview from Wednesday…

    Pitching in Denver requires you to throw in order to get a lot of grounders, you try to avoid that the ball elevates. You’ve got to keep your opponents to hit grounders instead of fly balls. That’s the one thing I’ve focused on the most, both at home and on the road. Obviously, the most important thing is throwing strikes, and keeping you ahead in counts. You also want to throw the least amount of pitches possible so you can stay in the game for as many innings as you can.

    It sounds so rudimentary. In fact it almost sounds like something that Crash Davis would coach Nuke Laloosh to say. And we’ve heard 100′s of pitchers before him say this stuff, much less convincingly. But that’s the thing, when you’ve seen Chacin pitch his game repeatedly, and you hear him say these things… you KNOW he takes it very serious… because he does focus on keeping the ball low in the strike zone, throwing strikes, allowing his fielders to do their jobs and get off the field in as efficient a manner as possible.

    I know what the numbers and circumstance would seemingly predict here, but I won’t be surprised if he bests Cain’s mark whence the season draws to a close.

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