I recently wrote an article about Marco Scutaro and how his real-life value is far superior to his fantasy value. The on-the-field versus on-paper value disconnect has always been interesting to me since I started seriously playing fantasy baseball. Following up on the Scutaro article, I wanted to find an example of a starting pitcher who has been exceedingly effective on the mound, yet that effectiveness has not translated to fantasy value.
My immediate reaction was to focus on Hiroki Kuroda. He’s a guy who doesn’t strikeout many batters, yet consistently generates good results. However, he’s been the 11th-best starting pitcher in ESPN leagues this year. That knocks him out of the running for this article.
After thinking about the topic for a while, I was having a conversation about the improvements of Jhoulys Chacin and how he’s transformed himself into a very solid major-league starter. In fact, his 3.08 FIP ranks 15th in all of baseball amongst qualified starters. He’s accomplished this through throwing more strikes, inducing more contact and limiting home runs. Thus, almost no matter which way you slice it, Chacin has been extremely effective on the mound this year.
That is, unless you’re considering his fantasy value. Despite his obvious on-the-field impact through the first four months of the season, Chacin is only the 43rd-ranked starting pitcher in ESPN leagues. That ranks behind the much-maligned Justin Verlander and the underwhelming Kyle Lohse — not to mention it almost ranks behind David Price (44th), who missed two months of the season with an injury.
This is not to suggest Chacin isn’t worth a roster spot. He’s a solid mid to back-end starter for most fantasy leagues. That mid to back-end value doesn’t match his 3.36 ERA or 3.08 FIP, though. It feels like he should be more valuable than a fringe top-50 starter. When evaluating starting pitchers for fantasy purposes, though, it’s important to remember that strikeouts matter. A lot. If we consider pitcher wins to be a relative crapshoot, a starting pitcher without strikeouts essentially punts one of the three remaining categories. A guy has to be crazy valuable in ERA or WHIP to sacrifice those strikeouts — much like Kuroda and his 2.45 ERA and 1.05 WHIP.
The question then becomes: can Jhoulys Chacin improve his strikeout rate while sustaining his improved run prevention?
It seems doubtful, and not because the right-hander lacks the ability to generate swings-and-misses. In 2010, he struck out more than a batter per inning over 137.1 innings. The ability is there. He’s seemingly made a choice, however, to eschew the strikeouts and focus on limiting pitches and inducing contact. Our own Eno Sarris wrote an article earlier this year in which Chacin noted he’s not trying for the whiff. Instead, he’s focusing on generating ground balls, preferably early in the count.
We can see evidence of that in his swinging-strike rate and the amount of pitches he’s throwing in the strike zone. His swinging-strike rate is falling, while his zone percentage is climbing.
It’s been a gradual, yet steady transformation for the right-hander. He’s now a true sinker-slider, pitch-to-contact guy. Perhaps that’s working better for him in Colorado, but it’s not working well for fantasy owners.
Furthermore, there are legitimate concerns regarding the sustainability of his performance. Our own Dave Cameron wrote about Chacin’s ridiculous home-run rate this year. We probably shouldn’t bank on his 3.1% HR/FB rate in Colorado to remain so low. His ground-ball rate is above-average, but it’s not crazy enough to support a 0.25 HR/9 home run rate. Especially when one considers Chacin owned a home run rate of 1.30 HR/9 a year ago when he was similarly focusing on getting ground-ball outs and foregoing the strikeout.
If that home run rate increases, his earned run average will understandably rise. And without the strikeouts, that will be a huge blow to his fantasy value — which is already very average. That’s why I’ve been cool on Jhoulys Chacin this year and will likely remain cool on him next year. He’s just another example of a player that has legitimate on-the-field value for his team, yet that value doesn’t translate to most fantasy leagues.