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May 7, 2006

Chacon shackles Texas
by SG

In the off-season, one of my biggest areas of concern with the Yankee rotation was what to expect from Shawn Chacon. He was outstanding for the Yankees in 12 starts, but his peripherals indicated a big falloff was due. He's now made five starts this season (in seven appearances), and although I still have some concerns, I think I see some good indicators that he's going to a be solid pitcher. Chacon helped lead the Yankees to a 6-1 victory over Texas, one night after the Yankees almost blew an 8-1 lead.

Normally when trying to gauge a player's talent, it is important to consider their entire career. However, Chacon had spent his entire career in Colorado prior to joining the Yankees, which makes his numbers almost impossible to analyze. For that reason, I'll just look at the time he spent with the Yankees last year, and how he's performed this year, with the understanding that it's only 111 innings and too small a sample to make any definitive assessments about.

Last year, Chacon pitched 79 innings with an ERA of 2.85. However, a little look deeper into his numbers indicated the potential for a fall-off.

The heart of baseball is the batter/pitcher matchup. Each pitch by the pitcher can lead to thousands of potential outcomes. The three outcomes over which a pitcher has the most control are walks, strikeouts, and homeruns. All other outcomes bring different factors into play, including their defense, the condition of the field, the weather, etc., When assessing a pitcher's ability, it is important to look at the things he has the most control over. I am not a big believer in determining a player's value by this method, because frankly, it is unimportant to me how a pitcher gets batters out when looking at how much they are contributing. However, when we want to see if a player is likely to continue performing at their current level, these underlying statistics are critical. This is the heart of Voros McCracken's DIPS (Defense Independent Pitching system, which is what convinced me to start looking at pitchers in this manner.

Because of this, I'm going to throw out Chacon's ERA and just look at four sets of statistics that he accumulated in 2005 as a Yankee.

Batters Faced: 330
HR Allowed: 7
Walks Allowed: 30
Strikeouts: 40

So, Chacon did the following on a rate basis last year.

HR/BF: .02
BB/BF: .09
K/BF: .12

Although I'm ignoring innings here, I'll put the ratios per nine innings as well since that may be more familiar to many of you.

HR/9: .8
BB/9: 3.4
K/9: 4.6

To put those in context, here is how the entire American League fared in these numbers.

Batters Faced: 87089
HR Allowed: 2416
Walks Allowed: 6791
Strikeouts: 13893

So the league performed as follows on a rate basis:

HR/BF: .03
BB/BF: .08
K/BF: .16

HR/9: 1.1
BB/9: 3.0
K/9: 6.2

I use these two sets of ratios to calculate what I call HR+, BB+, K+. I used to just divide the individual's ratio by the league ratio and multiply by 100, but to keep the scale consistent, I divide the league ratio for HRs and BBs (bad outcomes) by the individual's ratio, and then the individual's strikeout rate by the league strikeout rate. Therefore, 100 is league average. Less than 100 means that the player is worse than the league average in that component. Greater than 100 means the pitcher is better.

Chacon 2005
HR+: 131
BB+: 86
K+: 76

So Chacon did a good job of keeping the ball in the park last year as a Yankee, but walked more and struck out fewer than the average pitcher. This was the biggest reason I was concerned about Chacon, as HR rate in general tends to be more volatile than a pitcher's walk rate and K rate. The low K rate is also concerning because it indicates that Chacon had a lot of balls put into play that were converted into outs, which can also fluctuate from year to year.

Onto 2006, and although his ERA is about one run higher than last season's at 3.94, I think he's pitching in a way that indicates he's more likely to be a good pitcher than his performance did last year, if that makes any sense. First of all, his ERA as a starter is 3.69, as two bad relief appearances have skewed his numbers a bit.

Chacon 2006
HR/BF: .03 (.08 as reliever, .02 as starter)
BB/BF: .12 (.08 as reliever, .13 as starter)
K/BF: .20 (.15 as reliever, .21 as starter)

HR/9: 0.8
BB/9: 3.9
K/9: 6.5

2006 AL Averages
HR/BF: .03
BB/BF: .09
K/BF: .16

HR/9: 1.2
BB/9: 3.4
K/9: 6.1

Chacon's HR+, BB+, and K+ based on those league averages are:
HR+: 115 (39 as reliever, 153 as starter)
BB+: 70 (111 as reliever, 67 as starter)
K+: 128 (98 as reliever, 132 as starter)

The walk rate is still not very good, in fact it's worse than last year. The good news is that his K rate has spiked to above league average.

In watching Chacon this season, I can't help but think that his BB rate is high by design. Similar to El Duque, Chacon doesn't have overwhelming stuff, and he needs to hit his spots to succeed. Because of this, I think he intentionally will not give into a hitter, regardless of the count, because he realizes that he is better off walking people than giving up an extra base hit. When he starts ahead in the count, he can get batters out by painting the corners because they have to protect the plate, but when he falls behind the hitters have the advantage because he doesn't throw the type of pitches that hitters like to zone in on. I don't know if it's true or not, but if he continues to pitch out of self-induced jams and demonstrate an ability to to get better than expected results on balls hit into play, I may yet become convinced.

Scott Proctor gave me a scare when he started the eighth by allowing two singles after getting Hank Blalock to ground out, but to Joe Torre's credit, he stayed with Proctor and resisted the tempation to bring in Kyle Farnsworth or Mo and let Proctor pitch out of it himself.

Although his walk rate is still too high, Proctor has been very impressive. After walking 8 hitters in his first 15 innings, he's walked 1 over his last 7.1. He seems to be using his changeup and breaking pitch more this season to good effect, particularly against lefties, who hit .315/.405/.630 against him in 2005 but are hitting .222/.440/.333 so far this season (small sample size warning). Although lefties are still getting on at a good clip against him, they're not hitting him for the power they did last year. Proctor can be a useful middle reliever due to his ability to pitch multiple innings and due to the fact that he has very good stuff. Proctor relieving a soft-tosser like Randy Johnson would seem like he is throwing 200 mph.

Is it a coincidence that the Yankee pitching staff has been so much better with Johnny Damon in CF this season? I don't think Damon can be credited for the whole staff's apparent improvement (Mel who?), but he sure has been a tremendous upgrade in CF this season. I have him on pace to be about 5 runs above average on the season at his current pace, even with the bad arm. Not too bad. I may yet accept him as a Yankee, although I know some people who never will.

It's not all good news, as apparently Gary Sheffield realized he was hurt worse than he thought after starting on Friday night, with a stint on the disabled
list looking like a possibility

Gary Sheffield was a late scratch from Saturday's lineup, and although Joe Torre hopes to have the slugger back in the lineup by Tuesday, Sheffield is preparing himself for a possible trip the disabled list.

"We'll see," Sheffield said when asked about the DL. "Based on right now, that's probably what I'll have to do."

I've said it before, but I think the Yankees should DL Sheffield now. Any chance at a lingering wrist injury will be more detrimental than two weeks of games without him. It would probably also let them call up Carlos Peña assuming that decision has to be made soon.

The Yankees have already won one more game than I expected them to in Texas, so I'm sure it'll be "House Money Day in Texas, with Bubba, Stinnett, Phillips and Cairo all playing. I'd like to see Chien-Ming Wang pitch well, because while Chacon has begun alleviating my concerns about him, Wang has exarcebated the ones I had about him.