Brewers’ starting pitcher Jhoulys Chacin enjoyed a standout campaign in 2018. Leading the starting staff with a 15-8 record and 3.50 ERA in 35 games started, he was a reliable workhorse who performed admirably down the stretch (see: Game 163 at Wrigley Field).
Unfortunately for both Chacin and the Brewers, his 2019 performance is a shadow of what we became accustomed to during his first year in Milwaukee. In 18 starts this season, Chacin has posted a 3-10 record with a 5.67 ERA. What changed for the guy that many expected would be the staff ace for a repeat playoff run?
Most noticeable is a massive increase in the rate which Chacin gives up home runs. From 2016-2018, Chacin’s home runs allowed per nine innings (HR/9) never exceeded 1.0, with him placing 13th among all starting pitchers in 2018 with a HR/9 rate of 0.84. In 2019, that rate has more than doubled to 1.89, which ranks him 6th worst among pitchers that have thrown at least 80 innings. While some may attribute this seismic shift to the “juiced ball”, the jump for Chacin does not tie solely to that – the league-wide HR/9 rate has increased by about 20%, while Chacin’s has increased by 125%. It has more to do with Chacin’s individual performance than anything else.
In line with Chacin’s home run issues is an increase in hard contact against him. During 2018, his hard contact percentage was 36.6%, putting him just in line with the league average of 35.3%. In 2019, he has allowed hard contact on 47.6% of balls put in play against him, almost 10 percentage points higher than the league average of 38.1%. Once again, this is an increase that seems to be attributable to Chacin’s performance, not the league’s elevated offensive environment.
Given his struggles, what is the next move for the Brewers with Chacin? There are three options: keep him in the rotation with the hope he straightens it out, move him to the bullpen, or designate him for assignment, which would effectively be his release from the Brewers.
Keeping him in the rotation is likely for the moment, unless the Brewers acquire a starting pitcher at the deadline. The Brewers have tried internal options Adrian Houser, Freddy Peralta, and Corbin Burnes, and none have provided results that warrant a rotation spot over Chacin. However, Chacin is certainly the weakest link amongst the current five starters, and his removal would need to be followed by a deadline acquisition. If the Brewers are serious about contending, you have to think that they will pursue and complete a trade for a starting pitcher over the next week and a half.
If that trade removes Chacin from the rotation, it would leave the Brewers with two options: demoting Chacin to the bullpen, or designating him for assignment. The challenge with demoting Chacin to the bullpen is that he does not have a profile that necessarily fits a bullpen role. Most starters-turned-relievers succeed because it allows them to concentrate on a two-pitch mix that works in a relief role, but not in a starting one where they need to keep hitters off balance for multiple trips through the batting order. In 2019, Chacin only has had one pitch that is consistently successful – his slider (.368 slugging percentage against). Both of his other two main offerings (four-seam fastball and sinker) are allowing slugging percentages in excess of .660. Putting him in the bullpen may allow him to throw either of these pitches less frequently, but he still will only have one effective pitch in his slider.
The other option is to designate Chacin for assignment. Making Chacin available on waivers, just one year removed from a 3.50 ERA, would almost certainly lead to him being claimed by at least one front office that believes they have the insights and tools to “fix him”. In the event no team claims him, Chacin would be able to refuse a minor league assignment due to his major-league service time, and the Brewers would be faced with releasing him and paying the rest of his contract. This would likely not be an issue given that Chacin is in the final year of his deal.
Of these options, I think that it couldn’t hurt to at least try Chacin in the bullpen if they do make a move for a starting pitcher. He could easily replace Jay Jackson or Burch Smith as an active reliever, as neither provide much upside and are mostly in Milwaukee to eat innings in a blowout scenario. Even if it ends up not working out due to his lack of a consistent second pitch, his upside in a relief role is easily higher than either Jackson or Smith.
Time is ticking for Jhoulys. With only one more turn in the rotation for him before the Brewers hit the deadline, his next start may shape his future in Milwaukee.