Wei-Yin Chen: More than good luck behind strong start?

Wei-Yin Chen, the Baltimore Orioles’ number-two starter, has pitched to a 2.53 ERA in seven starts this season. He has currently reeled off four consecutive quality starts. The Taiwanese left-hander has not allowed more than two earned runs in a start since he started the second game of the season on April 7, and his only poor start this season came on a rainy day in Boston where he struggled to grip a wet ball and walked five in only 4.1 innings.

Chen’s FIP, however, would lead those sabermetrically inclined to believe that he has not been nearly that good. Chen’s FIP so far this season is 4.58. That there is such a disparity between Chen’s ERA and FIP suggests that Chen is either incredibly lucky, or is somehow more adept at preventing base hits than the average Major League Pitcher.

So far this season, Chen has allowed only a .211 BAA in 42.2 innings pitched. This is mostly due to the fact that he has allowed only a .226 BAbip. This is by far the lowest mark of Chen’s career. In his first three seasons, he allowed hits on batted balls at roughly the same clip as the rest of the league. This season, his BAbip is over 70 points lower than the league average. There will be some correction coming, and that cannot be denied.

Those who cite FIP as the be-all, end-all for starting pitching do tend to miss some smaller details that are hiding in a pitcher’s stat line. Yes, Chen will begin allowing hits a bit more frequently as the season goes on. Over the first three seasons of his career, he has not exhibited any special talent that makes me think he is a hit-preventing ninja. Chen is a fly-ball pitcher, and he gives up home runs at a rate above the league average. Fly ball pitchers are not quite as affected by luck on base hits as ground ball pitchers, but solo home runs can quickly turn into ERA-raising three-run bombs in the blink of an eye with a few extra men aboard.

All that being said, there is something buried in Chen’s stat line that leads me to believe he may actually have a decent chance of outperforming his expected numbers this season. Through seven starts this season, Chen has exhibited an uncanny ability to get ahead of batters. Take away the five walk meltdown in the rain in Boston, and Chen’s 3.0 BB/9 falls in line with his career averages. What does not fall in line with his career averages, however, is the 32.8% of 0-2 counts he has created this season.

Major League pitchers are able to get to an 0-2 count against roughly 25% of the batters they face. That Chen is exceeding that mark by nearly 8% says something to me. Chen is pitching aggressively this season, and that is one factor driving his strong results in 2015. Furthermore, Chen has reached two strikes in 51.7% of the time this season. In those plate appearances, opposing hitters are batting only .181 with 34 strikeouts against Chen.

During his first three seasons with the Orioles, Chen often nibbled around the strike zone. This season, he is pitching aggressively and attacking the zone. That, more than just luck, is helping drive his strong start. Chen does not throw exceptionally hard, but his fastball has good movement, and he changes speeds and mixes pitches very well. All of this, combined with a heavy dose of early-count strikes is putting Chen on the advantage in a good percentage of at-bats.

I believe pitchers do hold some power over whether or not a ball falls randomly as a base hit. If this were not the case, we would not see a substantial drop in batting average after a hitter reaches two strikes. Pitchers hold a massive advantage in a two-strike count, especially an 0-2 count. A pitcher with a more deceptive arsenal like Wei-Yin Chen holds an even greater advantage when ahead in the count.

Based on batted-ball averages and fly-ball ratios, Chen should not be pitching to a 2.53 ERA, but a more in-depth look reveals the fact that he does hold more command of his results than the analysts want you to believe. If Wei-Yin Chen is able to continue getting ahead of hitters on a consistent basis, I see no reason for his ERA to spike significantly. There have been times in Chen’s career where he has pitched timidly. If that side of the Orioles’ second starter does not rear its head this year, he will continue pitching more like a number one.

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