I’ve written before about how I enjoy following the Colorado Rockies. Not only are they fun to watch, but their roster and farm system are stacked with young and young-ish players. I am openly jealous about this aspect of the Rockies. As a Yankee fan, I’m used to seeing promising young players shipped off for established veterans before they get a chance to prove themselves. I’m not complaining – the Yankees are pretty good, last I checked – but I am enjoying watching the young Rockies mature and develop as they gain more experience. I’m also paying particularly close attention to the team because I’ve been telling anyone who will listen to me (a dwindling group, I admit) that the Rockies are going to win their division. I like being right more than I like the Rockies, so I’ve kept up with their roster moves about as much as I do with the Yankees. And over the last month, I’ve been particularly baffled by what the team is doing with Jhoulys Chacin.
I’m guessing, perhaps erroneously, that you haven’t heard of Jhoulys Chacin. That is forgivable. After all, it’s tough for Rockies pitchers not named Ubaldo Jimenez to get any publicity in 2010. But the 22-year-old Chacin has quietly had a very good season. In all 12 of his starts, from May 2nd to July 2nd (this will become relevant shortly), Chacin posted a 3.64 ERA in 71.2 IP, averaging over a strikeout per inning and holding opposing hitters to a .668 OPS. He retired righties and lefties with roughly equal skill and did not benefit or suffer from any particular luck; his 3.64 ERA was fully supported by his peripheral statistics. In short, Chacin has been a legitimately good pitcher this season.
Then, on July 6th, Chacin was sent to the bullpen to make room for Jorge de la Rosa in the rotation. This seemed like an odd move to me at the time. The 29-year-old de la Rosa certainly deserved a spot in the rotation after providing the Rockies with 185 innings of 3.76 xFIP ball in 2009, which included a career-high strikeout rate and the best command of his career. But giving him an opportunity at Chacin’s expense was unusual. Not totally indefensible, but unusual.
Things got weirder today. The Rockies sent Chacin down to Triple-A to make room for Taylor Buchholz in the bullpen. Buchholz, who hasn’t pitched in the majors since 2008 because of Tommy John surgery, has performed well in rehab appearances and may still resume a once-promising career. But again, the Rockies demoting Chacin yet again in favor of a recently-injured (and quite possibly inferior, in both cases) pitcher is incredibly odd. The report suggests that the Rockies want to give Chacin regular starts to keep him stretched out in case one of the organization’s major league starters falters, which isn’t a ridiculous idea. Still, that logic is questionable. Both Aaron Cook and Jeff Francis have pitched worse than Chacin this season. Cook is still inducing lots of grounders – a useful skill at Coors Field – but has struggled with his command, giving him a fringy 4.74 xFIP. Francis’ 4.14 xFIP is much more tolerable, but like Buchholz, he hasn’t pitched since 2008 and his effectiveness is closely tied to his defense’s ability. Ultimately, Chacin has pitched better than both. And given that Chacin threw over 120 innings in 2009, he should be able to throw 170 or so this season, so these moves aren’t designed to protect his arm. It’s hard to figure out what these moves are designed to do, really.
With Jorge de la Rosa returning, the Rockies had an opportunity to assemble a deep and balanced starting rotation. They could have simply sent Cook to the bullpen, making the rotation Jimenez, de la Rosa, Chacin, Jason Hammel, and Francis. The xFIPs of that staff are, respectively: 3.69, 3.94, 3.82, 3.72, 4.14. That’s a pretty darn good rotation. Instead, Cook remains in the rotation at Chacin’s expense. And while Cook is not a bad pitcher, the difference between five Cook starts and five Chacin starts (let’s assume that the Rockies will come to their senses fairly quickly) is significant in a tight divisional race. Maybe I’m missing something, but from afar, it seems like the Rockies just passed up a chance to add a win or two to their season total.