This past season, the Orioles were let down by nearly the entire starting staff.
Bud Norris was read his Last Rites as he was buried in DFA heaven, while Chris Tillman, Ubaldo Jimenez and Miguel Gonzalez failed to inspire any ounce of consistency in 2015. Kevin Gausman made strides in living up to his first-round reputation, but again, his lack of rhythm within the organization doomed his much-needed maturation.
Despite an overall ineptitude within the starting rotation, Orioles' lefty Wei-Yin Chen was the lone O's starter whose mound presence wasn't confounded on an abundance of "welps".
The thing with Chen is, there isn't really any sort of "wow" to his pitchability. He does more pitching around the strike zone than within it, has average secondary stuff and like his Oriole peers, isn't one to go deep into ballgames. However, he still finds ways to get outs.
As the Orioles most obvious outlier among the starters, Chen pitched his way into his most prolific statistical season yet.
As the numbers show, Chen pitched to a career-best 3.34 ERA, hovered around his career opponent BABIP, stranded more runners than he has before and continued to keep the baseball on the ground. Though his 28 surrendered home runs were his most since his rookie year in 2012, long balls utterly plagued Orioles' starters. His 191.1 innings were his most since 2012, as were his 153 strikeouts.
As it relates to batted ball numbers, Chen also posted career-bests in terms of contact. His 21.9% soft-contact rate together with his 28.2% hard-hit rate now constitute career benchmarks. Chen's ability to avoid the barrel of the bat had much to do with an uncommon usage of two-seam fastballs and sliders.
Prior to 2015, Chen was more of a four-seam fastball/slider pitcher that utilized his changeup from time-to-time, but this year, nearly one-third of the fastballs Chen delivered to home plate were of the two-seam variety. The idea behind the two-seam fastball is to use the lesser velocity to create more movement, typically down in the zone. According to Fangraphs, Chen's two-seamer, in relation to horizontal movement, was fourth-best in all of baseball, while the vertical action on the pitch was seventh-highest. Simply, Chen has a very good two-seam fastball, and he used it more than he ever has.
In comparison with his starting comrades, Chen was far and away the Orioles most dependable man every fifth day. His 191.1 innings, 3.34 ERA, 1.93 BB/9, 1.22 WHIP and 80.5 LOB% all led the team's starting staff, and as someone who watched 90% of the games this season, his ability to throw quality strikes and work out of innings was assuredly the most obvious of any of the Orioles starting pitchers. He doesn't/won't have the Gausman heat or the Jimenez freakish movement, but he knew his strengths, typically followed the fingers of Matt Wieters and Caleb Joseph and was just very, very solid.
In a perfect world, Chen is more of a No. 4 in the rotation, maybe even a No. 3, but given the disarray and implosion of the Orioles starters, Chen was kind of thrusted into an unfamiliar light. In a year when Orioles starters pitched the ninth-fewest innings in baseball, Chen was able to pitch through at least 6.0 innings in 21 of his 31 starts, another Oriole best.
Chen, once again, didn't energize the radar gun or make your jaw drop, but rather pitched to the best of his abilities. Only a few weeks away from entering free-agency, Chen will have plenty of suitors, especially in a winter when Zack Greinke, David Price, Jordan Zimmermann and Johnny Cueto rise into the upper tier. There are plenty of second-level starters to be had, such as Marco Estrada, Brett Anderson, Mike Leake, Jeff Samardzija and Yovani Gallardo to name a few.
Chen, along with Anderson, is a rare lefty whose numbers have steadily improved year-to-year, and entering free-agency at 30 with 1,357.1 innings both domestic and abroad with some to none injury issues, he is going to make some serious coin. The Orioles are going to extend him a $15.8M qualifying offer, he is going to say no, and what seems to be a foregone conclusion, Chen is going to be playing elsewhere in 2016.
In the end, the reality of being awarded a high draft pick stemming from the acquisition of a 26-year-old Taiwanese lefty four years ago is certainly a scenario in which the Orioles benefit more from than overpaying for an above-average starter. The Orioles need help on the farm, and Chen's departure, despite his steady contributions, is going to improve the organization in the long run.
Chen was probably better than most ever thought he would be (maybe it's just me), but as the Orioles were painfully frustrating to watch on the mound four of the five days of the week in 2015, we were given a stopgap once a week, thanks to Chen.