FORT MYERS, FLA. – They were teammates in Colorado and friends off the field, so Justin Morneau is well-suited to provide the definitive three-word scouting report on Twins rotation candidate Jhoulys Chacin.
“Lousy card player.”
Maybe the Twins can fix that, too.
For now, though, their attention is focused on Chacin’s mechanics, pitch selection and confidence, three essential facets of his game that seemed to abandon him during a nightmarish 2019. The Venezuelan righthander was Milwaukee’s Opening Day starter last March, posted a pair of solid if unspectacular victories in the season’s first week — then floundered for six long months.
“It was bad. I lost the feel for my pitches and couldn’t get it back,” Chacin said of a lost season that just kept getting worse: A nagging oblique injury, a 1-10 stretch with the Brewers that resulted in his release in July, and a September comeback try with the Red Sox that backfired. His 6.01 ERA for the season was a career worst, as was his walk and home run rates.
“You get frustrated and you lose your confidence a little bit,” Chacin said. “Sometimes you’re on the mound, your pitches aren’t working, and you don’t know what to do.”
But Chacin, whose name is pronounced "Joe-lees Shaw-seen," found someone who did. Twins pitching coach Wes Johnson did some digging into Chacin’s 11-year history in the major leagues, and especially his best years: The 2011 and 2013 seasons in which he posted ERAs of 3.62 and 3.47 in the mile-high Denver altitude, and his 15-win 2018 season in which he led the Brewers to within one game of the World Series.
Johnson and the Twins’ research department compared Chacin’s best work with his latest, and developed a plan for making the latter resemble the former. The pitcher, still only 32 and eager to revive a career that’s already been rekindled a couple of times, was excited to hear their ideas. It didn’t take long for the veteran to enter the Twins’ pitching sweepstakes, with a rotation job at stake, by accepting a $1.6 million contract without a roster spot attached.
“They showed me how to keep my eyes on my target better. Keep my chest up and forward a little bit more. Use my back leg to get more force,” Chacin said, ticking off the Twins’ fix-it checklist. “A lot of little stuff that’s helping. And some good ideas about my pitch mix and how I use certain pitches.”
It’s only a couple of spring outings, but he seems to have found it, at least for the moment. Chacin ripped through the Braves’ lineup in two nearly perfect innings in his debut last week. When he ran into trouble against the Rays on Sunday, giving up four runs in an inning, three on a Mike Zunino homer, Johnson was encouraged by how Chacin responded.
“He was struggling a little bit with his hands. We’re dealing with some timing things,” Johnson said. “I made a [mound] visit, just reminded him of that. [He said], ‘Yeah, yeah,’ and you saw what he did the next two innings. He got six outs on 21 pitches.”
And they’re different pitches than those he used last year. Chacin mysteriously lost the ability to hit the corners with his sinking fastball, he said, so he began relying on his slider too much. A pitcher who once threw fastballs more than 60% of the time used it a career-low 43.7%, while his slider usage skyrocketed to 49.6%. He tried a changeup only two or three times a game.
Johnson is determined to change that.
“If you watch his two outings, he’s throwing his changeup. If you go back years before, the changeup usage last year was not where it has been when he was going good. And his changeup was really good,” Johnson said. “We saw the decline, and we understand why that happens. It’s because his slider is so good, so you just go to it over and over, and hitters know it.”
It’s too early to tell whether Chacin will outpitch Devin Smeltzer and Randy Dobnak for the vacancy in the rotation, but his experience can’t hurt. Chacin put up a 3.14 ERA after the All-Star break to power the Brewers into the playoffs in 2018, then beat the Rockies in the division series and the Dodgers in the NLCS. He started Game 7 but pitched only two innings in a bullpen-dominated game.
That was only two years ago, Johnson emphasizes.
“He’s had a 10-year career, he’s started playoff games. Sometimes when you have a rough year, your confidence takes a hit. But you can bring that back,” Johnson said. “He was so good at getting hitters out, and his talent is still there. We just need to find a way to bring it out.”