There’s a reason Po-Yu Chen received $1.25 million.
That hasn’t fully shown up in the stat line in Bradenton this year. Chen has a 5.94 ERA in 33.1 innings, getting a 28.4% strikeout rate, while walking 9.9%. Both are improvements over his time in Single-A last year, but both numbers could see further improvements.
“He’s got good command. He throws those pitches at the bottom of his zone, and his secondary stuff plays off of it,” Bradenton manager Jonathan Johnston said. “He’s been consistent for us. Just looking at him to grow and continue to get stronger and improve from there.”
Chen is focused at this point in the year on going five innings or more in future starts. He also likes the improvement of his stuff this year, in what is his second professional season.
“I feel like this season I got better than last year,” said Chen via translator Charles Chen. “Whether my fastball or off-speed pitches, they’re all doing better than last year.”
Chen has seen some control issues, which he’s been working on with pitching coaches. He’s focusing on getting ahead early in the count with first pitch strikes. He’s also been focusing on making his off-speed stuff better, with more movement.
I had a chance to talk with Chen last week in Bradenton. Anthony Murphy broke down video of each of his pitches, and compiled Statcast data on each offering. The complete picture gives an interesting look at how specifically the Pirates are handling the development of Chen.
By the Numbers
Chen’s sinker looks like it plays a lot better at the bottom of the zone. It lacks control at the top, and looks very flat and hittable in the middle of the zone. He throws a four-seam fastball 7% of the time, getting a 25% whiff rate. The four seam tends to be used as an extension fastball inside to lefties. That horizontal movement on the sinker almost looks like resistance pulling the ball back the other direction, with a late give and cutback.
Here’s the disclaimer: Most of these fastballs were in his first few starts. He used the pitch heavily early in the year, then moved to throwing his slider and curveball more often, as he told me. The same showed up in the usage in Anthony’s numbers. Chen throws his fastball for strikes, and can do well if he can keep it at the bottom of the zone. He’s still going to need something for swing-and-miss, or just to mix things up.
In Chen’s most recent start, his sinker hit 94 twice, and 95 once on a strikeout. He averaged 92.5 MPH, had slightly more spin, and similar break. The pitch looked better than it did earlier in the season. More on that later.
By the Numbers
The changeup from Chen might be one of the best in the system. It’s traditionally classified for him as a splitter, but gets registered as a changeup by Baseball Savant. Chen gets a ridiculous whiff rate, and the pitch has a lot of movement — with cutting action back to the arm side before the bottom drops out on the best executed pitches. It’s like a slower, but better version of his fastball, because it has more movement, with a key difference being the massive vertical drop. He uses this pitch a lot, even to right-handers. That could make it difficult to pick up those sinkers that are sitting fatter in the middle of the zone. You never know when one of those is going to just drop off the table and appear to be the splitter in disguise.
By the Numbers
When I talked with Chen, he mentioned that he was playing with different grips for his slider, trying to get more movement. Anthony actually sent me two separate breakdowns — a slider and a cutter — before I even mentioned this information. Chen has been using the slider more often lately, as he’s scaled back the fastball usage since the early April starts. That’s likely to put an extreme focus on developing the secondary stuff in-game. The cutter below and the slider above both give uniquely different grips, which I’ll break down below.
By the Numbers
The slider above has a more loose movement, with a massive drop to the bottom of the zone at times. This is almost the opposite look of the splitter, which features the same drop in the other direction. The cutter has a firmer shape, and looks more like the sinker, but again with an opposite direction finish.
If you’re counting, we’re up to five different pitch looks from Chen, with a lot of complementary options. He does well disguising all of his pitches to look similar out of the hand, and they play well off of each other. The interesting thing here is that Chen wasn’t using his slider much at the start of the year. Then, he used it a lot in May, while scaling back on the fastball. He’s scaled back recently, bringing the fastball back with a better look, and focusing more on the curveball. Both looks of the slider are inconsistent at this point, but there’s potential for them to play off the sinker/splitter combo. Maybe working on the grips will result in the sliders returning improved, similar to the way the fastball looked better upon its return.
By the Numbers
Chen hasn’t used the curveball much during games that were broadcast, so there’s a limited look here. Anthony noted that he’s been gradually increasing the spin rate on the pitch in recent outings. The last outing had three instances where the pitch topped 3,000 rpm, and averaged 2,900 for the start. That’s a ridiculously high number, on par with one of the best curveballs in the majors from Garrett Richards. Of course, the road to hell could be paved with extreme-spin curveballs that never reached the majors. I think this further speaks to a skill that might be the skill from Chen, his ability to manipulate pitches.
Po-Yu Chen is Fine Tuning
At first glance, Chen wasn’t impressive this year with a fastball that would probably see harder contact in the upper levels from a pitch-to-contact approach. He has the ability to throw the pitch for strikes, but has dealt with some control issues.
The fastball went away, and when it came back, it looked like a pitch that could set up his secondary stuff in the upper levels, and maybe get more whiffs.
Chen is a finesse pitcher. That’s typically not a good thing for a prospect. In this case, he’s your classic finesse pitcher. He has a skill in spinning the ball and giving different looks to fool the hitter. The sinker and cutter hit the same location, but break subtly and firmly in opposite directions. The splitter and slider hit the same location, then break in a more extreme manner to the bottom of the zone, again in opposite directions, this time like a waterfall diving off a cliff. The curveball gives another look at a pitch that drops off the table, and with more horizontal movement.
In theory, Chen could throw a pitch down the middle, and that pitch could end up in one of many locations, depending on which pitch he throws and the break and movement he gets. Just to recap, from Chen’s view: Middle left (cutter), middle right (sinker), bottom left (slider), bottom right (splitter), bottom middle (curveball).
If Chen can command the break of his many pitches, and clean up the tunneling look, then he could throw five pitches down the middle, have all five land at different parts in the strike zone, and leave the hitters with very little hope of making hard contact, or any contact at all.
For that to happen, he needs to get his pitches fine tuned. He’s been working on each one, putting specific focuses on individual pitches at different times this year. He’s seen results from this work already.
Hopefully the results continue, and bleed into the stats.
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Tim is the owner, producer, editor, and lead writer of PiratesProspects.com. He has been running Pirates Prospects since 2009, becoming the first new media reporter and outlet covering the Pirates at the MLB level in 2011 and 2012. His work can also be found in Baseball America, where he has been a contributor since 2014 and the Pirates' correspondent since 2019.