Don’t Scoff at Bruce Chen

With certain pitchers the strike zone plots you see on BrooksBaseball.net indicate a profound lack of control because the points are all over the place.

With others, it’s done by design.

For a pitcher who has only a limited idea of where the ball is going at any particular time (see Bruce Chen‘s new teammate Jonathan Sanchezhere), the map of strikes and balls doesn’t say much of anything in terms of strategy because his strategic implementation is highly dependent on his control that day; but when looking at the map for pitchers who don’t have great stuff and are having a perceived inexplicable success like Chen and Jamie Moyer, there’s a method to the randomness.

Chen’s example of a strike zone map isn’t much different from Sanchez’s.

But they are different because one has an idea of where the ball is going and the other doesn’t.

For years it was asked how Moyer—he of the 82 mph fastball and chugging along until age 47 (and wanting to try to come back from Tommy John surgery in 2012 at age 49)—was able to get anyone out especially pitching in the homer-friendly confines of Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia.

But Moyer knew how to pitch.

That phrase doesn’t imply that he has an innate knowledge that other pitchers don’t have by itself; it means that he was able to formulate a game plan and execute it; it means that he used every available weapon from psychology to pushing the strike zone in and out to get the hitters to retire themselves.

Here’s an example that a pitcher might use: If Moyer or Chen are pitching to a powerful righty bat like Mark Teixeira, they could start with a fastball inside. If Teixeira swings at the pitch and pulls it foul—a likely scenario given the absence of velocity—the pitcher could do several things to set Teixeira up. He can throw a harder fastball inside to let Teixeira think the pitcher can reach back a bit and increase their fastball’s velocity and make him say to himself, “I can’t wait as long as I thought I could.” Then when they have him believing he might have to be a tiny bit quicker, they can throw a changeup or breaking ball to use the quicker bat to their advantage. Or they could throw a changeup in an unhittable location—either way inside or way outside—to speed up his bat, make him think he has to wait, and then go harder inside.

It’s called pushing the strike zone forward and back, in and out and adhering to a plan; pitchers who know where the ball is going have a better opportunity to execute said plan than one who’s got terrific stuff but no clue as to its location.

Moyer was skillful at using a brushback pitch which, by all logical metrics, shouldn’t work with someone whose fastball was so slow a butterfly could land on it mid-flight.

But he did it with timing, skill and intelligence.

Chen has learned to pitch in a similar way with identical-type stuff as Moyer did.

Like a knuckleballer who lasts and lasts and lasts because of his quirky, gentle pitch of timing and technique, there’s always been a place for a junkballing lefty like Tommy John (who could actually pitch in addition to revolutionizing the game by coming back from an injury that was once a career-ender), Tom Glavine, Moyer and Chen.

Looking at Chen’s journeyman career, that he’s forever been an “is he still around?” guy and that the Royals just signed him to a 2-year, $9 million contract, the initial reaction is to say it’s a reach to bank on him continuing to trick hitters; but it’s not a reach to think he’s going to maintain his effectiveness as he’s installed in a starting rotation and left alone when dissecting how he’s succeeded.

They’ve made pitching into a craft that doesn’t require the stuff of legends to succeed at it.

As long as Chen is healthy and able to pitch, he’ll have a job—and now he knows it will be in one place for the next two years, which is a rarity in his 10 team/13 year sojourn.

But Moyer hopped all over the place too; in fact, he was told to retire by the Cubs and offered a minor league pitching coach job before they dumped him at age 29.

Moyer wanted to keep trying and eventually carved a niche for himself; by age 33 he’d become a durable and consistent workhorse who lasted (so far) into his late-40s.

Chen turned 34 in June.

Sometimes all it takes it hanging around, ignoring doubters and continuing to try.

It pays off for some.

If they’re smart.

And determined.

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