Happy 2022 everyone. It may be the New Year, but our free agent target series rolls on. There are still plenty of players the Yankees could consider, so we’ll continue to do our best to explore the pros and cons of adding said potential player.
On the docket for today: bullpen reinforcements. The Yankees’ relief corps was one of the the top units in baseball in 2021. Whether it was continued contributions from expected sources, younger pitchers taking the next step in their development, or surprise effectiveness from mid-season acquisitions, the Yankees bullpen looks to be the most secure part of the roster heading into next season. That said, there is always room for improvement. The free agent reliever we will consider today is Andrew Chafin.
2021 Stats: 71 games, 68.2 IP, 1.83 ERA, 2.98 FIP, 4.00 xFIP, 8.4 K/9, 2.5 BB/9, 1.4 fWAR
Chafin logged the best season of his eight-year big league career in 2021, setting personal-bests in ERA and fWAR. He pitched his first 43 games with the Cubs before being dealt to the A’s in the days leading to the deadline, and his effectiveness didn’t skip a beat while making the transition from the South Side to Oakland. Nevertheless, there are several areas of concern that should give the Yankees pause.
Before we address those issues, however, let’s evaluate what Chafin does well. He’s adept at limiting the long ball — since his debut in 2014, Chafin owns the 19th-lowest home run per nine rate (0.57) of any qualified reliever in baseball. He also managed to rein in the walks in 2021. After struggling with the free pass in his first seven big league seasons, Chafin posted the lowest walk rate of his career (7.1 percent), a full three points lower that his previous career average.
In addition, Chafin sports one of the more effective sliders in the game. The pitch produces the 28th-lowest xwOBA (.173) of any slider in MLB and routinely induces a whiff rate in excess of 50 percent. This pitch was a driving factor behind the lefty sitting in the 89th percentile in the league in chase rate, xBA, and xwOBA in 2021.
With all this being said, there are several signs that suggest this newfound success is not sustainable. Chafin owes a lot of his effectiveness in 2021 to the significant windfall of good luck he received. Among all qualified relievers, Chafin owned the 11th-highest delta between xFIP and FIP. In other words, he performed better than his batted ball profile would suggest.
The good luck doesn’t end there. Chafin limited batters to a .232 BABIP, which is almost certain to regress toward his .309 career mark. Statcast tells a similar story when it comes to batted ball luck. He produced a .316 xwOBA on contact, roughly 50 points better than his career average, and I’m skeptical he can maintain that level of improvement.
I find it unsatisfying and at times verging on disingenuous to just say “this player just got lucky/unlucky,” so I’d like to turn my attention to the aspect of Chafin’s 2021 season that concerns me the most. It appears Chafin changed his pitching philosophy, and I worry that switch would be ill-suited for Yankee Stadium.
From 2016 to 2020, Chafin tried to get batters out either by strikeout or groundball. His 27.9 percent strikeout rate and 49.5 percent groundball rate were both well above league average. But then in 2021, he completely flipped his approach, posting by far the highest flyball rate of his career (38.8 percent) and lowest strikeout rate since 2015 (24.1 percent).
I wondered how he had such success with this drastic change, and it appears he was helped at least in part by the defenses behind him. The Athletics and Cubs ranked ninth and 11th respectively in Outs Above Average in 2021, and were sixth and eighth respectively in shift frequency. It would seem those two organizations aided their pitchers not only with good defenders, but also by putting those defenders in optimized positions.
For comparison, the Yankees were the sixth-worst fielding team in 2021 and shifted less than league average. Throw on top this newly-embraced flyball approach and I struggle to see how Chafin would maintain effectiveness in the Bronx.
That brings us to the final sticky piece: money. Chafin declined his 2022 player option worth $5.25 million, which would signal some confidence on his part that he could earn more on the open market. We have discussed ad nauseam on this site the pitfalls of tying up large percentages of payroll in aging relievers, and I shudder to think of committing a figure in excess of the declined player option to the southpaw as he enters his age-32 season.
If all this sounds like a trashing of Andrew Chafin, I apologize. He logged an impressive 2021 campaign and should be lauded for it. And by all accounts, he seems like one of the nicest most genuine guys you could ever meet. But the Yankees have many holes to fix on their roster and their money is probably best spent elsewhere.