How Does Jhoulys Chacin Compare to Other Wild Card Starters?

According to Baseball Prospectus’ playoff odds, the Brewers’ chances of making the postseason 98.5 percent.  Nearly all of that likelihood, however, is tied up in the Wild Card game (84.8 percent).  It is thus fair to say that the Brewers are overwhelmingly likely to be in the National League Wild Card game.  Who their opponent will be is still up in the air; the Cardinals, Rockies, and Dodgers each have at least a 15 percent chance of making that game.

As we approach the end of the season, the Brewers will be looking to line their starting rotation up to maximize their chances in that one game.  They don’t have a traditional ace, especially with Jimmy Nelson out all season, so there isn’t a clear favorite to take the mound.  Because there is no one for the Brewers to turn to without question, manager Craig Counsell will probably have a quick hook and ask his bullpen to do the heavy lifting.

There will still be a starting pitcher, though, and at this point it seems likely to be Jhoulys Chacin.  He has been the club’s most valuable starting pitcher this year despite being a cheap acquisition last offseason, and he is the only starter to be worth even one win above replacement.  Even though his 4.49 Deserved Run Average (DRA) does not jump off the screen, it is the second-best among all Brewers’ pitchers who have made at least five starts (only Wade Miley’s 4.16 is lower).  Zach Davies has missed time but is now back, so he could get the nod, but neither he nor last season’s breakout star Chase Anderson have been particularly impressive this year (5.32 DRA for Davies, 5.37 for Anderson).  Chacin’s 100.4 DRA- tells us he has been almost exactly league average and he has been consistently available, so he seems likely to take the mound in the Wild Card game.

The Rockies and Cardinals also don’t have clear-cut aces to start a Wild Card game, but they are choosing from better options.  Colorado could select Jon Gray, who started the game last year but has a 4.06 DRA this year, or Kyle Freeland and his 2.96 Earned Run Average (ERA) and 3.74 DRA.  St. Louis could use Miles Mikolas (3.51 DRA), Jack Flaherty (2.89 DRA), or even Adam Wainwright (who has plenty of playoff experience, is now back from the disabled list, and looked sharp in his most recent start).  If the Dodgers are the Brewers’ opponent, Clayton Kershaw will likely be on the mound, and his track record speaks for itself.  Essentially, the Brewers will have the worse starting pitcher no matter who their opponent is.

Of course, the Brewers won’t have made the playoffs on the strength of their rotation, and they will rely on their bullpen heavily in a one-game playoff so as to minimize the role that the talent disparity in a rotation can play.  In fact, rotation quality is likely to be more relevant in a longer series when fatigue will factor into a reliever’s ability to be effective.  In a one-game playoff that comes after a day off (the NL Wild Card game will be Tuesday after the season ends Sunday), every relief pitcher should be available for as long as they can possibly go.

Most importantly, though, this is a one-game playoff and anything can happen.  Chacin may be outmatched by whoever his opponent is, but the team with the better starting pitcher does not always win these games.  This is an obvious statement about how single game playoffs work, but it is worth remembering.  The table below shows the starting pitchers for each of the Wild Card games since the playoff format was changed before the 2012 season.  It contains both the pitcher’s season DRA and career DRA to give a sense of the pitcher’s overall caliber as well as what type of season he had that year.  It is then sorted by season DRA.

Pitcher (Year) Team Result Season DRA Career DRA
Jake Arrieta (2015) Win, 4-0 2.09 3.79
Danny Salazar (2013) Loss, 4-0 2.36 3.59
Noah Syndergaard (2016) Loss, 3-0 2.38 2.51
Kris Medlen (2012) Loss, 6-3 2.45 3.34
Luis Severino (2017) Win, 8-4 2.63 3.28
Johnny Cueto (2013) Loss, 6-2 2.69 3.70
Gerrit Cole (2015) Loss, 4-0 2.71 3.19
Madison Bumgarner (2016) Win, 3-0 2.75 3.05
Dallas Keuchel (2015) Win, 3-0 2.80 3.87
Madison Bumgarner (2014) Win, 8-0 2.90 3.05
Zack Greinke (2017) Win, 11-8 2.93 3.28
Jon Lester (2014) Loss, 9-8 3.10 3.74
Francisco Liriano (2013) Win, 6-2 3.12 4.24
Masahiro Tanaka (2015) Loss, 3-0 3.28 3.59
James Shields (2014) Win, 9-8 3.50 3.97
Yu Darvish (2012) Loss, 5-1 3.66 3.05
Jon Gray (2017) Loss, 11-8 3.67 4.29
Kyle Lohse (2012) Win, 6-3 3.79 4.80
Marcus Stroman (2016) Win, 5-2 3.88 3.98
Ervin Santana (2017) Loss, 8-4 3.94 4.32
Alex Cobb (2013) Win, 4-0 3.97 4.13
Edinson Volquez (2014) Loss, 8-0 4.17 4.67
Chris Tillman (2016) Loss, 5-2 4.46 5.58
JHOULYS CHACIN (2018) ? 4.49 4.62
Joe Saunders (2012) Win, 5-1 4.56 5.37

As the table above demonstrates, Chacin would be one of the worst pitchers to ever start a Wild Card game.  But the only pitcher who’d been having a worse year did win the game, and six of the top seven names on this list lost or did this.

In 2012, Joe Saunders pitched 5 2/3 innings for the Orioles and held the Rangers to just one run.  Because one game of baseball is unpredictable, Chacin could very well do the same thing.  The Brewers won’t need him to do that, though.  Davies will likely be available out of the bullpen, and Josh Hader and Jeremy Jeffress will be asked to pitch more than one inning.  Chacin will only be asked to keep Milwaukee in the game.  The fact that he doesn’t match up to the usual caliber of Wild Card game starting pitchers is relevant but not determinative; the Brewers will have ridden their offense and bullpen to the playoffs, and they will count on that part of their roster in this winner-take-all game.

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