Bruce Chen isn’t getting younger. The journeyman left-hander — currently with the Kansas City Royals — celebrated his 36th birthday yesterday. Since signing out of Panama, in 1993, he has made 365 big-league appearances. He has played for 10 teams.
Chen has gotten smarter as he’s gotten older. He has long survived on guile, and in recent years, he’s developed an appreciation for advanced stats. Not surprisingly, it came via a former teammate known for his analytic ways.
“The guy who introduced me to it was Brian Bannister,” Chen said. “He’s really big into it. I don’t use data to get ready for a game; I’ve been around long enough to know the teams. But I do look at it to see how I’m pitching. Am I being lucky or not really lucky? If a guy has a 4.50 FIP and is consistently pitching at 4.00 or 3.80 [ERA], that has to mean something. Or if he has a 4.50 FIP and is pitching at 5.00, that is something too. There has to be something going wrong.”
Bannister had a lot go wrong, and Chen is learning from that, as well. While a shoulder injury is what ultimately derailed Bannister’s career, many feel he hurt himself by changing his approach. Chen wants to use data to his advantage, but he also doesn’t want to over-think.
“I want to continue to learn about [advanced stats], but I also want to be careful about getting into too much detail,” Chen said. “I think maybe Brian got a little too involved in that. He was like, `If I can strike out six or seven guys in six innings, I should only give up one or two runs.’ That didn’t work, so he was like, `OK, I have to make sure my ground balls are a lot higher; then my ERA will be lower.’
“I don’t want to be like that. I have to stay true to who I am, which means keeping the ball on the ground and limiting walks. I primarily look my vertical movement, my ground-ball rate, and my strikeouts-to-walks ratio. At the end of the game, if I’ve given up five fly balls and 10 ground balls, I’m good. I don’t want too many balls in the air, because one out of 10 is going to be a home run.
“Sometimes you just need to pitch,” he added. “I know you can look at [data] on FanGraphs and think ‘This is the way,’ but when I’m out there, I can’t be thinking, ‘OK, this is going to give me a much better chance of getting this guy out.’ No matter what the count is, or who is hitting, or what the ballpark is, I just want a ground ball. I have to keep it simple.”
Therein exists the paradox for a saber-savvy pitcher. Data can be extremely helpful — especially for a pitcher who lacks over-powering stuff — but you also can’t allow it to get in the way of what makes you successful. It ultimately comes down to execution, and the value of the data behind that execution is in the eye of the beholder.
“Most guys don’t want to hear about it,” said Chen, who admits he might someday want to work in a team’s front office. “We have so much stuff going on that it’s the last thing they want. Guys just want to go out there and make their pitches. At least that’s what they’ll tell you. But in reality, we all watch video and want to know a hitter’s tendencies. Some of us just look deeper into it than others.”