The Diamondbacks are rich in pitching, that much is well-documented. However, oftentimes hidden behind the Big Three of Trevor Bauer, Tyler Skaggs, and Archie Bradley, is an interesting prospect in his own right: Andrew Chafin.
I will be looking at Chafin next in our series of Future Expectations. A few starts ago, Chafin was actually being broadcasted on MiLB.tv. Unfortunately, I missed his start, and for some reason, MiLB.tv did not archive the start for me to view later. So I'll be sticking heavily to the statistical side of the evaluation this time, and will not be able to provide a more in-depth single-outing post like I was able to do for Trevor Bauer last time.
Chafin was drafted last year as a sandwich round pick, and was a relatively under-the-radar Dbacks pitching prospect. Baseball America did not have him among the Dbacks Top 10, and neither did Keith Law of ESPN. Only John Sickels had him ranked in our Top 10, as our fourth best prospect behind the Big Three, saying that Chafin has the upside of a number two starter, and the floor of a power reliever. Fortunately for us, Sickels is probably at his best when he's evaluating pitchers.
The scouting report on Chafin shows a 90-95 mph fastball from the left side, that is complimented by a plus slider. The slider is Chafin's best weapon, and he knows it. I've listened to a couple of Chafin starts through the Visalia radio broadcast, and on almost every single 0-2 or 1-2 count, Chafin would throw his slider. With great results, as it sounded like he was getting very awkward swings on the slider. The key for Chafin though is how much the changeup develops this year. If Chafin can develop an average to above-average changeup, then barring any injuries, he will have a strong chance to turn into a solid starter at the MLB level.
2012 Season and Comparables
Chafin has had a strong start to his pro debut in the hitter-friendly California League. He's probably had some command issues, which has led to a slightly higher than expected ERA at 3.78. But the key stat (for me anyway) to look at for any pitcher in the minors is the strikeout rate, and Chafin has struck out an astounding 30.8% of the batters he's faced. That's good for 2nd overall in the California League, behind Reds prospect Tony Cingrani, and right in front of fellow Diamondbacks prospect, David Holmberg.
The problem with just looking at the strikeout rate though, is that Chafin is a polished, college lefty, pitching against less sophisticated hitters at A+. He's supposed to dominate, so the fact that Chafin is dominating, doesn't actually tell us much. So what can we expect, and how will we know whether Chafin is the real deal?
Once again, I surveyed Fangraphs's archive of prospects through 2006, to pull up a list of reasonably comparable pitchers. I searched for pitching prospects in the California League that had posted a strikeout rate between 28-32% with a minimum IP of 70. However, I only used prospects that were used as starters at the time, because it is much easier to rack up strikeouts in short stints as a reliever in the minors. I had to increase the age range to 21-23 (Chafin is a 22 year old) because if I only searched for 22 year olds, the list would amount to just Jose Arredondo and James McDonald.
Here is the list of comparables with their ages at the time in parenthesis:
2006 - Jose Arredondo (22)
2007 - James McDonald (22)
2008 - Henry Rodriguez (21)
2010 - None Available
2011 - Edwar Cabrera (23), AJ Griffin (23), Johnny Hellweg (22)
First things first. This is not an awe-inspiring list. But let's see what we can gather from these comparables. I'm not going to really discuss the three pitchers from 2011, because it is way too early to get a read on their future. I will say though, that none of these three pitchers (Cabrera, Griffin, Hellweg) are extremely well-regarded, and none of these guys have ever made BA's Top 100 prospect list.
Jose Arredondo - Immediately after his 2006 season, the Angels converted him into a reliever, and he's been effective in that role, compiling a 3.22 ERA/3.77 FIP so far as a reliever for the Angels and Reds. That's been good for 1.7 WAR so far.
James McDonald - This is the guy we should probably hope Chafin can turn himself into. This has been his breakout year so far with the Pirates, but even looking at his overall career so far, it's been satisfactory. McDonald has basically been a mid-rotation starter so far in his career, with a ERA/FIP of 3.72/3.95, good for a little over 4 WAR so far. If Chafin turns into a starter like this, I think we'd all be pretty satisfied.
Henry Rodriguez - Rodriguez has battled control problems throughout his career, and the "Rodriguez starting" experiment ended after 2008. He's been useful as a reliever, though the control problems have not gone away as he has continued to walk an exorbitantly high percentage of his batters faced. His career ERA/FIP has been 4.03/3.48 so far.
Ben Hornbeck - Hornbeck was a reliever turned starter. However, in the course of building up innings, it looks like injury derailed his career in 2011.
Christian Friedrich - Friedrich was a highly touted prospect for the Rockies, and after the 2009 season, everything looked bright for him. Then for some reason, either his stuff or his command just completely disappeared, and he was crushed in 2010 and 2011. Friedrich has somewhat made a comeback though, and has recently joined Rockies's beleaguered rotation. The jury is still out on him, though I'm not particularly optimistic.
Bruce Billings - Billings has been shuttled back and forth between a relief and starting role in the minors, and while he broke into the majors for a short time in 2011, he was quickly sent back down.
The outcomes, as with any pitcher, vary greatly. There is always the possibility that an injury will occur, and Chafin will never break the majors. However, barring injury, Chafin's floor is probably a left-handed version of a reliever like Arredondo.
Can Chafin become a similar pitcher like McDonald at the major league level? Maybe. From a scouting standpoint, Chafin will need to refine his changeup. From a statistical indicator standpoint, the key will be what happens when we promote Chafin to AA. Out of all of the pitchers mentioned above, everyone saw dramatic drops in their strikeout rate when moving up to AA. Except McDonald. He was able to maintain his strikeout rate during that in-season promotion. In fact, Arredondo's inability to maintain that strikeout rate was probably one of the reasons why the Angels converted him into a reliever the following year.
My guess is that Chafin will be promoted to AA soon (3 or 4 more starts in A+) which would allow him to get around 8-10 starts in AA this year. If Chafin can maintain a strikeout rate of around 30% even while he's at AA, that's the first real sign we'll be getting that Chafin will be able to be a mid-rotation starter at the major league level. Otherwise, we can't be sure that Chafin's current strikeout rate is anything more than the mirage of a polished college starter dominating raw hitters.