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When Chen's Music's Over

Jul 23, 2012; Anaheim, CA, USA; Kansas City Royals pitcher Bruce Chen (52) pitches against the Los Angeles Angels during the second inning at Angel Stadium of Anaheim. Mandatory Credit: Kelvin Kuo-US PRESSWIRE
Jul 23, 2012; Anaheim, CA, USA; Kansas City Royals pitcher Bruce Chen (52) pitches against the Los Angeles Angels during the second inning at Angel Stadium of Anaheim. Mandatory Credit: Kelvin Kuo-US PRESSWIRE

After holding the Cleveland Indians scoreless in the first inning, Bruce Chen was gift wrapped a six run inning in the bottom of the frame.

Tasked to hold that lead long enough for the bullpen to take over in the seventh (or eighth or ninth) inning, Chen couldn't seal the deal.

One run in the second and a third inning that saw four consecutive singles followed by a sac fly and Chen was in the clubhouse in time to watch Michael Phelps win another gold medal. It was another in a string of awful performances from the lefty. Since July 1, Chen has made seven starts, surrendered three runs or more in each of them and has lasted through six innings just one time. Not good.

The ugly numbers: Seven starts, 33 innings. an 8.31 ERA and a Royal team record of 2-5 in his starts.

Chen has been dreadful. Yet, taking 2012 as a whole, Chen is exactly the same pitcher as he was for the Royals in the previous two seasons.

Let's look at a few of Chen's rate stats from the last couple of years.

Year SO/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP LOB%
2010 6.3 3.7 1.1 .275 74.3%
2011 5.6 2.9 1.1 .278 75.1%
2012 6.8 2.1 1.5 .309 66.9%

Man, '12 is just kind of a strange year. Strikeouts are up and walks are down. That's obviously very good. Conversely, his home run rate has jumped. Then, moving on to rates where he doesn't have as much control, his batting average on balls in play is up and his strand rate is down.

Maybe we can blame some of that on the Royals defense. Even though it's strong on the left side, it's not so hot on the right. The Royals defense has been weak for some time, so perhaps this is just the bad glovework catching up with Chen. Except poor defense doesn't explain his elevated home run rate.

Let's look to see how his ERA has compared to some advanced metrics. The numbers for 2012 are before his disaster start on Thursday.

2010 4.17 4.58 4.74 4.79
2011 3.77 4.68 4.63 4.68
2012 5.49 5.13 4.22 4.50

This isn't a state secret - although it's possible the Royals don't know where to find this data. (Zing!) Chen spent the last two seasons pitching above his means. A deluxe apartment on the East Side. This year... The rent has come due. Take xFIP: We know he's allowing a higher BABIP and isn't pitching as well with runners on base. But the strikeouts and walks compensate for the home runs. So xFIP believes Chen is unlucky to the tune of almost a run per game. The polar opposite of last year. It's a little harsh he's swung so far to the other side, but really... The correction was bound to happen. Maybe if the Royals had a better defense behind him, his baseball card numbers would look at least a littler closer to the advanced metrics.

Defense aside, let's see if we can figure out why the correction is happening now. Is there something Chen can change in order to at least stabilize his numbers and actually keep his team in games? From Fangraphs, here is how Chen is getting batters to react to his pitches according to data collected by PITCH f/x:

Year O-Swing% Z-Swing% Swing% O-Contact% Z-Contact% Contact% Zone%
2010 26.4% 60.5% 44.9% 70.8% 89.1% 84.2% 54.3%
2011 27.6% 61.8% 45.7% 70.1% 90.6% 84.8% 52.8%
2012 32.4% 63.9% 48.8% 73.3% 89.3% 84.2% 54.2%

Chen is generating more swings this year than in the previous two seasons. Contact rate in the zone is close to the same as before, but the real bump is in contact outside of the zone. Pitchers with a high O-Contact rate tend to be the guys who aren't hard throwers and who rely on command... Mark Buehrle, Kyle Lohse and Barry Zito are three with O-Contact rates close to Chen. (I know Zito is a stretch when talking about command, but play along.)

So in Chen's case, you have a soft-tossing lefty who is generating more swings, so he's allowing more contact. And this season, more of that contact is falling into play. And there's a few more travelling over the fence. It just feels so... inevitable.

I don't know that there's anything Chen can do to reverse his fortunes. He's still varying his arm angle, which I have always thought aided his deception and kept hitters off balance. It's just the league has finally figured out how to approach plate appearances with him on the mound: Simply be aggressive and swing more. Trade the occasional strikeout for the potential for more contact and more base hits. We've been wondering when the smoke and mirror act for Bruce Chen was going to end. Amazingly, it worked on some level for a couple of years. Now, we're paying the piper and watching him unravel and float back to what we could consider to be his true talent level.

Hey, it's not like he's on a multi-year deal.