Sunday, August 12, 2007

That Boy Is Out Of Control

Friday night's 5-inning, six-walk performance marked the sixth straight sub-par outing by Matt Chico. He has now started 24 games in his major-league career. 12 have been excellent. The other 12 have been mediocre to poor. Conveniently, those 12 bad outings bookend those 12 good ones. He didn't have it, he found it, then he lost it again.

Chico started the year very poorly. Through his first six starts he had a ghastly 6.59 ERA, making it out of the fifth inning just twice. Opposing batters clubbed him around like he was Dmitri's mistress, hitting .322/ .417/ .530. It was an ugly formula. He got behind everyone, leading to either a walk or an extra-base hit when he finally threw his get-me-over fastball. With the way he was throwing, there was no way he was going to be able to stick. He was killing the bullpen and burying the Nats early.

Then something clicked.

Those next 12 starts were terrific. Be it mechanical or mental, he started throwing strikes, getting in control of the count, and good things happened. He put up a 3.52 ERA and saw this mythical thing called the seventh inning four times. In only two of those starts did he allow more than three runs. He wasn't perfect, but he was solid, a dependable 3/4 starter.

Then something unclicked.

The old Chico came back. Ball 1, Ball 2, swung on and belted! Last 6 starts, 6.59 ERA. Here comes the chart.
           IP/G  BB/9  K/9  Strk% 

Beginning 5.2 5.9 6.3 .607
Middle 5.8 2.5 4.5 .645
End 4.6 6.6 5.6 .555


Opponents slugged .407 off him in the middle period, .555 in the end.

As he's thrown more balls, he's given up more hits, walked more batters and, what's worst for the team, been unable to get them very far into games. He buries them early, leaving plenty of mopup duty for Chris Schroeder or whoever the hell it is we've got at the back of our pen now.

So why the struggles? What is he not doing now that he was doing 6 starts ago? Was it a mechanical fix, or is this something that's in his head?

Could it be fatigue? 128 innings isn't a lot, even for a kid. He's thrown 150 or so in the minors in each of the last two years, but the California League ain't the NL. I'm not worried about injury with him, just that the potential for fatigue -- he's been the lone starter to talk the ball every five days -- could be affecting the consistency of his delivery.

Or it could be that those 12 middle starts were a fluke. I remind you of the strange case of Ramon Ortiz. (I know, I know... you had worked hard to repress that memory).

Ortiz, you'll recall, was absolutely terrible. But hidden in a bookend of crappy starts was a quiet period where he was an effective major-league starter. He had a stretch of 15 starts in the middle of the season with a sub-4 ERA. So even bad starters can do good work from time to time.

So the question is, what is Matt Chico? Fatigued kid? Overmatched kid? Crappy starter?

If I had to bet, I'd say A, but who knows.

One distressing aspect of it is that the team is starting to slap him around a bit in the press. Nats.com says that the organization is "stunned" by his lack of command. WaPo says that he's in a "precarious position." The latter's clearly a valid assessment given his performance, but the use of the word "stunned", well, stuns me.

This year is about building for the future and sifting through the bargain bin to find any hidden masterpieces. Chico might be closer to a velvet Elvis than a Renoir, but if that's all you can afford, you might as well put it up on the walls of your trailer.

Ripping the poor brushwork of the design does no good after you've hung it. You knew what you were getting into when you bought it. I suppose you could hide it in a different room, or sell it to some other poor sap in Columbus. But for now it's your painting. Although that velvet John Lennon/Yoko Ono is starting to look pretty sharp... hmmm...

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