Chris Flexen Is A Guy The Mariners Might Be Counting On (and Some Thoughts On The Six-Man Rotation)

The six-man rotation for the 2020 season felt like a great way to give our guys some semblance of experience this year, while at the same time protecting them during a wonky situation where we had a long break, then the ramp-up to Spring Training, then another long break, then a quick ramp-up, followed by a 60-game season. Pitching baseballs for a living under normal circumstances is quite taxing, but this had the potential for real leaguewide disaster!

The six-man rotation also offered the Mariners an opportunity to get a good sample size from numerous starters. Going in, we had two guys who were deserving locks to crack the rotation (Marco Gonzales and Yusei Kikuchi), two guys who were coming off of devastating injuries and multiple years away from the game (Taijuan Walker and Kendall Graveman), and two rookies who had never (to my knowledge) cracked an Opening Day starting rotation (Justus Sheffield and Justin Dunn). That’s four unproven guys, plus a number of minor leaguers (including Nick Margevicius and Ljay Newsome) who we would end up throwing in there when Walker was traded and Graveman went down with another injury (and ultimately landed in a bullpen role). As the M’s are in the middle of a full rebuild, it was necessary to get a good look at as many different guys as possible. Hence, the six-man rotation was born.

But, now we’re talking about carrying over the six-man rotation into 2021, when things are (hopefully) returning back to normal. Part of that has to do with protecting the guys (we don’t know how their arms will respond, going from pitching so few innings in a year, to a full 162-game season), part of that has to do with the Mariners still being smack-dab in the middle of a full rebuild (though ideally closer to being contenders than having to scrap it all and start over), but an interesting wrinkle is that part of the decision might reside in this is just where the game of baseball is headed. The Mariners MIGHT be on the ground floor of revolutionizing the sport in a major way. That’s kind of exciting!

The thing is, it’s going to be difficult to quantify whether or not this is an effective way to run a pitching staff. We likely won’t know until we’ve had multiple seasons of data on injuries and effectiveness; it would also be helpful if other teams joined in on our quest to normalize the six-man rotation, to give us all even more data on the matter (but, that also might take away our competitive advantage, if indeed this will be the new normal). The thing is, professional sports are inherently risk-averse. If the Mariners come out and shit the bed in 2021, they might be inclined to blame it on the six-man rotation (particularly if our starters struggle in spite of the extra rest they’re getting between starts), and then the concept will likely die.

I’m always in favor of trying new things in sports. It gets back to that competitive advantage notion. When you reach the highest levels of your sport, everyone has the same information. Every team has an analytics department. Teams have the smartest minds working as hard as possible, all in an effort to get the SLIGHTEST edge over their opponents. To the point where it feels more like luck than anything else when a team has sustained success.

It’s jarring when a pro team does anything remarkably outside of the ordinary. Teams in recent years have dabbled with the “Opener” – a relief pitcher starting a baseball game, pitching one or two innings (to get out the opposing team’s very best batters) before the actual starter comes in and goes the next 5-7 innings while hopefully seeing the top of the order fewer times in that particular game (because the stats say the more times a batter gets to go up against the same pitcher in a game, the more success they’ll have as the game goes along). There have been decidedly mixed results on how the Opener has worked out, but I think consensus is trending toward the direction that it’s a flop. Too many of these relief pitchers starting games are getting pounded and putting their teams in big holes (which leads me to wonder, with the top of the order properly warmed up against a fireballer like that, are they having more success against the softer-tossing starting pitchers who follow them out there?). But, hey, you can’t gain a competitive advantage without breaking some eggs!

The last really successful organization that found an edge against the rest of the league was the Oakland A’s around the turn of the century. They were the first team to really adopt the concepts of Bill James and other prominent analytical baseball minds to their advantage. They were a roaring success, though weren’t quite able to translate that into World Series titles (all they did was infuriatingly make it so the Mariners were denied two more opportunities to make the postseason, in 2002 and 2003, the last two truly great M’s teams).

It’s hard for me to say that a six-man rotation will be on par with what the A’s were doing, but I do believe it has significantly more value than the Opener.

For starters (!), the Mariners really don’t have an elite rotation. Marco Gonzales continues to shatter my expectations, but I also wouldn’t put him on par with the best of the best ace starters in the game today. Justus Sheffield and Justin Dunn also impressed me a lot in their rookie campaigns, but they too have clear ceilings that aren’t at that ace level. Yusei Kikuchi has been a disappointment through two years, but it’s still too early to give up on him as he transitions from Japan to America. Margevicius and Newsome are not likely to be long-term rotation guys, as we have younger pitchers we will be looking to promote either in 2021 or 2022 at the latest. Graveman, as I mentioned, is now a bullpen guy going forward, due to his chronic neck issue that he apparently refuses to have surgery on, yet doesn’t prevent him from throwing really hard for an inning or two every other day. Taijuan Walker could always be re-signed if the price is right, but for now the Mariners have gone in another direction.

I had never heard of Chris Flexen before word came down that the Mariners signed him to a 2-year, $7 million deal. This obviously has the feel of another one of those buy-low Jerry Dipoto deals where he’s trying to squeeze out significant value from a candidate to have a bounce-back in his career. Except, in this case, Flexen was NEVER good … until he went over to the Korea Baseball Organization for the 2020 season. He had a lot of success over there in his 21 games started. Strikeouts were up, walks were down, it was everything you could ask for. With the caveat that the level of competition is obviously not where it is in the Major Leagues. It sounds like he was able to take advantage of their aggressive style of play in getting hitters to swing at his stuff outside of the strike zone. So, it’s hard to say if his stuff will translate back to the U.S.

The upside is: there is precedent for someone to go to the KBO and come back and pitch well. Also, the money is quite nice. $7 million over two years is nothing in MLB terms (even in the wake of a pandemic-related financial collapse). If he turns into a useful starter, then he’s an absolute bargain! And, if he stinks, then hey, no sweat off our noses.

Probably best not to expect too much out of Flexen, but feel free to leave yourself open to believing that he might keep the good times rolling. My hunch is he’ll look good out of the gate, then the league will start to adjust to what he’s doing out there, and then we’ll know if he’s worth a damn or not. If he can adjust to how the batters adjust to him, then we might have something. But, if he can’t figure it out, then it was a nice idea that just didn’t pan out (but maybe he can still be a useful bullpen guy for a while).

I think we were all hoping for a little more out of free agency when it came to bolstering the rotation, but if this is indeed truly it, then I think I’ll be slightly disappointed. Yes, the Mariners have a lot of highly-rated prospects working their way through the minor leagues in the next two years, but not ALL of them are going to pan out, for one reason or another. Remember “The Big Four” of Danny Hultzen, Taijuan Walker, James Paxton, and Brandon Maurer? Hultzen never pitched in the Majors with the Mariners due to injuries, Walker had middling success until he was traded away, and Maurer eventually had to convert to a bullpen role and hasn’t pitched since 2018. Paxton was the only guy who panned out, and he still had his share of injuries throughout his career, ultimately getting traded to the Yankees for Sheffield when we started our rebuild.

Nothing is a given, is my point. And, if we’re truly going to go forward with this six-man rotation, it seems like there should be plenty of room for a guy like Flexen, as well as a free agent with more substance. We’ll see if the Mariners think the same way as I do or not.

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