Two Former MLB Pitchers Face-Off in the KBO
Chris Flexen and Dan Straily, very different pitchers, have remarkably similar results
While negotiations between the MLB Player’s Union and the owners of the big-league clubs drag on, the Korean Baseball Organization has begun its season, with a game per day broadcasted on ESPN, helping to fill our need for baseball.
Last night the Lotte Giants beat the Doosan Bears by a score of 8–3 with former major league pitchers Dan Straily and Chris Flexen throwing 5 innings apiece. When the two exited the game, the score was 2–1 in favor of the Giants, but the two had remarkably similar outings, throwing 99 and 100 pitches, each allowing 8 base runners. Of course, and what I’m interested in, they accomplished these similar results with different approaches and pitch arsenals.
Right off the bat, throwing strikes and control was the biggest differentiator between Flexen and Straily. Flexen only managed to throw 57% of his pitches in the zone, while Straily was closer to 65% and threw a first-pitch strike to 70% of the batters that he faced, leading to his 5 strikeouts, as opposed to Flexen’s 52% first-pitch strike rate and 2 strikeouts.
However, Flexen induced 9 whiffs on 24% of his swings, while Straily only managed 7 on 14% of his swings. That % difference is due to Flexen’s better stuff and why I think a return to MLB is more likely for Flexen than it is for Straily.
In 2019, Flexen threw 13.2 IP for the New York Mets, compiling a 5.56 FIP off of a K/9 of 6.59 and BB/9 of 8.56. With the Bears this season, Flexen has a 3.99 FIP with a K/9 of 8.13 and BB/9 of 3.77, all of which are improvements over his MLB totals (which is to be expected). By themselves, those don’t scream major league pitcher, but I think there’s a lot of room for improvement given his pitch characteristics. Especially if Flexen transitioned to the bullpen.
Chris Flexen is a pretty unique pitcher in the KBO, with a fastball velocity that touches 95, primarily hovering around 93 mph. Given that he was consistently 93 throughout the whole game, it’s reasonable that Flexen might be able to summon 95–96 regularly if he was throwing fewer innings at a time. When he was a Met, Flexen’s average fastball velocity of 94 mph put him in the 71st percentile, but his average spin rate of 2144 rpm was down in the 23rd percentile, indicating that he throws hard and straight.
Against the Giants, his slider, averaging 86 mph, and changeup, averaging 83 mph, were the pitches he used to primarily back up his fastball. Except the slider just didn’t really do a whole lot for him, against the Giants or the last time he pitched in the majors. According to StatCast, in 2019, the horizontal and vertical break of Flexen’s slider were both below average, resulting in a straight slider that hitters destroyed to the tune of 0.495 wOBA and 0.394 xwOBA.
His changeup, on the other hand, is primarily used against lefties and is fairly effective, inducing a lot of groundballs for Flexen (in 2019, StatCast had his changeup at 1267 rpm, the 9th lowest rpm on changeups in MLB for the 2019 season. An interesting tidbit). The changeup is more of a situational pitch which is good because it’s effective against left-handed hitters.
But it’s his curveball that caught my eye, particularly how much vertical drop he gets on it. In 2019, Flexen’s curve spun at an average of 2766 rpm, in the 84th percentile. That led to an average of 60 inches of drop, more than the MLB average of 54 inches. I think pairing his curveball and fastball together, throwing the heater up in the zone, would be a potent combination.
Except, against the Giants, Flexen missed up in the zone with his curveball quite a bit, making it really easy to discern what pitch was coming given the distinctive shape of Flexen’s 12-to-6 curve. I think that the reason for his inconsistency, both with his curveball and his ability to throw strikes in general is hampered by an erratic release point.
Flexen is tall, standing 6’3”, and releases the ball fairly straight up, resulting in a lot of the velocity that helps him. StatCast has his 2019 release point at 6’5”, but he’s all over the place depending on what pitch he’s throwing. Looking at all of his release points, that a gap of 3 inches between where he’s releasing his changeup and slider. It’s hard to have a lot of consistency or to throw strikes when all your throwing motions aren’t in sync.
To me, that’s what Flexen’s struggles boil down to. His “stuff” is good; he gets good velocity and spin, giving him a combination of interesting pitches, but he struggles to locate them consistently. Fixing his erratic release point is a step that would go a long way to helping out Flexen’s BB/9 woes.
From the pitch point of view, Straily is drastically different from Flexen and I think he’s probably past his prime MLB days. Straily spent about 8 years bouncing around the majors, posting a career ERA of 4.56 and a FIP of 5.05. He’s also struggled with walks this season, posting a BB/9 of 4.05, but also has a K/9 of 9.99 this season for the Giants, one of the better marks in the KBO.
He doesn’t throw as hard as Flexen does, averaging 90 mph on his fastball, occasionally touching 92, and he relies on his changeup and slider a lot more. He also eschews his curveball, despite a spin rate in the 80th percentile according to StatCast.
Straily’s slider, changeup, and fastball work fairly well together due to their similarities. His fastball is pretty average, with just a smidge more arm-side run than the MLB average in 2019. Straily’s slider has been his best wipeout pitch, coming in around 85 mph with average movement; however, since his debut in 2012, in the majors, Straily’s slider has had a Whiff % of 30+% every season except for 2019 when his slider usage dropped from 32.9% in 2018 to 20% in 2019. Maybe something behind the scenes was going on in 2019, but his slider has been a reliable wipeout pitch for Straily, with 3 of his swinging strikes coming on it against the Bears.
His changeup works like a slider in reverse, breaking in towards righties and away from lefties. With a lefty-heavy lineup like the one that the Bears presented, Straily threw his changeup quite a bit, making the most of that arm side run diving away from hitters, with his other 4 swinging strikes coming from the changeup. All three of Straily’s primary pitches have similar release points and similar movement patterns, making them an effective trio.
Straily pitched and has pitched better than Flexen this season in the KBO, but I believe that Flexen has the ability to be a good reliever for an MLB squad if he cleans up some of his control issues.