Over his first six seasons in the majors, Andrew Chafin had a 3.67 ERA with opponents hitting .234 against him. But in 2021, Chafin has a 1.59 ERA with opponents hitting just .155 against him. He ranks in 90th percentile or higher in expected batting average expected slugging, expected ERA and hard hit percentage, despite only being in the 37th percentile in velocity and 20th percentile in spin rate! He’s become one of the Cubs premier relievers this season.
So how has Chafin been so successful this year? Simply put, it’s been through his approach, pitch mix and consistent execution. Let’s dive into that a bit deeper to look at where Chafin’s success is coming from.
Chafin has used an improved, aggressive approach this year. He’s recorded a career high 67.2% first-pitch strike rate. He’s been able to attack hitters early, get ahead in the count and put them on the defensive.
Pitch Mix: Sinker
Chafin’s pitch arsenal includes a Sinker, 4-Seamer and Slider. He uses the sinker 46.6% of the time. He throws that pitch down and in to lefties and down and away to righties (image below). The sinker has been responsible for Chafin’s 53.5% ground ball percentage, his highest since 2017.
Pitch Mix: Four-Seam Fastball
Chafin uses his 4-Seam Fastball in the opposite way of his sinker. Down and in to righties and down and away to lefties (chart below). What makes his 4-seamer unique is that is has 2.2 inches more of horizontal break than an average four-seamer and 1.6 inches less vertical break than average. This means is fastball is a bit more cutting action to it. The velocity on his fastball (92.5 mph) is very similar to his sinker (92.7 mph), which can make these pitches appear somewhat similar, but the movement and location of these pitches can play to Chafin’s advantage as it keeps hitters guessing.
Pitch Mix: Slider
Finally, Chafin has his slider. What’s unique about his slider is that it has only 0.7 inches of horizontal break to it, which is a whole 5.1 inches less than an average slider. However, it does drop 42 inches vertically (2.7 inches above average). This means it is more curvy than most sliders, but because of the location he throws it, the slider initially looks similar to his fastball. He uses the slider to try to look like that four-seamer, but then it breaks down and out of the zone to get a chase (see similar pitch location below). He throws the fastball in the strike-zone 61% of the time, but the slider only 31% of the time. Opponent’s are hitting just .057 against his slider this year., partly because it is usually thrown out of the zone. The only home run he’s allowed this year was on a hanging slider to Manny Pina back on April 24th, but besides that one mistake, he’s done a great job of executing those sliders down and out of the zone.
Chafin’s execution of those pitches has been great this year. Only 4.7% of his pitches have been barrels this year (vs 7.4% in 2020 and 7.3% in 2019). His release points are almost identical on each pitch, which may be why it’s difficult for hitters to pick up and easy for him to repeat. Chafin’s been forcing soft contact and avoiding opponent’s barrels all year, despite not having great “stuff” (low velocity, low spin-rate). He’s created an approach that works for him and executed it to with such success and consistency that he’s gotten himself into those 90th percentiles and proven to be one of David Ross’ best options late in games.