Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Bruce Chen: The Redundant Royal

This offseason, I feel like I’ve been very fair in regards to Dayton Moore’s moves. I’ve praised him for acquiring players who fill holes in the roster, even if the players weren’t stars. I have disagreed with a move here and there, but overall, I think my reactions have been quite kind. I’ve made it clear that I thought the team still needed an impact starting pitcher, and while I thought the Royals were going to just stick with the guys they have, in my heart of hearts, I felt Moore might still have a good, surprise move up his sleeve.

As it turns out, that surprise move shouldn’t have been all that surprising. And it wasn’t good, either.

Yesterday, reports stated that the Royals and Bruce Chen had agreed to a 1 year, $3 million contract with a $5.5 million mutual option and a $1.25 million buyout. Apparently Moore just couldn’t stand to let Chen walk away, so he had to sign the crafty lefty to a free agent contract for the fifth time. Yes. Fifth.

I should preface everything you’re about to read by saying that in isolation, I really don’t mind the deal at all. Getting a 5th starter/long reliever for $3 million is a decent bargain, and I do like Chen. He’s an easy guy to root for, he’s coming off a very good season, and while he does come with a significant risk for regression (more on that later), he should provide production that is close to average when he’s on the mound. In a vacuum, it’s hard to say this was a bad deal.

However, baseball isn’t played in a vacuum (which is a good thing because the players wouldn’t have any air to breathe and they would all die).

We have to evaluate a move like this in context, taking the current roster and previous moves into account. And while I would like this move for quite a few teams around the league, the Royals are not one of those teams. Based upon what Moore has done this winter, and what is already on the roster, Chen simply doesn’t fit. I don’t mean he’s like a square peg being jammed in a round hole. I mean he’s like a square peg being jammed in a square hole that already contains several square pegs. He’s redundant.

Let’s take a look at what role Chen may be expected to fill. First, he could be a starter at the back of the rotation. We’ll assume that Chen beats out Yordano Ventura, Wade Davis, Luke Hochevar, and Brad Penny for the final rotation spot. For simplicity’s sake, let’s say Danny Duffy is already locked into the 4th spot. The rotation would then be comprised of three pitchers who rely on the defense for nearly all of their success. Jason Vargas, Jeremy Guthrie, and Chen all allow a ton of batted balls in play, meaning that the only way they can put up respectable results is if the defense is terrific. Don’t get me wrong; the Royals have an excellent defense. But relying on them to bail out their pitcher so frequently can be a very risky strategy. The other potential result of having Chen as a starter would be Ventura getting pushed back to Omaha. It is possible the young flamethrower could use a bit more seasoning on his changeup, but removing his upside from the rotation in favor of a pitcher with zero upside lowers the team’s ceiling considerably. Ventura could struggle in 2014, but if he performs as expected, he’s a Rookie of the Year candidate. Chen could succeed in 2014, but his best performance is going to result in maybe 2 WAR. Maybe. And as I’ll get to in a moment, Chen’s success is far from a guarantee.

So let’s say that the Royals put Chen in the bullpen instead, and give the 5th starter spot to Ventura. They now have a pitcher with no upside taking a roster spot away from a younger, less expensive pitcher with a higher ceiling. The Royals have an abundance of electric relief arms. They have a bullpen in Omaha that could probably perform as well as some major league bullpens. What can Chen provide that a guy like Donnie Joseph can’t? Or Louis Coleman? Or even Francisley Bueno? There aren’t enough innings for the good relievers to pitch, so why would the team want to add a mediocre one? It doesn’t make sense.

There isn’t anything Chen is going to do for $3 million that basically any other pitcher couldn’t do for $500K. And that’s if Chen performs well, which is no certainty.

I’ll admit that Chen had very good results in 2013, but let’s not forget that just one year earlier, he had an ERA over 5.00 in 191.2 innings. Also, I would argue that a good bit of luck was involved with his successful 2013 campaign. Chen’s always been a fly ball pitcher, but he took it to another level last year, allowing a fly ball rate of 51.9%. And while he did allow 13 home runs, his HR/FB rate was a meager 6.7%, the lowest of his career, and nearly 5 percentage points lower than his career average. As Dave Cameron points out, home run rates can wildly fluctuate over time, and they have a profound impact on a pitcher’s overall success. Chen has been able to cut down on his home run rate in recent years, and while part of that is due to Kauffman Stadium, it doesn’t tell the whole story. The funny thing about home run rates is that they can be unpredictable, which means Chen could allow similar home run numbers in 2014, or he could turn back into a pumpkin, a la 2012. When a pitcher’s results depend on something that is somewhat out of his control and can be unpredictable, it makes relying on that pitcher a gamble. Home runs aren’t the only potential area of regression, however.

In his career, Chen has allowed a BABIP of .280 and he has a strand rate of 73.6%. The BABIP may seem a little low, but for a fly ball pitcher, it’s not that extreme. Plus, his LOB% is right around league average, as one would expect. But last season, opposing batters had a .255 BABIP, and he had a strand rate of 78.3%. I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised to see both numbers normalize next season, which would lead to worse results for Chen. If you think you would be surprised by a poor season, you’re lying to yourself. Chen is a 36 year old pitcher with an 86 MPH fastball and roughly average control. His margin for error is incredibly small, and as I said before, even if he pitches his absolute best, he’s still just an average pitcher.

There is obviously value in “just average” pitchers, but the Royals have enough “just average” pitchers. They don’t need another one, and they definitely don’t need another one taking a roster spot away from a pitcher with more upside. Pitchers of Chen’s caliber can be had on minor league deals at any time during the winter. Giving Chen a guaranteed roster spot and $4.25 million (including the option buyout) is, quite frankly, absurd.

Mandatory Credit: Jennifer Hilderbrand-USA TODAY Sports

Speaking of the money, I mentioned that this deal isn’t terribly costly by itself. But, when looked at in context of the rest of the roster, it becomes an even bigger problem. This season, the Royals will be paying Chen, Davis, and Hochevar about $13 million. All three pitchers could be replaced by younger guys at league minimum salary. It’s not that I’m worried about David Glass’ money, but it’s the opportunity cost of having those three guys that really bothers me. That money (and Emilio Bonifacio’s $3.5 million, if you want to include it) could be used to pay better players with higher ceilings. That $16.5 million could come close to what it will take to sign A.J. Burnett. Or, that $16.5 million could go toward bringing Ervin Santana back to Kansas City. Instead, Moore will be paying that money to three middle relievers and a utility player.

For a team that is supposedly on a tight budget, that is a terrible use of resources.

The Royals just handed a contract to a player who not only does not improve the club, but one who also lowers the team’s ceiling this season. If he’s starting, he’s taking starts away from a better pitcher with more upside. If he’s relieving, he’s taking a roster spot from a better pitcher with more upside. This signing was unnecessary and did not fill the biggest void on the roster. Moore had a refrigerator that was making a weird noise, and he just stuck another magnet on it. It accomplishes nothing.

Once again, the move, in itself, is defensible. It’s the move taken in context of the entire situation that is the problem. The Royals are no closer to the Tigers than they were yesterday. They just have another square peg.

TL;DR version of my thoughts on the Chen signing here.

And for an opposing viewpoint of the deal, read David Hill’s post on the topic here.

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  • Chad Woelk

    Very well written article. Its frustrating to know that Santana will def not be coming back to the Royals when we could of traded Davis, and never signed Vargas or Chen. To upgrade the offense and then not bring in a good number two pitcher is beyond me. But then again, we are talking about Dayton Moore. SMH

  • Brian Henry

    Couldn’t agree more Hunter, as soon as they signed Vargas they should have left Chen to free agency.

  • unclejesse40

    Let me play devils advocate for a sec. I like Chen but I agree that he doesn’t bring anything to the table that someone else doesn’t already bring. But, he’s a good team player that will do whatever the team needs him to do. The average fan likes him and likes to cheer for him, that has bottom dollar value. But that is not the point that I want to make, I wonder what we would feel about the redundant value of Chen, if this is the signing that allows GMDM to trade off those pieces that Chen mirrors. So Chen is a 5th starter, well so are Hoch and Davis. Chen is a long reliever, well so are Hoch and Davis. Maybe, just maybe, this Chen signing means that GMDM is hedging his bets for one last big move to bring in another solid #2 starter.

  • jimfetterolf

    All the usual. From my POV, Santana likely told the Royals they would have to pay stupid money, something like a 4/60, to get him back. That’s a no-deal. Burnette isn’t coming to KC, he wants to stay on the east coast. Ubaldo had eight great starts against weak teams at the end of last year. Arroyo put up less fW than Chen last year.

    As for dumping players to free money to buy players likely to regress and needing multi-year contracts, the players you want to dump, like many other writers, fill four slots. The players you want to buy fill one every five days. Hoch and Davis together, for instance, nearly matched Santana’s fW last year at a lower price and greater flexibility. Bonifacio and Chen together nearly matched Santana’s fW last year, much cheaper. Baseball is a team game and the four players mentioned have versatility, the three pitchers all start or relieve, the UIF can also play center field, important as we’ll also lose either Dyson or Maxwell and Cain is brittle and we lack CF depth at Omaha.

    As for Ventura, Chen isn’t blocking him, service time and the need to polish secondary pitches is. If Ventura dominates at Omaha he’ll be up in June. If Chen is the 5th at that time, he can go to the bullpen. If the Royals run out of room Chen is cheap enough to be DFA’ed. He’s not a problem.

    As for league minimum pitchers throwing 96-98 with four pitches and starter’s endurance, yeah, those certainly grow on trees. They call them 1st round draft choices.

    We all would have preferred Santana back while hoping he could come close to 3.0fW for three or four years, but doesn’t look like that was going to happen, so Dayton Moore moved on and now Chen will replace Getz as whipping boy for a niche in our media market.

    • unclejesse40

      Jim, I agree with everything you just said. But if Santana falls to 3/40 I would rather go with that. But I would also say I ain’t giving Hoch and Davis away merely for peanuts. They have serious value to a contending team in the pen and we should be able to get a solid low level prospect for each of them. Although I am very curious to see if Hoch can transition back to the rotation. I have also never gotten the hate that Bonifacio gets around Royals blogs. The dude plays everything and had a solid half year for KC. He struggled in Toronto, i get that but that team had serious problems last year. Bonifacio allows you to have a roster spot taken up by Valencia because Moose has a horrible split.

      • jimfetterolf

        Unc’, I’m sure Dayton Moore would sign Santana for 3/40 even now but I think he signed Chen because Santana’s people made it clear that they wouldn’t go that low. The Blue Jays are interested in Santana, they have a desperate need for a pitcher, and they have the money. Not sure that Santana would want to go to the Great White North, but Toronto puts upward pressure on the market and there are other teams that could use Ervin and be willing to pay more in time and money than he’s worth. Moore will be competitive but he won’t do a Meche/Guillen signing again because he has depth and doesn’t have to.

        As for Bonifacio, Getz and Frenchy are gone so the haters need someone to hate. Just the nature of sports markets. I like Boni’s speed and versatility and he’s a safety net for Moose, Cain, and even Escobar. He takes a walk, beats out grounders, steals a base and plays six position, basically a fast Irving Falu, so he’s worth the money to me. Moose’s bat and Cain’s legs are the two biggest worries I have this year and Emilio is some insurance for both.

    • Bert45

      Excellent take Jim!! My thought is we have asked our young position players to step up and become Men and for the most part they have. Will there be disappointments?? sure that’s baseball, after all “it’s a Negative game, coached by negative people, wanting positive results” John Buck. But now it’s time for 1 or 2 of the Duffy, Ventura, Zimmer crop to step up and become Men. I believe 1 of them will assume the role that Santana filled last year. The Chen deal is fine with this Royals fan because good teams have guys like Bruce Chen, in some role, that needs to be filled. Good teammate, does whatever he’s asked and with a smile I might add, and if “hitting is timing” and “pitching is upsetting timing”, then Bruce Chen is a true pitcher after all the 95+ fireballers in the pen…right? I for one would love to see the swings after Ventura has pitched 6-7 shutout innings and Bruce comes in at 85 with sink and cutting action, change ups and that big 11-5 curveball. Upsetting timing=Pitcher=Bruce Chen..glad hes back. This is supposed to be a pretty deep amateur draft (can anyone confirm that?) and I feel the Royals have done an excellent job of drafting lately. So they keep their 1st rounder @ 19, Santana comp pick (when he signs) and competitive balance pick all before the 2nd round. That has to be factored into the equation for not over spending on one of these big money, draft pick costing, Free Agents. Jim, your comments are always on the money. I’m not saying I love the Bruce Chen signing, it’s just what competitive teams have to do, depth and options. And that’s what Bruce Chen provides…depth and options. Keep up the good work and Go Royals!!

      • jimfetterolf

        Thanks, Bert. Not often i get positive feedback :)

    • Eric Akers

      I am thinking that this might be a situation where Bruce gets the number 5 role to start and Ventura replaces him at some point moving Chen to the pen (“Chen to the pen” has a certain ring to it). But like last year, the Royals didn’t think Chen would last the entire year which is part of the reason he started in the pen. I would like them to reverse that and have him finish the year in the pen, possibly by coming in after Ventura, similar to what Bert said. I like that idea.

      • jimfetterolf

        Two reasons for Ventura starting Omaha, service time and polishing secondary offerings. Major leaguers can hit straight, flat fastballs, even 102mph ones, which was lined to right for a single. He needs to work on his change, slow it down a little as it’s the same speed as Chen’s heater, and needs a fastball with movement, maybe a two-seamer. In the best of all possible worlds, Chen would stay in the ‘pen all year, but we’re going to have to see what the guys bring to spring. Chen has flexibility and he doesn’t have an ego, so is perfect for lefty swingman.

        • Eric Akers

          I am assuming Ventura will be on some kind of innings limit. What is the likelihood that Ventura could pitch in the post season and keep such a limit?

          • jimfetterolf

            Ventura hit an even 150 innings last year at three levels, so they’re probably thinking 180 or so, which should be plenty for post season unless he surprises everyone and starts the season and averages six innings. Given his size and velocity, I imagine they’ll keep him on a limit.

          • Dave Hill

            I’m with Jim on this. I expect he’ll hit 180 to 185 innings this year as well.

        • moretrouble

          You keep saying Ventura is going to Omaha as though that’s a sure thing. It isn’t. The front office will give Ventura an opportunity to win a starting job in ST.

          • jimfetterolf

            Service time, polish, and even the innings limit, as Omaha starts later. Start Ventura in Omaha and he’ll be available for the playoffs. Being a potential ace, an extra year of control is also important, as we see with Hosmer’s Super Two. And the polish. It’s possible he starts the season in KC but the signing of Chen, among other things, suggests Dayton Moore isn’t betting on it. Management will certainly tell Ventura he has a shot, they want his head right, but I see no reason for him too.

          • moretrouble

            You may very well be correct about that, Jim. I think Ventura could benefit from another year in AAA. I do not believe the Super Two status has much to do with it, though — it’s how he pitches in ST. You make good points about inning caps, etc. Maybe, it’s just a hunch — but, I think they’ll give him a shot.

          • jimfetterolf

            He’ll have a shot and a fair shot. I’ld rather have Ventura, when he’s ready, in the rotation than Vargas, Chen, or Guthrie. I see him as a similar ceilinged talent to Duffy and as a future #1/ace level talent. I would just remind him that even though Justin Verlander can throw 101, he makes his living at 92-98.

      • Bert45

        You could even say the same about Chen coming out of the pen following one of Duffy’s 5 innings 100+ pitch efforts. The change in speeds and movement from Duffy to Chen would be difficult as well. Get us to Holland and its game over. It’s not that easy but that’s the idea.

        • Eric Akers

          That would work too. But with Ventura you get the change to a lefty. Maybe we should pair Wade Davis with Duffy.

    • Hunter Samuels

      I won’t get into some of the stuff you mentioned since we’ll end up arguing in circles, but a few of these strawmen are just silly. I never mentioned the “league minimum pitchers throwing 96-98 with four pitches.” I talked about 3 guys with fastballs that are right around 90 mph and are mostly 2 pitch guys, though Bueno mixes it up a bit more. Big difference.

      As for the combination of Hoch/Davis/Chen outperforming Santana, that’s a strange comparison, since the Royals get to use other players if they get rid of the first three. It’s not like they’re forced to play with a 22 man roster, and Moore has done a great job at building bullpen depth. Several guys could step in and provide that same value, at a fraction of the cost, which leaves that money to go to players who have a chance of making a bigger impact.

      In another comment below, you suggest Ventura’s fastball is straight and he needs something with movement. Ventura may need work on the changeup and his command, but literally everything he throws moves. His fourseamer has late arm-side run, and he has a sinker and cutter that both move at 96 mph. He doesn’t get much downward plane with his height, but his stuff has plenty of movement.

      • jimfetterolf

        Of course you didn’t mention the speeds of Hoch and Davis, whom you want to replace with league minimum pitchers, but at least we agree that you want a downgrade of available arms, a step back to save some money that won’t improve the team elsewhere as thsis isn’t fantasy where the FAs have no choice in the matter, which is why the Royals had to trade for their two top starters last year.

        As for “several guys”, there you go again. I was just making a straight comparison of fws and salaries. I’m sure we could claim that several starters making league minimum will match what Santana is predicted to do this year. We may have a couple of them already.

        As for Ventura’s fastball, I watched his 101.9 performance among seven pitches and the heaters were straight and poorly located. Word on him from those who watch him is he gets movement at 96 and, like most pitchers, straightens and flattens with max velocity. If Ventura had the stuff you suggest, he would be unhittable in the minors and dominant in the majors already.

        I’ll stand by my post, polished as it is by seeing several others from your POV already, including from a number of commentators, which suggests a talk radio or major blog seed.

      • jimfetterolf

        Had an epiphany: You made the case for keeping Hochevar and Davis. Since neither is worth more than a league minimum pitcher, no other team will trade for them, so we’re stuck with the salaries anyway, so might as well use their league minimum skills rather than DFA them to replace with cheap arms.

  • jessanders

    It’s not even about what you just mentioned.

    If you take that 16.5 million, then add in Guthrie and Vargas, you’re suddenly at 32.5 million.

    Enough money to have TWO pitchers with fairly high upside (Santana, Jimenez or Burnett, potentially…) and fill the rest of the slots with Ciriaco or Colon and BP arms from Omaha.

    Between Chen, Vargas, Guthrie, Hoch, Davis and Bonifacio, the Royals are spending over 1/3 of their payroll. That’s two starters who are the definition of average, one swing man, two long relievers and a utility player, making 1/3 of the Royals payroll this year.

    That’s the problem. That’s the non-vacuum you’re looking at.

    Even if we couldn’t get any of the pitchers I listed above (and I find it ridiculously hard to believe we couldn’t get at least ONE of them), you cut any two or three of those players from the deal ,and there is a plethora of options, including putting together trades, or signing FA players to trade for starting pitching.

    The Royals have 1/3 of their payroll made up by 2 starters and 4 role players who will put up average or below average numbers over the course of the season. THAT is the problem.

    Yes, this year is about one or two of Duffy, Ventura and (later) Zimmer stepping up. If they all wash out, it doesn’t matter if we had signed two quality starters to 3 year deals, we’re still not competing over the next few years. But as it stands now, I don’t see how we compete this year.

    A rotation of Shields, Vargas, Guthrie, Duffy and one of Chen, Davis, Hoch, Ventura, etc, is not going to contend unless the #5 listed is Ventura winning ROY (or being very, very close).

    To end the point, if the Royals don’t sign another impact pitcher, my prediction is 3rd (or maybe 4th) in the AL Central, <80 wins UNLESS Ventura puts up numbers that make him contend for Rookie of the Year. Even then, it'll be an uphill climb.

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  • DownUnderFan

    So Hunter, was the mistake made in signing Chen or signing Vargas?

    • Hunter Samuels

      I like Vargas a bit more, since he hasn’t had a recent season as bad as Chen in 2012. I don’t like the 4th year on the contract, and I don’t like that he’s the best SP acquisition this offseason, but I do think he’ll provide more value this season. Long story short, I’d say Chen to answer your question.

  • moretrouble

    You stated your objection to Chen very well, Hunter, and you do make some legitimate points. What I find odd is Yost saying today that Chen will take one rotation spot. I think that’s a mistake. Obviously, Yost likes him, but we’ll see if he still likes him once his innings begin to pile up.

    I liked the signing yesterday. Now, that I’ve heard Yost’s plan, I don’t like it as much, LOL.

    • jimfetterolf

      Mo’, you know Yost uses the media for his own purposes and not to give fans useful information. Chen is put forth as a tackling dummy for the rest of the candidates telling them that if you want the job you have to take it. Bruce is ego free and would understand this and not throw a hissy. The slots will be decided in ST, within the suggested parameters on Ventura, some of which are macro business issues.

      • moretrouble

        Well…Jim…I think Yost uses the media to say absolutely nothing. That’s not a criticism, by the way. Many a MLB manager has lost his job in the interview room, LOL. And, you may well be correct that Chen goes into ST as a starter and comes out as a swingman. I certainly hope that’s the case. But, Chen was quoted as saying the reason he signed was because he was promised a rotation spot.

        I’m a season ticket holder and I saw Chen pitch multiple times last season — and I thought he looked great, precisely because they used him properly. They kept his innings down.

        I’m fine with the front office using Davis or Hoch in the rotation; I’m fine with using Duffy and Ventura there, too. But, if Dayton and Yost think they’re gonna win with Vargas, Chen and Guthrie following Shields…well, that’s just not going to happen.

        I know you believe they’ll stiff Ventura for Super Two reasons. I’m a bit biased, Jim, in favor of hard throwers. I like Ventura and hope they put him in there. I like Duffy, too. What I don’t like is standing in the concession line for chicken tenders and come back to find KC down 7-2 in the early innings and Yost standing on the mound making a pitching change, LOL.

        And, I don’t think the players like that, either. Somebody over at Kauffman had better figure out what they’re doing because it’s going to be a long season eating chicken tenders and leaving early, LOL. The chicken tenders are not THAT good.

        • jimfetterolf

          I like hard throwers also, and am a big believer in Ventura and have been for a couple of years, which is one reason I game his service time, I want him around and affordable as long as possible, just as with Duffy and Zimmer.

          As for the rotation, I like Guthrie and Vargas at #3-4, for match ups. A #2 and #5 starter seem to face the opposing #1 starter fairly often, so if I had to pick the order today I’ld have Duffy at #2, Hochevar at #5. Then when Ventura forces his way up in June I’ld trade Guthrie.

          We’ll just have to see, but I give little weight to anything Dayton Moore and Ned Yost tell the media as they use the media to, I guess, create some sort of virtual world for players and other managements to deal with. In this world, the Royals are done and happy and not eager to trade, while old Master Chen is enthroned in the rotation and any challenger to him will have to bring their best to spring training and defeat him. Pitchers want to start, but like most people tend to respond to a challenge. Moore has built his world so that Hochevar, Davis, Ventura, and Zimmer, and others, show up ready and with their heads ready for the battle. They’re ballplayers, they know what they have to do to win the job now or later. Should be an interesting spring.

          As for KC down 7-2 early, we hope Hochevar’s ’13 showed that he fixed his problems from the stretch, that Davis keeps within himself and doesn’t open up so he doesn’t know where his fastball is going, and that Ned Yost will have enough long arms available that he won’t make a starter wear a bad start as a learning experience and to save the bullpen, which he did last year with Davis and the year before with Hochevar, which also distorted their ERAs. Down 4-2 early we’ll be able to live with with the hopefully better offense this year and having Chen and Davis in the ‘pen to come in and throw three or four innings will keep it a ball game instead of a blow out.

          • moretrouble

            Well…in defense of a manager allowing a starter to get shelled out there, often it’s a matter of saving an overused pen while trying to give the starter enough pitches that he’s going to be good for his next start. I’ve done that plenty of times, judging that I didn’t have the horses available in the pen to win the game so I might as well give the starter his pitch count.

            My impression of Hochevar is that he just tried to throw too many different pitches and just got himself out of sync by rushing a bit.

            Regarding Davis, if it were only opening too soon — that issue alone — he would have figured it out before now.

            Don’t mean to be disagreeable, but I just think it’s a bit more complicated than that, LOL. I certainly am not privy to what Eiland is telling those guys in side sessions, but only am judging by what I see on the bump.

          • jimfetterolf

            I agree with saving the ‘pen, but think this year Yost can have a little shorter leash and feel like he needs one.

            As for Davis, he knows what the problem is and is working on the mental aspect of it, staying level and within himself.

            On Hochevar, not sure what adjustment he made from the stretch, but he did well from the stretch last year and got abused in years before. May just have been a matter of polishing off-speed stuff from the stretch instead of trying to throw a steady stream of fastballs. He looked comfortable and confident last year with runners on and that’s a breakthrough for him and one reason I can see him back in the rotation.