As someone who wrote about Chris Flexen when he signed with the Mariners, I watched Saturday’s game against the Giants with bated breath. Flexen looked legitimately elite in the KBO — and he mostly passed the eye test during the spring — but he also had mixed results over his five spring training starts. That’s not to say that his subpar spring ERA matters, but what he looks like does! Saturday proved to be something of a litmus test for Flexen as it pertains to his role in MLB.
No need to editorialize: he passed the test! Not only did he look the part of a legitimate MLB starting pitcher, but he also earned his first win since 2017, and he flashed a few things during his start that I hadn’t been anticipating. We’ll get to that, but first, let’s look at the night on the whole.
Flexen’s pitch chart, via Baseball Savant:
As expected, Flexen featured a north-south approach that involves fastballs up in the zone, and his other stuff more or less below them. You can see that he threw several waste pitches — they certainly didn’t aid his 24% CSW on the night — but he threw a lot of competitive pitches on the whole.
If you’ll remember, Flexen’s fastball is his table-setter of sorts — it’s the reason he used it more than 60% of the time in the KBO. On Saturday, though, that figure dropped to 37.2%, which signals that (a) Flexen knows he can’t lean on his fastball as heavily as he historically has, and (b) he has trust in his secondaries.
Despite middling velocity and spin, Flexen’s fastball can be a strong pitch at times. Consider the following offering:
It’s not a Gerrit Cole fastball, that’s for sure. But that’s 94 mph, just off the plate at the top of the zone. Not much you can do with that. It only returned one strikeout (and of the backwards K variety), but it’s responsible for setting up all of his other pitches. That matters!
One thing that stood out from Flexen’s outing is that his cutter continues its ascent in velocity — it’s now sitting 89 mph — and it’s begun to look more and more like a standard cutter, whereas it used to have more of a slider shape, as Ben Howell has noted.
In terms of earning strikes, Flexen’s cutter was his only pitch serving him well throughout the night, with a strong 32% CSW. Aside from just accumulating strikes, though, it was responsible for three of his six strikeouts, including this pitch to Mike Yastrzemski:
Years ago, broadcasters may have called this a backed-up cutter, but you can see from Luis Torrens’ setup that this is exactly where Flexen meant to put it. It’s something that Aaron Civale has done exceptionally well, and something more pitchers should do. As a hitter, it’s not easy to distinguish it from an elevated heater or a curveball that drops below the zone. It’s exciting! Flexen deployed it in a 2-2 count with a runner on second and put it exactly where he needed to. Seeing Flexen shine with his cutter might just be the biggest takeaway from the night.
Then there’s his changeup. I liked his changeup a lot more than I had thought I would, but there’s a chance that it has more to do with it being aesthetically pleasing than it being a strong pairing with his fastball. It was perhaps one of the most mundane pitches of the evening, but here’s a pitch that stood out to me as I watched the game live:
That Flexen used a changeup as a two-strike pitch when he hardly used it last year is intriguing enough. But also, he used it against a right-handed hitter in Evan Longoria! He didn’t get many strikes with it — his changeup CSW was a miserable 7% — but I’ll be keeping an eye on it, because he clearly has some confidence in it. The execution isn’t there, but he stole a strike with it against a right-hander in Austin Slater, too.
And then there’s his curveball. I wanted to see more of that danged curveball! Coming into this offseason, I considered it Flexen’s best pitch. I still might consider it his best pitch. He simply didn’t have it on Saturday, due in part to struggles finding his release point, which (obviously!) isn’t ideal. His curveball release point, via Baseball Savant:
That, of course, coincided with poor curveball location. Consider all of his curveballs from Saturday, by pitch result:
A good portion of these are non-competitive pitches, which is a significant departure from the pitch that it was during his time in the KBO. Flexen has a track record of using his curveball to steal called strikes in the zone, but he’ll also drop it below the zone for whiffs in two-strike counts. He had a bad day, with a good pitch. There’s no reason that we should think it was anything less.
And so, as it pertains to stuff, Flexen flashed a lot of it, and he didn’t even have his best curveball! There are several encouraging signs that Flexen showed on Saturday. One is that he looked nothing like the version of himself that struggled mightily from 2017 to 2019. But also, he mixed his pitches well, and he boasted an evolving cutter that flashed plus. What we’re going to want to see moving forward is how his curveball bounces back, as well as if his command improves over the course of his next several starts.
I just spent a lot of time scrutinizing Flexen’s outing — he had a good one! But also, we should be celebrating his performance. Yay Flexen’s performance! After struggling for several years in MLB, it was refreshing to see him have success. If Saturday was any indication, the Mariners appear to have nabbed themselves a young, productive starting pitcher. Chris Flexen, then, appears to have experienced the sweet, sweet feeling of redemption, and has hopefully embarked on the recommencement of a long, fruitful career.