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40 in 25: Chris Flexen

After a successful return to the Majors last season, the big righty should once again be a stabilizing force in Seattle’s rotation

Los Angeles Angels v Seattle Mariners Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images

If the name “Chris Flexen” wasn’t on your radar until last spring, I can’t say I blame you.

Once a top-10 prospect in the Mets’ system, he steadily climbed the minor league ranks and reached the Majors for the first time in 2017, just a few weeks after his 22nd birthday. His debut could have gone better, walking four and allowing three runs in a three-inning start, but considering he was a 14th-round pick out of high school in 2012, him being here at all was remarkable.

Unfortunately, making it to the Majors at all may have been the highlight of his Mets career.

Across three partial seasons in New York, Flexen notched just 68 total innings. His collective ERA was a touch over 8, a brutal homer problem ballooned his FIP to nearly 7, and worst of all - at least to me, as a guy who loves command in pitchers above anything else - he walked 54 hitters compared to 49 strikeouts. You thought Justin Dunn was maddening to watch? Imagine that experience with a heaping spoonful of dingers, sans ridiculous strand rates.

grrrr

Flexen’s name quickly became a curse among Mets fandom, and I’m sure many breathed a sigh of relief when he was granted his release. He signed a one-year deal with the KBO League’s Doosan Bears, hoping to stabilize a career that was quickly circling the drain overseas. Going into his age-26 season, there was still plenty of time for a bounceback, but the clock was ticking louder and louder by the day.

In a pleasant, although not entirely unexpected, surprise, Flexen dominated. He finished second in the league in FIP at 2.74, was tops in K-rate at 28%, and put up a strikeout-to-walk ratio of nearly 4.5: a near-complete 180 from his time as a Met. He didn’t rack up a ton of innings (116.2) or starts (21), but when he was on the mound, he was clearly a top-5 pitcher in the KBO, and his efforts helped Doosan to a Finals appearance.

After his huge year, Flexen started to draw interest from big league clubs once again. As a crucial point in his favor, he was one of a small amount of pitchers to have played a full-length season in 2020 despite his relatively low innings count. In the shortened 60-game campaign that increasingly feels like a collective fever dream, Lance Lynn led all pitchers with 84 innings pitched over a baker’s dozen starts. That’s 32 fewer innings and eight fewer starts than Flexen threw in Korea, and with teams planning to be cautious with their arms ramping back up for a full campaign, any amount of durability could be a boon.

In the end, the Mariners needed some of that stability in their rotation, and won his services in December 2020. Although the total guaranteed financial commitment was a relative pittance at $4.75 million, Flexen earned something just six other players have gotten in Jerry Dipoto’s tenure: a multi-year free agent deal. Two years with a team option for 2023 (which vests if he throws a combined 300 innings in 2021-22) is hardly an albatross, especially at that price point, but it was a hint that Jerry Dipoto’s front office believed that he could be more than a flyer. It was a gamble, to be sure. When you come across one that’s as low-risk as this was, though, it would be folly not to take it.

Flexen entered 2021 as Seattle’s third starter, and enjoyed a strong first game back in MLB, tossing five shutout innings with half a dozen strikeouts against the eventual 107-win Giants. His next start in Minnesota was a bit dicey, but he rattled off consecutive one-run outings afterwards, including a career-best seven-strikeout performance in Fenway. Finishing April with a 3.33 ERA and 3.36 FIP, Chris Flexen had made it back to the bigs, this time for good.

I think even the rosiest projections for Flexen were outstripped by his performance all season. An out away from notching 180 innings, the most in his pro career, he failed to get through five full frames just three times across 31 starts. He spent no time on the injured list, notched an even 3.0 fWAR, and led the Mariners in innings by a significant margin, Yusei Kikuchi being the only other arm on staff to crack 150. He also kept his FIP a touch under 4 to go with a cromulent 3.61 ERA, suggesting that he wasn’t heavily relying on home run suppression. In short, he was a huge reason the Mariners were even in spitting distance of the playoffs last year, and the resurrection of his career was a fun storyline all season. Few outings, however, were more satisfying than this dismantling of the A’s at the Coliseum in September, where he hammered yet another nail in their coffin down the stretch.

For all the glory of his triumphant return, though, a couple red flags in Flexen’s profile could arise this year. For one, neither his four-seam nor cutter were great at generating swings and misses, and they accounted for nearly 70% of his offerings in 2021. While he spotted his cutter quite well and coaxed out plenty of ground balls with it, far too many of his four-seamers were left in the heart of the plate:

Despite his unheralded changeup being easily his most effective weapon last season, he threw it just 15.3% of the time, and nearly exclusively to lefties. This is conventional wisdom, of course - a changeup will fade away from an opposite-handed hitter - but even if we isolate his pitch mix to only southpaw hitters, he went with it just over one out of every four pitches, and continued to lean heavily on his fastballs. His curveball was his most tantalizing pitch coming back to MLB, but it too was an infrequently-used offering, and didn’t get a lot of swings and misses, although it proved to be an effective ground ball extractor. Now that there’s a book out on him, it would behoove him to mix his pitches a little more evenly, and maybe work on a slider or something similar to get whiffs from righties. More weapons are always good!

With Robbie Ray brought aboard to headline the rotation and Logan Gilbert stepping into a more prominent role, Flexen doesn’t have nearly as much pressure on him as he did last season, when he was on the bubble before unexpectedly becoming Seattle’s ostensible ace. In fact, a big thing to watch for him is that team option vesting should he throw at least 121.1 innings this year, a mark he is easily capable of meeting. He’s slotted in as the #4 pitcher in the rotation, has a full Major League season under his belt, and proved that after a rocky start to his career, he belongs in the bigs. As a deeply competitive player, though, you can bet we’ll be seeing that fire from him all year, like in this outing against the Diamondbacks down the stretch:

If he can match - or even best - his 2021 and continue to wear his heart on his sleeve, we should be in for quite the treat when he’s on the mound.

MLB: Los Angeles Angels at Seattle Mariners Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports