Before the rosters deadline, the Rays claimed Chase Whitley off waivers from the Yankees, giving him a valuable space on the 40-man roster. Whitley will be coming back from Tommy John surgery (following an injury that occurred while he was not being completely forthcoming with the Yankee's medical staff) and while there's always uncertainty surrounding rehabbing players, that status does mean that as soon as the season starts, the Rays can add him to the disabled list. The roster crunch only involves the Rule 5 draft.
And the reason why the Rays were willing to give Whitley a roster spot is that despite not having an overpowering fastball, he's actually a pretty decent pitcher. A reliever early in his professional career, the Yankees saw enough in Whitley to start converting him into a starter once he reached Triple-A in 2013. His numbers improved as he made that transition.
Whitley made the majors for the first time in 2014, and while his 5.23 ERA over 12 starts looks ugly, a 4.15 FIP and a 3.77 xFIP suggest that he has better days ahead. Of course, his injury in 2015 casts some doubt on those better days, but let's look at how Whitley works.
This graph shows a rising fastball that sits right around 90 mph, a sinker that's just a half tick slower than that, and a low-80s changeup and slider, both of which have good movement, with the changeup especially impressing with it's bite down and away from a left-handed batter. Missing from these MLBAM pitch classifications is the fact that those green dots at the bottom of the slider cluster are actually a high-70s curve that Whitley started experimenting with last year.
So there are some characteristics of Whitney's approach that immediately characterize him as Rays-type pitcher:
- His four-seam fastball has .7 of a standard deviation more rise than the average fastball (according to Brooks Baseball), and the Rays have become adept over the past few years of using rising four-seamers up in the zone.
- His changeup is really pretty special, dropping more than a standard deviation more than the average change. Over Whitley's short career, it's been missed 46% of the time it's been swung at, and been hit for a grounder 59% of the time it's been put into play.
I think that the best Rays comp is Erasmo Ramirez-lite. Whitley's fastball isn't quite as fast (although it does rise more), his sinker doesn't sink quite as much, and his arsenal of breaking pitches isn't quite as deep (but his slider is probably better). Their changeups are really quite similar, however.
Don't expect a Ramirez-style turnaround for Whitley, though, for a couple reasons:
- Injuries a rough. We all saw how hard it was for Matt Moore to reenter the major leagues after his Tommy John surgery. Now try doing it without Matt-Moore-quality stuff.
- Velocity matters, and Erasmo Ramirez has more of it.
- When the Rays acquired Ramirez from Seattle, there was obvious room for improvement in his approach from a pitch selection and location point of view (along with some clever changes Hickey came up with that I didn't see coming), and, as we soon learned, the Mariners had messed up his mental approach as well. I can't speak to Whitley's mental state, but looking at how he's pitched, those holes in his game that I saw with Ramirez are simply not there. And that's not surprising because Larry Rothschild (Yankees pitching coach) is smart.
Take a look at his pitch selection on Brooks Baseball. Whitley uses his excellent changeup as an out pitch against both righties and lefties, and he uses it early in the count against lefties as well. He uses his slider against both handednesses as well, and he uses it early in the count (to steal strikes). The same can be said about Whitley's fastball too, with the reasonable exception that he stops using his sinker (which is not a swing-and-miss pitch) when he gets to two strikes. He's already a pitcher who's been coached on how to get the most out of his intriguing but limited arsenal.
About the only thing his location charts suggest he might try to do better is throw his changeup for strikes slightly more often (to make sure batters have to chase it when he throws it below the zone) and groove his fastball against lefties less often (duh).
But there is one thing that the Rays will do to Chase Whitley that will almost surely improve his results. Unless they are stung by another rash of injuries, they will move him back to the bullpen, and pitching in relief is flat-out easier than is being a starter. When/if Whitney returns from his rehab, he can either work as the long man, or can upgrade the spots in the bullpen that might have been held by Brandon Gomes or Kirby Yates.
The Yankees tried to sneak a decent pitcher through waivers, and the Rays didn't let them. Don't expect a dramatic breakout, but do expect to see a very fine changeup and a pitcher who on-the-whole knows what he's doing. If Whitley recovers his health, this AL East transaction will be a win for the Rays.