At age 20, increasing the velocity of his fastball is not exactly the strategic goal of the right-handed hurler of Leones de Industriales, Brayan Chi. After launching his 80th pitch this Sunday afternoon at the Latin American stadium in Havana, Chi’s mind did not stop working. He entered the dugout of the Under-23 Cuban national team and, when perhaps he was expected to walk towards the clubhouse to hydrate, he remained aware of the game. His eyesight did not move away from each pitch while taking a short breather. Chi had thrown five solid innings where he allowed one earned run and four hits to the Cuban national preselection batters who are preparing to participate in the Arizona pre-Olympic qualifier.
Chi, who threw for a 7-5 mark, 3.17 ERA in 20 starts, and struck out 86 opponents in 116 innings during the 2019-2020 season — including a quality start against Toros de Camagüey in the playoffs— could not stop thinking about further adjusting his repertoire. “I am working hard to improve changeup control,” Chi told Words Above Replacement.
“Last season, I used the changeup frequently and the hitters could prepare for that with great confidence. So I would like to focus more to increase the mix of my pitches and surprise opposing hitters again.”
Basically, Chi brings a fastball between 88-92 mph, which mixes with an excellent and devastating changeup that wreaked havoc against his opponents in the 2019-2020 Serie Nacional de Béisbol. But the most important result of Chi’s pitch-mix was it powering him into the number two spot in the Industriales rotation. Before 2019, Chi had thrown just 28.1 innings in three seasons, a number he surpassed in just 6 starts last season.
With that small sample of accumulated innings up to 2019-2020, it is fair to say that Chi, at 20, was virtually unknown to the batters of the CNS. Obviously, there were good projections for Chi, who was a rotation holder in the Cuba Under-18 team. There was, however, no exact projection and no one knew for sure how far Chi could go relying on his specific mix of pitches. But, now, 512 batters later, we know how dominant he can be in the CNS, after starring in one of the most amazing breakouts last season. Chi held hitters to a pedestrian .244 average and was the only 20-year-old pitcher — before the start of Opening Day — that recorded a minimum of 80 innings pitched. In fact, he also led in strikeouts (82), allowing just a .664 OPS while his opponents averaged .149 with runners in scoring position.
Throughout the year, Chi proved to be one of the most efficient right-handed pitchers and his quality outings were frequent. He never allowed more than 8 hits in a start and left his opponents with 5 hits or less in 11 of his 19 starts in the 2019-2020 campaign. Chi’s dominance extended beyond the first half of the season. He managed to pitch to a 2.96 ERA and just a .251 BAA in 51.1 innings during the second half of the season. How many other 20-year-old pitchers did that in the CNS during 2019-2020 season? That would be … none!
However, Chi has not been content to rest on past success. He also wants to ascend. He wants his opponents to not expect what’s coming next or to be able to stay lockstep with his plan of attack. For Chi, he’s not thinking exactly about striking out his opponents, but about keeping them off balance. “Batters always know what a pitchers’ strengths are, what effect their pitches bring and hitters develop their plan of attack from there,” Chi said. “But the idea I have is to work against that plan, breaking the script that my opponents take to the plate.”
So, if the cat and mouse game is one of prediction then Chi will have to pounce first. Obviously, this will be through the use of his changeup, the lethal weapon that his opponents could not handle in 2019. Chi managed to locate that changeup throughout the strike zone. Since the beginning of the 2019-2020 season, he used it more and more frequently. “More than 50% of my strikeouts went with the changeup, so opposing hitters will step up to the plate looking for that,” Chi said. “You have to be prepared.” But Chi’s changeup was so good that even if opposing hitters know it’s coming he wants to keep throwing it more than any other pitch.
“I will not give up throwing my changeup,” Chi said smiling, “because I know it is a lethal weapon that I can wield against the opposition.”
In case you haven’t seen some examples of the effect of Chi’s elusive changeup, below you can see some swings as the pitch fades out of reach. As you can see, Chi’s changeup caused complete imbalance. That was an advantage that Chi took whenever he threw his changeup. He threw it anywhere in the strike zone, as well as in any high leverage count or situation. Chi relied on the effect of his changeup and quickly became a devastating pitcher. Normally, Chi’s fastball velocity remained between 88-92mph, almost always between 10-12mph more than his changeup.
That difference in speeds allowed Chi to overwhelm his opponents and often force them to flail away with no idea of what pitch Chi was hurling their way. Below are some metrics that show the full impact of Chi’s pitch mix.
Before analyzing those numbers any deeper, there is an interesting trend that isn’t represented: Chi allowed just 5 homers in 512 at-bats. That’s 1 for every … 102.4 batters faced! Pure abuse on Chi’s part. More in tune with the above table is the pitches Chi used to get his results. Chi’s changeup caused much of that high GB-IF%. At the same time, the poor, relative to the rest of the league, GB-OF% was produced by his slider.
With painstaking precision and an understanding of when to throw his individual pitches, Chi was quite difficult to hit with any sort of force. However, the right-handed 20-year-old is not overconfident. “I’m thinking of perfecting my pitches more,” Chi said. “It’s not about adding more grips or pitches. Simply, I want my slider and curveball to be at a higher level. I want to feel that I can rely on all my pitches to best implement my way of attacking the hitters.”
Thanks to his dominant performance in the 2019-2020 CNS, Chi was called upon to represent Cuba on their Under-23 team. In his first start of the Under-23 World Cup warm-up games, Chi again dominated on the mound. More importantly, it didn’t take Chi long to establish his dominance in the game. Chi allowed an earned run in the first inning when he walked Alberto Calderón and then allowed a double to leftfield by veteran Frederich Cepeda. Still, Chi quickly rebounded and showed his dominance. “I felt very good in the first inning and, despite allowing a run, I was able to get out of a bad spot as soon as I started mixing up my pitches better. In the end, the important thing was to overcome that early struggle,” Chi said. “And keep my team in play with the score close. I think I did the job.”
After the aforementioned double, Chi allowed just two hits in the remainder of his five-inning start. Again, he put on display the unique way he goes about sequencing his pitches. Maybe we will see more velocity from his fastball, at least perhaps above the current ceiling of 92 mph. But, even if that never happens, Chi has a unique skill at his disposal: an ability to think about the art of pitching that is well beyond his years.
Chi is constantly working on his pitching mechanics. He is a studious sort and quite dedicated to learning the analytics side of pitching. Above all else, he wants to be better every day. Chi is the kind of young pitcher that we don’t see much of anymore. He always has in his mind a new approach to try against a hitter who previously succeeded against him. He doesn’t think solely about velocity, rather what the effect will be of continuing to diversify his pitch-mix.
At 20, the impact he is making in the CNS is gratifying for fans, largely because Chi was a prospect to follow. Now, after the development of an unfriendly changeup and the result of his advanced thinking, we can expect Chi to leapfrog to another level. “My perspectives are the same. I remain very focused on my work and now even moreso, since I can represent my country. I just hope to be able to give my best and take those steps that I set for myself as a pitcher,” said Chi. The baseball world eagerly awaits whatever the next step for Chi may be.
Lead photo courtesy of Boris Luis Cabrera – CubaDebate