There are few pitchers in the Pirates deep lower levels who can match the spin rates of Po-Yu Chen.
The right-hander spent the 2022 season in Single-A Bradenton, pitching 98.1 innings, more than doubling his total workload from the year prior.
He got off to a strong start in April, posting a 3.24 ERA (3.04 FIP) while striking out 19 in 16.2 innings pitched. It was more of a struggle afterwards, as Chen posted a 4.85 ERA (3.91 FIP) the rest of the way.
Somewhere in between, he was getting hit more than you’d expect with his stuff.
Chen has plenty of ways to attack hitters — using a four-seam fastball, sinker, curveball, splitter, and a slider/cutter hybrid that he can manipulate the amount of break.
He was playing around with his grips during the season, which could have had something to do with the differential in the amount of break, and velocity.
When Chen made his Single-A debut in 2021, the velocity wasn’t overly impressive, staying in the upper-80s to low-90s. Part of that could have been because it was late in the season, but it was certainly something to watch going into 2022.
While we saw him get as high as 94/95 this past season, he still just averaged 91.7 (sinker) and 91.2 (four-seam), respectively, on his fastballs.
They aren’t bad pitches, and he does generate some swing and misses with them (10/10.2 SwStr%), but overall he did get beat up on the pitch, allowing five of his eight total home runs on them.
Overall, with the limited velocity and command issues at times, Chen’s fastball is probably a fringe-average pitch.
Two Potential Plus Pitches
Chen throws a big, loopy, curveball in the low-to-mid 70s. It has good break on it, and has seen spin rate readings on it at 3,000 rpm. Despite the break, he only registered a 10.4 SwStr% on the pitch, barely better than either of his fastballs.
He has some slip ups with his control of it, but when he is on, he has no problem throwing it multiple times in a single at-bat. In the video below you can see a batter he struck out throwing nothing but curveballs.
His best pitch is his splitter, as you can make the case that it’s the best offspeed pitch in the system right now. It’s his primary swing and miss pitch (29.1 SwStr%), and while the fastball may be below average, the splitter does help it play up a little more, as long as he’s locating them.
In the second half of the video above you can see him throwing the pitch, and how when he has it going, it looks like it completely falls off a table.
Mixing His Pitches
The last video shows Chen facing multiple hitters through two different starts, mixing all of his pitches together.
You can see him incorporating the slider/cutter in some of the at-bats, usually against righties. He’s able to take a little off of the pitch to add movement, and when he does, it breaks quite a bit horizontally.
Against the first batter of the clip, he threw a cutter, fastball, and curve in that order. They all had nearly the same release point, but broke in different directions. He got the batter to swing and miss on the curve to get the strikeout.
Facing Emmanuel Rodriguez (starting at :39), Chen throws a nasty splitter for a swing and miss strike one, followed by a fastball and slider inside back-to-back to make the count 1-2. He gets the hitter looking on a 95 mph fastball on the outer corner for a called strike three.
Chen had the normal up and downs you’d expect from a 20-year-old in his first full season of baseball. The command of the fastball will have to get better, and will have to be more consistent with the curveball to fully unleash it’s potential.
Regardless of the final numbers, it shouldn’t be discounted the fact he finished just shy of 100 innings despite his age. He has an usually high line drive rate that could spell disaster in Greensboro, but still generates more ground balls than anything else.
It’d be nice to see the fastball play up a little more, but with three other very strong pitches in his arsenal, he will remain an intriguing player to follow.
Anthony began writing over 10 years ago, starting a personal blog to cover the 2011 MLB draft, where the Pirates selected first overall. After bouncing around many websites covering hockey, he refocused his attention to baseball, his first love when it comes to sports. He eventually found himself here at Pirates Prospects in late 2021, where he covers the team’s four full season minor league affiliates.
A general comment: not all two-seamers are sinkers. Go watch video of Brady Singer if you doubt me. OTOH, as far as I know, all sinkers are two-seamers. What I saw from Chen was a FB with modest horizontal break. That’s usually a two seamer.
Definitely an interesting prospect moving forward. Young, but with a solid frame, he may be able to pick up 2 or 3 ticks on his FB. An increase in velo would help the rest of his pitches. Usually we have prospect pitchers who can throw the ball through a wall, but have difficulty executing a finesse pitch.
Just the opposite with Chen, which I think was mentioned – “pitching backwards”! The breaking pitches tend to keep hitters off balance and I like the CB breaking down into the lead foot of a LH hitter. Maybe just the selected video review, but did not see much up in the zone. Throw enough of the breaking stuff and a high straight FB becomes difficult to adjust to by a hitter set for the next breaking pitch.
Splitter and curve plays. Hell, I’d just stick to those, throw the FB as little as possible.
To quote an old pitching phrase, he will have to pitch ‘backwards’ to be successful? All he needs is experience. Backend SP or good middle RP?
Get him Rich Hill’s phone #!
Interesting stuff! Good article & great video. Thank you for this Anthony.
Velo can still be added, he’s very young, just needs the right offseason throwing program.
So from seeing the video, I wouldn’t want him to throw that loopy curveball for a strikeout pitch unless it was in the dirt for a chase. It’s effective in the zone when used as a show me pitch to freeze a batter to get ahead in the count, as it looks like it locks guys up as they read the pitch as a high ball. But if the batter is in swing mode with 2 strikes, that pitch could get hammered.
It’d be better if he had 2 strike out pitches, the splitter & then a harder curve/slider to get a later, crisper break & get a chase for a K.
Is that throwing program weighted ball/long toss kind of thing?
If you’re interested in this type of thing, check out Tread Athletics on youtube (https://youtu.be/S8ebNkjS_B8). That’s a video on adding velo, but they have a bunch of interesting shorts & videos.
Alot of pirates pitchers have been working out at Tread in recent years – starting with Clay Homes, then Jamo, now Keller, Brubaker, & Austin Brice. Might be more guys, but those are the ones i’ve seen videos on & heard them talking about in the Keller interview.
No throwing with this chicken wing! Now if they could add a few yards to my drives . . .
Just like a tick or two on the FB/Sinker and it would play with the splitter and CB. Imo, If he can get the FB/Sinker up to a 93-94 average he would have the MLB upside. At 91-92 average he has that fringe MLB/AAAA SP upside. Hopefully at just 20 years old he has some more in tank.
*Edit – and I’m a big PoYu-Chen fan too. I just can’t see a 91-92 mph FB/Sinker playing that well in MLB. Even with the plus off speed stuff. I guess Rich Hill made it work but he’s also a lefty.
Glad the fastball was mentioned often in the article, after looking at videos of his breaking pitches and splitter I was wondering why wasn’t he better, then I saw a 30 grade on his FV…. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a low grade, especially on FB! But as the article mentions, improve command pair with his splitter might make it work.
Jack Suwinski 20/20 fielding.
Believe me I get that, they even had his speed as a 30/40 and when asked during.a chat after it was obvious that they were wrong, they just double down. With Chen it was that some of us here asked why were his numbers so bland when he possesses a great split and breaking pitch, the answer seems to be a shitty FB.