No one at the big-league level throws it better than Mets southpaw Johan Santana. He might have some company, a mirror image in the not-too-distant future. He's not as well-known now, but he might be soon. Ladies and gentlemen, introducing MLB.com's winner of the MiLBY for Best Overall Starting Pitcher, Jhoulys Chacin of the Colorado Rockies.
"He's like a Johan Santana, but from the right side," said Asheville Tourists pitching coach Doug Linton. "He's not afraid to throw that changeup at any time."
The Maracaibo, Venezuela native used that changeup at two levels to lead the Minor Leagues with 18 wins, losing only three games all year and posting a 2.03 ERA. Opponents managed to hit just .221 against the right-hander, no small feat considering he called hitter-friendly Asheville and the California League his home in 2008.
"You walk in and it's it's 297 down the line, 320 to the gap, it's definitely not a pitcher's ballpark," Linton said. "He took it in stride and he pitched. He challenged hitters, right-handers and left-handers, and that's one thing you have to do in this ballpark."
And he did it right from the get-go. On Opening Day, Chacin tossed six innings of one-hit ball. He gave the Tourists eight more in his second start for his first win. When he lost start No. 3, who knew it would be his only defeat during his time in Asheville? Chacin was 10-1 with a 1.86 ERA and .205 opponents' batting average when he got the call up to Modesto.
"The guy's got three good pitches," Linton said. "He throws his fastball up to 94 mph and it sits around 90-91. The curve is coming along, probably average but getting better. The changeup is off the charts, it's a really good pitch, especially at the lower levels when you usually can't get a kid to throw enough changeups.
"He's a competitor. He gets the ball and goes right after guys. He doesn't shy away from contact and he challenges guys."
That didn't change when he moved up a level. Chacin won his first start for Modesto by pitching eight shutout innings. He allowed only five hits, walked one and struck out eight to introduce himself to the California League.
"I was a little bit nervous," Chacin told the Modesto Bee after his first start for the Nuts. "This league is harder and I know the hitters here will be more intelligent, but I feel good about the way I pitched. I was doing the same things here I was doing in Asheville, throwing strikes down in the zone. When I do that, whatever happens, happens."
What happened was five wins in his first five decisions, meaning he was 15-1 as the end of July approached. At the same time, his innings were climbing and the Rockies started to limit him to five innings per start. A true competitor, Chacin wasn't thrilled with the decision but decided to try to make the most of it.
"What can I do about it?" Chacin said at the time. "I just want to throw my five innings and be good."
He seemed to muddle through, going 3-1 with a 2.40 ERA in six August starts spanning exactly 30 innings. By the end of the year, he was 8-2 with a 2.31 ERA in 12 starts for Modesto. That gave him an 18-3 record with 160 strikeouts and 42 walks in 177 2/3 innings. The 18 victories were a Rockies organization record.
"I didn't know about [the record]," Chacin told the Bee. "Anywhere I pitch, I just want to do my job. When I do my job, throw my five innings and do something good, it's a good day."
The Rockies hope there are plenty more good days to come for Chacin, who certainly has moved up the depth chart in a system that has been trying to get young arms up to the big leagues with more regularity in recent years.
"In our organization, the Rockies are developing young pitchers to the big leagues because it's hard to get free agents to come to pitch in Colorado," Linton said. "He's on the move, so who knows, he could be a year and a half away.
"And he's a good kid, too. He works hard and goes about his business in the right direction."
Jonathan Mayo is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.