Chuckin’ Chacon

During the summer of the blockbuster trades that never were (A.J. Burnett, Manny Ramirez, and Alfonso Soriano), a small deal made in the days leading up to the July 31st trading deadline may end up having a bigger impact on the playoff race than any other. The Yankees’ acquisition of Shawn Chacon–who arrived in the Bronx at the mere cost of two C-level prospects–has kept the previously underachieving Bombers afloat in both the wildcard and the divisional races. Since joining the Yankees, Chacon hasn’t endured even one bad start; in every game he’s pitched, he’s more than kept the Yankees in the game, usually turning a lead over to the bullpen in the sixth, seventh, or eighth innings. He’s even made an emergency appearance out of the bullpen, pitching in between starts on a night when both Mariano Rivera and Tom "Flash" Gordon were unavailable.

Most writers now refer to Chacon as the Yankees’ No. 3 starter behind Randy Johnson and Mike Mussina, but in reality he’s been their No. 1 starter since coming over from the National League. Chacon’s success must have a few Rocky Mountain fans wondering how Colorado could have surrendered Chacon for such a small price tag. It’s understandable that the Rockies came to the conclusion that Chacon couldn’t succeed in the mile-high air of Coors Field, but it’s quite another to give up a 27-year-old right-hander with a live arm in exchange for a measly package of lower-level prospects.

At the time of the trade, most Yankee fans would have had trouble picking Chacon out of a lineup and might have been excused for confusing him with Elio Chacon, one of those legendary Mets from the franchise’s early years. With just a handful of starts, Chacon has made himself one of the most recognizable of Yankees. He’s the one who works quickly, throws a moving fastball in the low 90s, features two kinds of curves (one slow and the other slower), and has shown the uncanny ability to pitch from behind in the count. As YES Network analyst Jim Kaat so aptly pointed out during a broadcast of Chacon’s start against the Blue Jays, his pitching style is reminiscent of that of Hall of Famer Early Wynn. Like Wynn, Chacon doesn’t throw a high percentage of first-pitch strikes, often falling behind 1-and-0 and 2-and-1, but compensates by being able to throw his breaking ball for strikes when he’s behind in the count. It’s a backwards way of pitching, but it has worked wonders for Chacon thus far.

Will Chacon be able to maintain his surprising domination of American League hitters, which has seen his AL ERA fall below the level of two runs per nine innings? Probably not, if only because he isn’t THAT good; in reality, no American League pitcher is. But as of the latter days of August, Shawn Chacon has been the most important trade acquisition of the summer–and one of the main reasons the Yankees, despite a bevy of problems and setbacks, don’t have to call this season a lost cause just yet.

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