Pittsburgh Pirates highly touted prospect Bubba Chandler has gotten off to a poor start, but let's not panic just yet
One of the Pittsburgh Pirates top pitching prospects is Bubba Chandler. Chandler was taken as an overslot pick, and many even saw him going in the top 20 picks of the 2021 draft. Prospects Live wrote that he could go as early as the 17th pick, while MLB.com's Jonathan Mayo had him going no. 18 in his mock draft.
Both Bleacher Report and CBS Sports also had him going in the top 20, and most said there was even a possibility he would go within the top ten, specifically to the Los Angeles Angles. Not only was Chandler an extremely talented pitcher, but some saw the potential as a two-way player at shortstop/DH.
Because of those high expectations, it's no surprise many saw it as one of, if not the biggest steal of the draft, when the Pirates picked Chandler in the third-round and were able to get him to sign. The reason so many teams had passed on Chandler was that many were unsure if he would fulfill even sign. Chandler had a commitment to Clemson football. But for $3 million, the Pirates were able to sign Chandler to the second-highest deal ever given to a player in the third round (tied with Hudson Head).
Chandler made a brief appearance in 2021 as a shortstop, but his best work would come on the mound in 2022. He pitched in 41.1 innings, working to a 2.61 ERA, 1.23 WHIP, and 3.85 FIP. Chandler had an astounding 34.7% strikeout rate while only allowing three home runs. Chandler also didn't allow too many base hits either, holding opponents to a .161 average. The only area Chandler struggled was walks, as he dished out a free pass to 16.2% of opponents.
With his high-draft stock combined with his quality debut on the mound, Chandler had high expectations going into 2023. So far, those expectations haven't been met-not even close. Chandler has pitched 34 innings with a 6.62 ERA, 5.93 FIP, and 1.94 WHIP. The right-hander's walk rate has stayed relatively the same at 16.2%, but his strikeout rate has slid to just 23.5%, and his HR/9 has jumped to 1.06. This extremely poor start to the season could lead to skeptical views on Chandler, but is it truly something you should worry about?
In my unprofessional opinion, I would say that it would be way too early to grow concerns about Chandler. Chandler has been one of the Pirates' unluckiest pitchers when it comes to batted balls. He has a .385 batting average on balls in play, the third-highest rate among pitchers at his level with at least 30 frames.
The second thing is Chandler's batted ball rates have improved. He has maintained a strong 22.3% line drive rate while upping his ground ball rate to 52.1%. Despite allowing more home runs, his flyball rate has decreased significantly from 32.8% to just 25.5%. You don't typically see a pitcher improve their ability to prevent fly balls and induce grounders more often while their home run rate increases, but this is mainly due to Chandler moving to a much more hitter-friendly park.
Greensboro's park, First National Bank Field, is a small ballpark. The right field is only 312 feet, two feet shorter than Yankee Stadium's right field porch. The left field is 315 feet, five feet longer than Fenway Park's right field wall (of course, there's the 37-and-two-inches tall Green Monster in Fenway, a 16-foot/2-inch height difference between the two fields). Chandler's HR/FB ratio went from a reasonable 11.5% rate last year to 16.7% so far. Chandler also wouldn't be the first pitcher to struggle in Greensboro's hitter-friendly confines, then excel at another level. For example, Jared Jones and Sean Sullivan both struggled greatly at Greensboro in 2022 and are off to fantastic starts in 2023.
A third reason not to worry about Chandler is the fact he's still extremely young. He is only 20.7 years old and will turn 21 in mid-September. The league average age for batters is about at his level is 22.3 years old. The league average age for Chandler's peers at his position is 23.2 years old. He is the second youngest pitcher in his league to throw at least 30 innings, as fellow teammate Anthony Solometo and Washington Nationals' prospect Andry Lara are the only other two 20-year-old pitchers in the South Atlantic League.
Another point to bring up is that overall, the South Atlantic League is pretty hitter-friendly. The league average ERA and WHIP are 4.59 and 1.41, respectively. Walks are not uncommon either, as the league average walk rate is 11.3%. Even though Chandler's HR/9 has risen, it's still not too far off from the league average rate of 0.93-per-9.
Now that's not to excuse Chandler for the amount of walks he's given up. Sure, walks are commonplace in the South Atlantic League. But Chandler is still well below average. Over 16% is not a recipe for success, regardless of luck or environment. There's yet to be a 21st-century pitcher to have an ERA- of 100 or lower in 150+ innings. The last ones to accomplish such a feat are Randy Johnson (17.1% walk rate/96 ERA-), and Jose DeJesus (16% BB%/92 ERA-), both in 1991.
But there's certainly make-up in Chandler's game to where he could greatly improve his command and his control. Chandler was drafted as a shortstop, and he brings that plus-plus athleticism to the mound. MLB Pipeline states that his delivery has been a little spotty, but learning to trust his stuff and repeat his delivery more frequently could easily improve this facet of his game. FanGraphs also projects his command to eventually reach a 55-grade level, which is above average.
One last thing to mention is that this is Chandler's first year solely focusing on pitching. Chandler was drafted as a two-way player, collecting 161 plate appearances at shortstop and designated hitter. Chandler batted .189/.329/.364 with a .335 wOBA, and 98 wRC+. Chandler struck out 35.5% of the time with a strong 15.5% walk rate. Plus, he hit for some power with five homers and a .174 isolated slugging percentage. The Pirates opted to make Chandler a pitcher full-time. It's not unreasonable to expect such a young player to experience some growing after making a sudden and major change in their game.
This isn't to say that Chandler is a perfect prospect; he's not. But he's still far and away one of the most talented pitchers in the Pirate system. Chandler's struggles aren't promising, sure, but that doesn't mean he's no longer a worthwhile prospect. There's no need to panic about Chandler's poor start. Yes, it's not a great start, but let's give it a little more time.