He was one of the Nationals’ prized rookies. He didn’t come from a large school but was impressive enough to be selected early in the draft. By the age of 23, he was part of Washington’s rotation and though his statistics weren’t overly impressive, his overall performance was quite good.
He ended his rookie year with a 4.63 ERA and won almost as many games as he lost. He was thought to be a permanent fixture in the Nationals’ rotation until Tommy John surgery forced him to the sidelines for more than a year.
He was the team’s No. 2 starter when he went down. It took almost a year to regain his strength and control, but once he returned to the mound, he seemed to be in pre-injury form.
There is just one problem though: The Washington Nationals don’t seem particularly interested in having him return.
Matt Chico is a man without a job.
You were thinking I was talking about Jordan Zimmermann, weren’t you?
There are many similarities between Chico and Zimmermann. Both come from obscure college backgrounds. Both were highly ranked prospects. They had similar rookie statistics and identical earned run averages. They were both just beginning to grasp what being a major league pitcher was all about when Tommy John surgery sidetracked their careers.
But that’s where the similarities end.
There was a Jordan Zimmermann watch all last summer as he regained his strength and then finally began to pitch again in the minor leagues. His return to the Nationals brought almost as much attention as Stephen Strasburg.
Matt Chico, however, had his surgery more than two years ago. He rehabbed in the minor leagues, pitching for both Class-A Hagerstown and Double-A Harrisburg before moving on to Triple-A Syracuse. By Opening Day 2010, he was capable of being part of the team’s starting rotation.
But it never happened. Jordan Zimmermann was whisked back into the rotation the moment he was ready and Matt Chico continues his minor league banishment, lucky to remain on the 40-man roster.
After a superb high school career, Chico was selected in the second-round of the 2001 amateur draft by the Boston Red Sox. He chose not to sign, however, and played a year for Southern Cal (6-4, 5.48) before moving on to Palomar Junior College.
He was selected by the Arizona Diamondbacks (and Mike Rizzo) in the third round of the 2003 draft and received a $365,000 signing bonus.
Over the next three seasons, Chico crafted a minor league record of 25-18, 3.43 and entered 2006 as the 112th best prospect in the major leagues and third best in the Diamondbacks' star-studded system.
He spent 2006 at Double-A Tennessee and had a record of 7-2, 2.22, 6.9/2.3/7.0 (hits/walks/strikeouts per nine innings) by the beginning of August.
The Diamondbacks, in a pennant race and flush with prospects traded Chico and fellow pitcher Garrett Mock to the Nationals for Livan Hernandez On Aug. 6 2006.
The 2007 season was the “Year of the Great Cattle Call” for the Washington Nationals. Unable to afford any decent free-agent pitchers, then general manager Jim Bowden brought in truckloads of failed major league starters in hopes that one or two of them would make the team’s depleted rotation.
Things were so bad that Chico earned his roster spot in spring training even though he pitched poorly, going 2-2, 5.16, 11.1/3.4/4.8 in 23 innings.
All things considered, Chico’s rookie season was certainly good enough and not that much different from Jordan Zimmermann’s rookie campaign two years later. Let’s compare the two:
Percentage of Quality Starts
Chico: 32 percent
Zimmermann: 36 percent
Innings Per Start
Hits/Walks/Strikeouts Per Nine-Innings
Opponents Average/On-Base Pct./Slugging Pct.
Percentage of Pitches Thrown For Strikes
Chico: 67 percent
Zimmermann: 62 percent
Chico entered 2008 as the Nationals’ No. 2 starter, and after three starts it looked like he was on a path towards continued improvement. He had an ERA of 3.72 and allowed 9.4 hits, 3.1 walks and 5.6 strikeouts per nine innings.
Midway through his fourth start, however, he felt a “pop” in his elbow. Two doctors examined Chico and found no structural damage, so he continued to pitch. In his last five starts, he couldn’t get anyone out. His ERA over that span was 7.85 as he allowed 15.4 hits and 7.8 walks per nine innings.
Dr. James Andrews found the damage that the others could not, and Chico underwent Tommy John surgery on July 3 2008.
He returned to the mound late in 2009 with rehab stints with Low-A Hagerstown and Double-A Harrisburg. In 61 innings, Chico went a combined 2-4, 3.96, 9.5/4.1/6.5.
Last season, Chico split time between Harrisburg and Triple-A Syracuse, logging an effective 7-9, 3.62 season, allowing 9.3 hits and just 2.6 walks per nine-innings while striking out almost six batter per game.
And in a one-game reprieve, he threw five quality innings for the Nationals, allowing two runs and six hits (3.60 ERA). He was immediately returned to the minor leagues.
To be sure, Chico does not have the skills of Jordan Zimmermann. What he does have, however, is a deep understanding of how to throw a baseball.
In 2007, then GM Jim Bowden said, “Matt Chico has great poise on the mound and the ability to go after hitters.” Added current general manager Mike Rizzo, “Matt was learning how to pitch at the major league level, which can be tough. It’s okay to do that if the pitcher has the makeup, character and stomach for it. I think Matt is that type of pitcher.”
Chico has a fastball that can reach 94 mph but usually is in the 91 to 93 mph range. He throws a two-seam fastball, curve and a quality change-up.
Here is Chico’s TSN.ca scouting report: “Chico is gritty and has a sneaky delivery. He has a good command of his pitches and throws consistently in the low 90s. He gets punished, however, when he throws too hard and needs to mix his pitches to be successful at the major league level.”
TSN sees Chico as a “solid back of the rotation starter.”
Said Washington Post beat writer Chico Harlan a couple of years ago, “Few in baseball projected Chico to have much high-end potential, but he seemed to operate with an admirable serviceability.
“It’s easy,” Harlan said, “to envision Chico as a number-four or number-five starter.”
I am in no way suggesting that the name of Matt Chico should be uttered in the same sentence with Jordan Zimmermann. To compare them is to compare apples and oranges.
So why did I compare the two?
To show that while there is a great deal of difference in their talent, there wasn’t a great deal of difference in their rookie seasons. And if there wasn’t a great deal of difference, why did the team wait with baited breath for Zimmermann’s return while Chico’s name has barely been mentioned for more than a year?
Look, I get it. Matt Chico is not the prettiest girl at the dance. But why does he have to sit along the wall of the gymnasium, waiting for someone to ask him to dance?
He’s danced before. He’s not a great dancer but he is certainly good enough. And he might even become a good dancer if he can just get on that floor and practice.
The Washington Nationals have come a long way since those days when a green rookie coming off a bad spring could earn a spot in the starting rotation. Possible additions to the rotation now have names like Zach Greinke and Matt Garza.
That said, they haven’t come so far that they can turn their back on a 27-year-old with 40 career starts.
Players shouldn’t lose their jobs to an injury. When Jordan Zimmermann returned last summer, the Nationals unceremoniously dumped a pitcher from the rotation for him. But when Matt Chico—with 17 more career starts than Zimmermann—returned to the Nationals for a single game, he was lucky to find a locker and uniform.
Matt Chico may not be the answer to the Nationals’ rotational troubles, but he’s earned a long look before the team moves on to other options.
If Jordan Zimmermann doesn’t have to fight for his job, than neither should Matt Chico.
It’s only fair.
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