Christopher John Flexen
Height: 6'3" Weight: 225
Bats/Throws: Right / Right
Born: 07/01/1994 in Newark, California
Nickname: Big Baby
Suggested Nickname: Flex Mentallo
Acquired: Signed as a free agent (12/18/2020)
MLB Debut: 07/27/2017
Free Agent after: 2023 season
Who'd have thought when the season started that by the halfway point of the year Chris Flexen would be the best starting pitcher for the Mariners, at least statistically speaking? Well, that's what happened. Yusei Kikuchi might be the All-Star, but it's Flex that leads the team in the old-fashioned metrics of wins and ERA. He's been especially good at home, pitching to an ERA just over 2.50 at TMP, and much like former Mariner Mike Leake, you can tell pretty early on if he's going to give the opposition fits or toss them batting practice. In his ten wins to date, he's surrendered an average of one earned run per start with a WHIP of 0.929. On the flip side, when he's off his game he's really off—balancing his ten Quality Starts are three games when he's coughed up six runs or more, averaging just 3.5 innings in those starts.
All in all, it's been a pleasant surprise and vindication for GM Jerry Dipoto and the scouting staff, who took a chance on Flexen on nothing more than video from the Korean league. Impressive.
Three starts into his return to the Majors, Flexen remains a bit of an enigma. He began with an outstanding five innings of shutout ball against the Giants for his first big-league win since 2017, then got beat up a bit by the Twins his second time out. Start number three was a hybrid of his first two—lots of hits, but just one run over six frames. We'll need to see a few more games from him before we can really form an opinion, but for now he looks decent. His curveball is of particular note, he throws it for strikes and with a lot of break, and he needs it to win; otherwise, his stuff seems pretty hittable. It's a small sample yet, but so far Flex has handled the opposition very well their first time through the lineup, but once batters have seen him once they've teed off a bit (.231 BAA on batter's 1st PA, .400 2nd+ PA). It's something to keep an eye on as he builds up more of a track record.
What to make of Chris Flexen? The 26-year-old Californian was signed to a two-year contract with an option for a third on the strength of a 2020 campaign in the Korean Baseball Organization, a league that is considered on the whole to be a step below Triple-A on the talent meter. In 21 starts for the Doosan Bears in Seoul, Flexen did post numbers that would be quite good in the Major Leagues—8-4 record, 3.01 ERA, 1.089 WHIP, 30 walks and 132 strikeouts—but the KBO is not the Major Leagues. It's not even NBP, Japan's professional league. Flexen does have some Major League time—parts of three seasons as a New York Met after initially skipping the high minors—but did poorly. So why the faith of a two-plus year deal? “You look at video from when he was with the Mets, and then you start looking at some video on how he was doing over in Korea, it was two different pitchers,” said manager Scott Servais early in spring training. True, Flexen is 50 pounds trimmer than he was as a Met, learned a curveball, and pitched with a lot more confidence in Korea. He was all set to return to Seoul when Jerry Dipoto came calling with an offer from the Mariners.
Mariner scouts had no games to watch or players to evaluate stateside for much of 2020, so they watched a lot of video from the Asian leagues. Clearly, Flexen impressed them, and it would be a great story if he has success in the big leagues after finding himself in Korea. But the tall right-hander has been getting creamed in spring training, looking like little more than a batting-practice pitcher in his first few Cactus League games. Spring performances don't often mean much, but in this case it is a curious detail. Will Flexen turn things on when the bell rings and the games count? Was the Korean success due to nothing more than the lesser competition in the KBO? We'll find out soon enough.