Chris Flexen has been characterized as a completely different pitcher than the one who left the Mets organization 14 months ago as a broken prospect.
Flexen, the Mariners’ mystery man, believes that is true on every level. And that is why his low-key signing in December to a two-year, $4.75 million contract might turn into one of the best moves the Mariners made in the offseason.
Coming off a transformative season in the Korea Baseball Organization with the Seoul-based Doosan Bears, Flexen will slide right into the Mariners’ six-man rotation. The Mariners fervently hope — and expect — they are getting a pitcher that far more closely resembles the one who dominated in Korea, rather than the version that put up a 3-11 record, an 8.07 ERA and a negative strikeouts-to-walks ratio (49 strikeouts, 54 walks) in parts of three seasons with the Mets.
“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,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said Friday.
The 26-year-old Flexen, a 6-foot-3 right-hander, doesn’t dispute that notion. He says the changes include an extreme physical makeover (dropping from a high of 265 pounds with the Mets to his current weight of 215), a mental awakening and a key adjustment in his pitch selection.
“I ultimately got my mind and my body in shape,” Flexen said Friday in a Zoom interview from Mariners camp in Peoria, Arizona. “I really worked on the deficiencies I had in my body, and that really helped. Mentally I was able to be comfortable, be confident and really trust myself. Trust my pitches.
“I really found my breaking ball. That was a huge pitch for me, something I used a lot. I was really able to get a feel in Korea for how to use my curveball a lot more. It comes back to the confidence thing, just being able to trust my pitches and go after hitters and attack guys and just able to compete.”
Put it all together, and it spelled an 8-4 record for Flexen with a 3.01 ERA in 21 starts, plus three more in the postseason as the Bears made it to the Korean World Series before losing in six games to the NC Dinos.
That ugly strikeouts-to-walk ratio by Flexen in MLB? It turned into a glittering 132-to-30 ratio with Doosan, which will work in any league, as will his 28 percent strikeout rate. Analyst Ben Howell tweeted that the only other KBO pitcher since 2002 with a strikeout percentage of at least 28 percent and a FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) below 3.00 (Flexen was at 2.74) was Hyun-Jin Ryu in 2012.
Ryu, who did so at the same age as Flexen (25), finished third in the American League Cy Young race last year for Toronto. Will Flexen’s Korean success translate as well as Ryu’s to MLB? It’s true the hitters in Korea, as a whole, are not as accomplished as those in MLB and aren’t used to velocity in the 90s that Flexen flashed. But he says the upper-level talent is outstanding, and believes the overall quality of play is quite representative. More important, Flexen feels the lessons he learned are transferrable.
“Absolutely,” he said. “Confidence is definitely a thing. It’s something where the stuff has always been there, but when you’re not confident and you can’t execute it, that’s where the lack of success comes into play.”
The tone for Flexen’s Mets career was set in his first major-league start in June of 2017, with 40 family and friends from his hometown of Newark, California, in attendance at Petco Park in San Diego. Called up from Double-A to replace injured Zach Wheeler, Flexen gave up a home run to the first big-league hitter he faced, Manuel Margot. He allowed five hits and four runs (three earned) in three innings in taking the loss.
That set into motion three years of struggles and shuttling between Triple-A and the majors. Flexen remembers being on seven or eight flights — some of them cross-country — during one two-week span. That will play with your mind, as will giving up 14 homers in just 68 innings.
“I took my bumps and bruises, obviously,” he said. “I struggled quite a bit, had minimal success. I won a few games and had some games that showed flashes, like, hey, there’s some potential. But it comes down to that confidence thing. When you’re not confident in yourself and you don’t trust your pitches and you’re not comfortable, it’s hard to be successful. I think that’s something that I was just never able to get out of when I was in New York.”
The first step to getting out of it was to get in shape. Flexen hired a personal trainer, altered his diet and shed 50 pounds. But Flexen feels the real turning point came when he was struck on the foot by a line drive midway through last season with Doosan, sidelining him for two months.
Up to that point he had been improved but still uneven in his performance. During his recovery from the foot injury the ballclub helped him rehab, and Flexen threw every day while kneeling on a chair to keep his arm in shape. Meanwhile, he worked on strengthening his mind as well.
“I was really able to turn it on and figure some stuff out and work on the mental side as well and be confident,” he said.
When Flexen came back, he was one of the most dominant pitchers in Korea the rest of the way. In October he allowed a total of three earned runs over five starts for a 0.85 ERA. And in the postseason Flexen had a 1.91 ERA in 28 1/3 innings, striking out 32 and walking seven.
All that caught the Mariners’ eyes — along with those of other teams. But Flexen had such a positive experience in Korea that he seriously considered returning for a second year. He loved learning a new culture, even being limited in his exploration by COVID-19. Flexen felt the Doosan team provided a first-class experience in every way, and he learned a lot from teammate Raul Alcantara, a native of the Dominican Republic who speaks fluent English and put up a 20-2 record in 2020.
“I was really looking forward to going back,” Flexen said. “I loved all my teammates, loved that organization.”
But when speaking with general manager Jerry Dipoto via Zoom, the Mariners made a compelling case. Flexen likes the direction of the ballclub, the fact he’s still young enough to grow with them and the opportunity to change the arc of his big-league career.
Dipoto “gave me a breakdown of what the Mariners were about as an organization, and got me extremely excited,” Flexen said. “I wanted to come here. And we made it happen.”
Flexen added, “Going over to Korea, I was able to find myself again.”
And the Mariners hope they reap the benefits from their mystery man.