One of the more interesting deals of the most recent offseason was the Cubs’ three-year, $38 million pact with former Rockies swingman Tyler Chatwood. On the one hand, Chatwood had some virtues as a pitcher. On the other, in an offseason during which nearly every free agent received less than expected, Chatwood got $8 million more than Dave Cameron projected in his examination of the 2017-18 class.
You’ve heard of “spin-rate guys,” right? Well, Chatwood is absolutely a spin-rate guy. What’s interesting, though, is that he hasn’t converted that high spin into plus movement. Why? Well, it might have something to do with useful spin. Over time, Chatwood has dropped his arm slot to get more movement on his sinker and more ground balls, probably because he pitched in Coors. That robs his fastball of ride, though, and his curveball of downward movement.
An easy fix might be to just throw the curveball more. He only threw it 11% of the time in 2017. It got over 70% ground balls and above-average whiffs. Batters had a .164 slugging percentage against it last year. And that fits with the spin and movement on the pitch.
With about a quarter of the season in the books, now seems like a good time to check whether that adjustment has come and how the Cubs have fared on their investment.
Chatwood’s season, if nothing else, has been interesting so far. First, the good. Chatwood has a 3.14 earned run average and 80 ERA- across eight starts and an even 43 innings. He’s striking out 21.5% of hitters, a career high in the big leagues. He remains a tremendous ground-ball generator, with a 51.4% mark, and he’s also induced infield flies at the highest rate of his career. He’s also suppressed home runs in unprecedented fashion, with a 0.21 HR/9 and 3% HR/FB. So, on some level, Chatwood has been a success this season…
… except that Chatwood’s home-run suppression is almost certainly not sustainable. And there’s also the matter of his walk rate. Chatwood is easily pacing all pitchers with 40 or more innings, having produced a staggering 18.3% mark. Those walks have meant that, despite the shiny ERA, Chatwood has managed just a 102 FIP- and 1.49 WHIP, the latter mark representing his worst since 2012.
Chatwood has yet to record a start without walking anybody, and he’s already compiled five starts of five or more walks. What that all adds up to is a 126 xFIP-. And even though Chatwood has a history of outperforming his fielding-independent numbers, it’s usually been on the order of 0.2 to 0.3 runs. Chatwood, meanwhile, has recorded an ERA nearly two full runs lower than his xFIP. All told, it appears as though Chatwood has gotten pretty lucky.
Also worrisome is the fact that, despite generating the one of the game’s better ground-ball rates, Chatwood is still not inducing much poor contact, with a 14% soft-hit rate. (League average is generally about 18%, while league leaders are currently in the 25-30% range.)
Perhaps in response to those flaws observed by Eno Sarris, Chatwood appears to have altered his release point early this season. The changes don’t appear to have held, however.
Here’s 2017, for example:
They’re pretty similar overall, with 2018 maybe a bit lower, if anything. An examination of video from 2017 and 2018 suggests that there’s maybe a little more short-arm action in the current mechanics; overall, though, his motion is pretty similar. Nor has the pitch mix changed all that much either: Chatwood is throwing his four-seamer at a career-low rate, but it’s a nominal difference (29% now vs. 34% last year) and sinkers are making up the difference. One interesting note is that Chatwood has actually declined usage of the one pitch, the curveball, which Sarris thought might benefit the right-hander. He’s usage of the pitch has dropped a few percentage points.
Perhaps what is most notable is who Chatwood is walking this year. Against lefties last year, Chatwood walked 14% of hitters compared to 10% of righties. In 2016, he walked more lefties than righties. For his career, Chatwood has walked 12.3% of lefties compared to 9.9% of righties. But this year, Chatwood’s flipped the script, walking everybody — 19.8% of righties and 16.8% of lefties. But Chatwood is striking out just 15.8% of lefties compared to 27.5% of righties. However, Chatwood has thrown 354 pitches to righties and 377 pitches to lefties this year, almost the same number. He has thrown 215 strikes (57%) to righties and 194 strikes to lefties (51.5%). So he’s still throwing fewer strikes to lefthanded batters.
So what does all this mean? The one bugaboo Chatwood had coming into this season — more than his spin rate, more than his contact rate — was his control. It’s always been below average, and though Eno didn’t talk about it much in his article, his control never played up away from Coors either: his career home walk rate (11.1%) and road walk rate (11.2%) are almost identical. And Chatwood has struggled like this before. Last year, for instance, Chatwood walked walked 16% of hitters last May and 17% of hitters last July, and 12.5% of hitters away from Coors – not as bad as this year, mind you, but still not great.
So Tyler Chatwood is the same as he always was, really. Tyler Chatwood away from Coors had control problems, and so Tyler Chatwood the Cub has control problems. His walk rate likely won’t stay this high, but then he won’t keep suppressing homers at this rate. Chatwood is probably something close to the league-average starter his FIP says he is. That’s not a revolutionary take, but then, maybe Chatwood was never really a revolutionary pitcher.
Sheryl Ring is a litigation attorney and General Counsel at Open Communities, a non-profit legal aid agency in the Chicago suburbs. You can reach her on twitter at @Ring_Sheryl. The opinions expressed here are solely the author's. This post is intended for informational purposes only and is not intended as legal advice.