Tyler Chatwood Joins Toronto’s Very Fluid Pitching Staff

The thing about walking 95 batters in 103.2 innings is that it sticks with you. That’s what Tyler Chatwood did in 2018, the first season of his three-year, $38 million contract with the Cubs. While never known for his command, he’d never approached that degree of wildness before that season, and he hasn’t since. In fact, he’s often been pretty good: Over his last two seasons, his ERA- and FIP- both stand at 92, and there are signs that he is getting better. But two years isn’t a lot of time to distance yourself from walking nearly a batter an inning for a full season, especially since Chatwood has also dealt with injury woes. The increased questions about his control and health meant that his second foray into free agency couldn’t get him a tenth of the guaranteed money his first one did, as he signed a one-year, $3 million deal with the Blue Jays on Monday. The actual talent in his arm, however, could prove to be worth much more.

Chatwood’s contract includes incentives that could push its total value to $5.5 million, though the specifics of those incentives haven’t been reported. An educated guess would assume they are based on his innings. As for his role, Sportsnet’s Shi Davidi reported that Chatwood is expected to be used out of the bullpen, as Toronto already has a starting rotation in place consisting of Hyun Jin Ryu, Robbie Ray, Tanner Roark, Ross Stripling and Nate Pearson. Because he’s been a starter for most of his career, Chatwood would probably be first in line to replace one of those five if injuries or ineffectiveness sideline them. If the incentives are innings-based, that essentially turns this into two separate deals — $3 million if he is mostly a reliever, and almost double that if he’s mostly a starter.

The role Chatwood settles into is probably going to come down to what opportunities are available, because his career numbers as a starter and as a reliever are pretty much the same.

Tyler Chatwood SP/RP Career Splits
SP 755.1 6.49 4.73 0.89 0.300 4.38 4.65
RP 91.1 7.59 4.34 1.08 0.302 4.53 4.66

The assumption in baseball is that a starter’s stuff plays up in shorter bursts out of the bullpen, especially a pitcher like Chatwood who gains a couple ticks of velocity when pitching in relief and whose control problems can have less of an impact on his performance. It’s tempting, too, to believe that he would be aided by a move to the ‘pen when you consider his numbers based on times through the order. In his starts, he has a 2.88 ERA and .316 wOBA in his career when facing batters for the first time. Those numbers quickly balloon to 5.59 and .348 the second time he goes through a lineup, and 5.10 and .357 the third time. Chatwood, though, is an example of why predicting which struggling starters will turn into dominant relievers isn’t always a slam dunk. There are plenty of reasons to think he would be much more dangerous out of the bullpen, but we’ve got an okay-sized sample saying he’s still the same guy.

That doesn’t mean there isn’t untapped potential in Chatwood’s arm. Two starts into his 2020 season, Dan Szymborski wrote about how the right-hander suddenly looked like a strikeout machine. It was a minuscule sample, but that projection was based on Chatwood ditching his inadequate four-seamer and replacing it with a much more deadly cutter. Five games into his season, he was beating his previous career-best in strikeout rate by nearly eight points and held his lowest walk rate since 2016. And he didn’t do it by moving to the bullpen; he did it by making adjustments he could maintain throughout a six-inning appearance.

Unfortunately, those five games were all Chatwood threw in 2020, as back and forearm strains kept him out for most of the final seven weeks of the season. That’s not out of the ordinary for him either. Back problems have landed him on the injured list three different times over the last five years, with calf and hip maladies along the way as well. Chatwood is also a Tommy John surgery recipient, which limited him to four starts in 2014 and none in ’15. There are players with worse health records, but the fact that he rarely completes a season without at least one IL stint makes him a bit risky as a signing.

It’s convenient for the Blue Jays, then, that they happen to have a lot of pitchers who fit into the same role as Chatwood. Of those five pitchers I named above, Roark and Stripling have alternated between starting and relieving, Pearson could be moved to the bullpen if he struggles early, and Ray has control issues of his own that perpetually threaten to knock him out of the rotation.

If any of those pitchers lose a rotation spot, Chatwood’s competition for replacing them will be stiff. The Blue Jays have 15 pitchers in their organization who have started a game in the majors in the last two years, many of them young players, and there were already a large number of swingman types on this roster, most of whom are making the major league minimum. That makes Chatwood an odd fit. Toronto doesn’t need more arms to pad the back of its staff; it needs arms to add to the top. That’s why the team reportedly made an offer to Tomoyuki Sugano (who ultimately chose to return to Japan), and why the team has met with Trevor Bauer.

Perhaps the Blue Jays do see Chatwood as a major upgrade, then. Maybe they were impressed enough with his brief 2020 work that they feel he can be a high-leverage arm in the bullpen, or maybe they are more bullish on his chances to make the rotation than they are letting on. It has long been believed that there is more to Chatwood than meets the eye. The last team to make that bet got burned, but three years later, there is still good reason for hope.

Tony is a contributor for FanGraphs. He began writing for Red Reporter in 2016, and has also covered prep sports for the Times West Virginian and college sports for Ohio University's The Post. He can be found on Twitter at @_TonyWolfe_.

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1 year ago

While you’re right the bulk of his RP innings are similar to his SP innings, his last stint in the bullpen in 2019 was interesting. 54 innings, 4.20 FIP/3.67 xFIP (94/83 FIP-/xFIP-). So I’d argue he’s more effective in relief.