I know what you’re thinking even before you complete the first paragraph of this post: Sheryl’s trade proposal probably sucks.
I don’t blame you. Most trade proposals suck. As we pass the All-Star week contemplating trade value, though, I thought I’d take an opportunity to indulge myself by imagining a deal that makes too much sense (in my head, at least) not to happen. I contend that, before this year’s July 31 trade deadline, the Chicago Cubs should trade Tyler Chatwood to the New York Yankees for Sonny Gray.
One flaw is immediately apparent: contending clubs rarely make trades with other contenders. Why would they? Teams bound for the postseason are typically looking to add present talent while surrendering players with future value. Both the Cubs and Yankees are contenders. Both Chatwood and Gray are major leaguers. So already this is improbable. Because of their struggles, though, Chatwood and Gray actually possess unlocked future value, though — future value that another club, in my opinion, is more likely to unlock.
I’ve written about both pitchers this year. Both have struggled. Let’s start with Chatwood. When I examined his season back on May 22, he had a 3.14 ERA despite an 18.3% walk rate and 102 FIP-, the latter figure mostly on the back of an unsustainable 3% HR/FB. Since then, his walk rate has actually increased; since May 22, he’s recorded an 18.8% walk rate. That’s bad. Not only has Chatwood produced the highest walk rate among pitchers with 30 or more innings this season, but his 18.6% mark would actually represent the second highest among qualifiers* since the integration of baseball.
*The highest mark since integration is 20.3%, produced by Tommy Byrne in 1949. Improbably, Byrne still managed to record a 92 ERA- that year — that is, he prevented runs 8% better than a league-average pitcher. Overall, Byrne made 170 starts in the majors and logged 1362.0 innings, posting a career walk rate of 16.8% but still managing a 103 ERA-.
Chatwood’s continued problems with command have hurt him. When I published that piece, though, he’d managed his league-average ERA by conceding homers on only 3% of his fly balls. Now that mark is up to 11.1%. Regression isn’t pretty sometimes, and combining lots of walks with lots of homers is a quick way out of the major leagues. Chatwood now has a 127 FIP-.
On the other side of this deal, we have Sonny Gray. I wrote about Gray back on April 27, pointing out that Gray’s struggles were directly correlated to a decline in the use of his fastball. The Yankees, after all, throw fastballs less often than any other team, and Gray had never thrown his fastball as scarcely as when he came to New York. On the surface, Gray’s been the recipient of poor fortune — his 129 ERA- is a far cry from his 100 FIP- — but it’s not at all clear that’s the culprit. Statcast thinks Gray deserves the hard contact he’s been surrendering, with a .339 xwOBA and .385 xwOBA on contact, both career highs.
Gray is still not throwing his fastball. Per Pitch Info, he’s using it less than at any time in his Oakland tenure. In 2015, Gray threw his four-seamer (36.5%) nearly three times as often as his curveball (13.7%). In 2018, that script is completely different: Gray is throwing the pitches at 26.6% and 22.0%, respectively. It’s also possible that, by going away from the fastball, Gray has lost his feel for the pitch entirely. Statcast gives Gray’s fastball an .448 xwOBA, also a career high.
So why would anybody trade for Gray or Chatwood on purpose?
Gray is still getting decent or better swinging-strike rates on his primary pitches. His velocity is pretty stable this year — and might actually be up a tick over last year — so there’s no obvious explanation for Gray’s struggles except for the change in approach he adopted when he came to New York. As for Chatwood, we knows he’s pitched poorly — and the pitch-value data suggests he’s struggled with his four-seamer and sinker more than other pitch by far. Yet those pitches also account for close to 60% of his offerings, with his changeup and curveball both in the single digits. The latter two pitches are actually above average on a rate basis, though. The whiff numbers on Chatwood’s secondaries are strong and, interestingly, Statcast suggests that Chatwood’s biggest control problems are on his four-seamer and sinker. He has better command, it seems, of his cutter, changeup, and curve.
Gray, in other words, would benefit by moving away from his secondary pitches, Chatwood by embracing them. Per Pitch Info, those two pitchers are on the worst teams for making those specific changes.
Cubs pitchers are throwing fewer secondaries than any other staff in the majors, the Yankees more of them. At some level, these figures are reliant on the actual personnel employed by the clubs. When the numbers are so divergent across an entire roster, however, it at least suggests the possibility of an organizational philosophy at work. By these numbers, Gray might benefit most from a move to Chicago, Chatwood from a move to New York.
There is, of course, the problem of money. After this year, Chatwood is owed $12.5 million in 2019 and $13 million in 2020 on the contract he signed with the Cubs before this season. Gray, on the other hand, avoided arbitration this offseason by agreeing to a one-year, $6.5 million deal; he’ll go through arbitration one last time this winter before hitting free agency in 2020. So Chatwood is owed both more money this year and more money overall. On the other hand, Gray’s final trip through arbitration, even with his current struggles, isn’t likely to yield a salary that much less than Chatwood’s $12.5 million paycheck. And given the current price of starting pitching, it’s a pretty easily justifiable bet from both sides: the Cubs get a potential difference-maker at a lower price than Chatwood, whilst the Yankees get two more years of team control of a ground-balling innings-eater at a reasonable price.
There are lots of reasons this won’t happen. Gray and Chatwood may both have more value to the Yankees and Cubs than any other team. There’s the money disparity and the Yankees’ luxury tax plan. There’s fear of being the team that loses out — what if the Cubs fix Gray but the Yankees don’t fix Chatwood, or vice versa? There’s a potential talent disparity: Gray’s been a high-end starter as late as the first half of last year; Chatwood has never been that, although he arguably has better stuff. On the other hand, though, if both pitchers continue in the present direction, Gray could end up a non-tender candidate and Chatwood could be a $38 million long reliever. If things go right, both the Yankees and Cubs end up with useful pitchers. Given where Gray and Chatwood are right now, useful would be an improvement.
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.