In case you missed the big news today, the Chicago Cubs signed free agent starter Tyler Chatwood to a three-year deal worth $38 million – you can see more details on the signing and some of Brett’s immediate thoughts/reactions right here.
Normally, when the Cubs sign a new guy, we’d do a regular old “Getting to Know the New Guy” post, but because a lot of that was covered in his free agent profile earlier this offseason, we’ll take a slightly different approach with Chatwood this time around.
So here’s a look at the Cubs newest starting pitcher in two lights: the bad and the good.
Which do you want first? Probably the bad, right? So you can finish up feeling good?
The Bad Half:
In 2017, Chatwood had a 4.69 ERA with a strikeout rate under 20% and a walk rate over 12%. Pretty much anyway you slice it, those stats are not good, and it’s not like the “Coors effect” directly impacts your K/BB numbers (you can say he was nibbling so as not to give up too much damage, but well, he did give up plenty of damage, so …).
And, frankly, I don’t want to skate by this too quickly, because it really was that bad, and it wasn’t just last year. From 2016-2017, after Chatwood returned from Tommy John surgery, his 11.3 BB% was the second highest in baseball among all pitchers with at least 250 IP, while his 18.2 K% was 23rd worst. Combining the two, and his 6.9 K-BB% comes out as the third worst spread in baseball during that stretch. Yikes.
Chatwood also got bit by the long ball last year. Despite being an extreme groundball pitcher, his 1.22 HR/9 was very nearly league average (1.27).
On top of all of that, Chatwood managed just 147.2 innings pitched last season, and, thus, was worth just a total of 1.1 fWAR. A workhorse, Chatwood has not been. Here’s his start and inning totals for each of his seven seasons in the Major Leagues:
2011: 25 starts, 142.0 IP
2012: 12 starts, 64.2 IP
2013: 20 starts, 111.1 IP
2014: 4 starts, 24.0 IP
2015: 0 starts, 0 IP
2016: 27 starts, 158.2 IP
2017: 25 starts, 147.2 IP
Chatwood has failed to go more than 160 innings in any season in his career, and as we discussed previously, has twice undergone Tommy John surgery (once when he was just 16 years old and again in 2014).
So what did the Cubs give this twice Tommy John-ed, 1-WAR, 4.69 ERA pitcher in free agency? A deal worth nearly twice what was projected, of course:
— Michael Cerami (@Michael_Cerami) December 7, 2017
In the end, Chatwood is getting three years and $38 million, which is not an overwhelming commitment, but it’s enough that if he were to bomb out or break, the Cubs will be carrying more than $12 million in AAV each year through 2020. That’s not a mere roll of the dice – that’s a guy you expect to definitely contribute.
… But come on, this is the Cubs. Epstein and crew aren’t batting 1.000 or anything, but you know they didn’t give Chatwood that much money for nothing, right?
The Good Half:
Despite ugly K/BB numbers, Chatwood was a batted-ball darling in 2017.
For starters, his 58.1% groundball rate was 5th best in all of baseball and that can matter disproportionately to a team like the Cubs:
Another set of fun facts:
Chatwood's 58.1% groundball rate was 5th best in baseball in 2017.
Extremely relatedly? The Rockies had only the 13th best defensive efficiency against grounders in 2017 (per BP).
The Cubs? They had the best.
— Bleacher Nation (@BleacherNation) December 7, 2017
Groundball pitchers aren’t just good to have on their own, they can be especially valuable in front of superb infield defenses. And it just so happens that’s exactly what the Cubs have set up for 2018 (and that’s particularly true as Javy Baez takes more starts at second base away from an aging Ben Zobrist (not that Zobrist wasn’t perfectly solid in 2017 in his own right – he was a Gold Glove finalist, after all)).
Oh, and there’s also this:
Tyler Chatwood's 9 Defensive Runs Saved last season led all Major League pitchers with at least 140 IP.
— Michael Cerami (@Michael_Cerami) December 7, 2017
So he’ll be helping his own cause!
And, hey, how about his contact management? If he had enough innings to qualify in 2017, Chatwood’s 22.1% soft-hit rate would’ve ranked 7th best in baseball, while his 29.1% hard-hit rate would’ve ranked 16th … just one spot behind the 2017 AL Cy Young award winner, Corey Kluber. He allowed a little more hard contact in 2016 (29.5%), and got a little less soft contact (18.9%), but both were solid numbers.
Perhaps that combination of grounders and weak contact is why his 2016 road ERA (away from the bat-friendly Coors Field) was the single best mark in baseball, as Brett points out, while his 3.49 road ERA last season ranked 24th.
In 2017, batters hit .302/.395/.489 off Chatwood at Coors Field. On the road, they hit just .200/.299/.396. His walk and strikeout rates were virtually identical on the home and road, as was the ISO. The only real difference? An absurd .350 BABIP at home and a .217 BABIP on the road.
And, just to confirm it with numbers: the run scoring environment at Coors Field in 2017 was about 33.2% more friendly than the average park. Hits came about 15.2% more easily at Coors than they did at the average park. (Wrigley Field, for what it’s worth, was at 13.1% and 4.9%, respectively.)
Stepping away from the statistics for just a moment, we can’t ignore the fact that while $38M may seem like a lot for Chatwood, he’s on a modest three-year deal, which happens to cover some prime years (28 in 2018, 29 in 2019, and 30 in 2020). Given that the Cubs also have Jon Lester, Jose Quintana, and Kyle Hendricks locked up through the 2020 season, they’ve given their rotation a lot of stability for the foreseeable future. That’s huge.
Now back to some numbers …
Recently, Andrew Simon used Statcast to uncover some of the most improved pitchers in 2017 and, what do you know, Chatwood’s name popped up in a couple important places.
For one, Chatwood’s fastball velocity increased by 2.1 MPH from 2016-2017 (up to 94.8 MPH), which was the biggest increase in all of baseball. As we know, fastball velocity tends to come back first when pitchers are making their return from TJS, so this is a good sign that he is showing good progress (perhaps command is next).
On top of that, Chatwood’s average launch angle allowed decreased by the second biggest margin (-4.8 degrees) last season, which should lead you to believe that the elite groundball numbers should stick around (and again, that might have a multiplier effect on his production in front of the Cubs’ infield defense).
And if you’ve paid attention to the headlines this winter, you’ll know that it isn’t just us (Bleacher Nation) getting excited about a potential breakout next season. At MLB.com, Mike Petriello gives you five reasons to expect a big breakout from Chatwood, including a few things we’ve already discussed (Coors effect, velocity bump, and ground ball rate) and a couple others, as well.
For his career, Chatwood has thrown his curveball about 11 percent of the time, though that number was up a bit last season and perhaps for good reason. According to Petriello, his curve spin rate was the fifth highest mark in all of baseball last season, and well above the league average. After basically abandoning the pitch in the two seasons prior, it was good to see him go back to it, because it earned him the highest curve pitch value of his career (1.4). Out of the thin air of Coors, you’ve gotta figure that high-spin-rate curveball will play even better.
And according to Matt Kelley on Twitter, Chatwood’s four-seam fastball also had the 7th highest spin rate of the 2017 season, which is yet another good sign of things to come. [Brett: This is very interesting to me for a groundball pitcher. Typically, a high-spin-rate four-seamer is associated with “rise” (less drop than the hitter is used to seeing), which can allow a pitcher to work up in the zone, induce pop-ups and whiffs. Chatwood doesn’t really get a lot of either of those things – his 9.9% swinging strike rate is below league average, and his 3.3% infield fly rate was the second lowest in all of baseball! Maybe he just doesn’t work up in the zone very much? Maybe he will as he gets more confidence in that velocity and spin?]
Petriello also mentions that while Chatwood has struggled in his second and third trips through the order, a smart manager might use his bullpen more aggressively and limit his exposure to help keep him at his most effective. And while that is both true in general and something the Cubs could look to employ, Chatwood’s second and third time through the order weren’t nearly as rough away from Coors (both last season and for his career) as the overall numbers look:
Career, Away from Coors:
1st time through the order: 2.90 ERA, .300 wOBA
2nd time: 3.62 ERA, .317 wOBA
3rd time: 3.46 ERA, .298 wOBA
2017, Away from Coors:
1st time: 2.84 ERA, .272 wOBA
2nd time: 4.26 ERA, .356 wOBA
3rd time: 3.79 ERA, .255 wOBA
As best as I can tell, Chatwood allows more hard contact and more fly balls in his 3rd trip through the order, so, at Coors, that’s probably what sunk him (more extra bases and homers). But even if he doesn’t improve in this area, simply removing Coors from the equation results in perfectly fine and expected numbers deeper into ball games (especially for a team’s fourth or fifth starter).
So, in the end, is Chatwood Yu Darvish or Shohei Ohtani? Of course not. But as a 27-year-old fourth starter with a ton of upside on an affordable contract through his prime years, there is so much to like about with this signing. Not the least of which is that it doesn’t preclude any other maneuvering, and provides the Cubs with comfort moving into the next phase of the offseason.
Brett Taylor contributed to this post.