Tyler Chatwood Is Toeing the Line Between Command and Hard Contact

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Tyler Chatwood Is Toeing the Line Between Command and Hard Contact

Chicago Cubs

Tyler Chatwood may be a bit of an enigma … but at least he’s a familiar one. Like so many promising starters who’ve come before him, Chatwood flashes elite stuff from top to bottom (velocity, movement, pitch mix, spin rate, etc.), while having trouble commanding his pitches.

It’s not anything new – there’s a reason there is only one Max Scherzer – but it’s not anything to shrug off, either. Not many pitchers can do to a baseball what Chatwood does every time he takes the mound, so the prospect of watching him tighten up his command while he’s on your roster is tantalizing.

Unfortunately, five of Chatwood’s eight starts this season have featured five walks or more, and that’s led to the single-highest walk rate in baseball (18.3%).

Fortunately, Chatwood walked just 2 of the 20 batters he faced last night (a 10 BB% is still on the high side, but given the rest of his stuff, that would be a perfectly acceptable rate long-term) and it may not have been a fluke.

“I think somewhere I created a bad habit,” Chatwood told the Tribune after the game. “I’m not sure where. But now I’m aware of it. So every time I play catch, I try to take advantage to work on it. And I did that.” His manager, Joe Maddon, agrees and though his command was much better last night.

So what did he do to change? Well, according to Chatwood, his arm was “behind the rubber and in good position to repeat his delivery” and release point. A more consistent delivery and release point is, like Chatwood’s issue, a very common prescription to the problem. Especially when you’ve already got a complicated delivery like Chatwood’s.

So, that’s good. But I still have some concerns about the command fix.

Before last night, here’s a look at Chatwood’s pitches by the rate at which he threw them for balls this season (pitch count in parentheses):

Four-seam (187): 44.4%
Sinker (232): 44.8%
Changeup (32): 43.8%
Slider (141): 39.0%

And here’s a look at the same pitches from last night, with the percentage point change following the data above (positives are bad):

Four-seam (27): 48.2% (+3.8)
Sinker (21): 38.1% (-6.7)
Changeup (13): 53.9% (+10.1)
Slider (15): 46.7% (+7.7).

Now, before we all go freaking out, we have to point out a few things. First, the increase in ball rate for Chatwood’s offspeed and breaking stuff might not paint an accurate picture of his intent. More often than not, those pitches are meant to be out of the zone. Sure, they’re still supposed to generate swings and misses, but that’s sort of a separate issue.

(Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Instead, the curious thing is that despite a self-proclaimed increase in his command (and fewer walks to prove it), Chatwood’s four-seamer was actually a ball more often than it had been this season – and, remember, that was already pretty bad. His sinker did improve by quite a bit, of course, and that’s good news, but weirdly (and contrary to his pitch mix the rest of the year), Chatwood actually threw his sinker less often. Had he tightened up the sinker command and thrown that pitch more often, I would’ve been happy to see it, but increase in usage and ball rate on his four-seamer really takes the wind out of these sails. It seems plausible that some fortunate sequencing may have helped him keep the walks at a minimum.

But, hey, it’s not all about ball rate. According to FanGraphs, Chatwood’s zone rate was the highest of the season, and not by a small amount: 51.9% last night, 39.3% for the year. But even that leads into the discussion of another problem: way too much contact.

Sure, Chatwood was able to get more than half his pitches in the zone yesterday (his highest rate of the season), but he wasn’t fooling ANYBODY.

Braves’ hitters swung at just 7.9% of pitches out of the zone (23.2% for the season) and 68.3% pitches in the zone (62.0% for the season). On top of that, his out-of-zone contact rate was 100% and his in-zone contact rate was 89.3%. Overall, then, his 90.3% contact rate yesterday was 10 percentage points higher than it has been this season. Tracking with that logic (i.e. Chatwood wasn’t fooling anybody) it’s not much of a surprise to see the massive 62.5% hard-hit rate and minuscule 6.3% soft-hit rate.

Last night’s outing suggests that whatever Chatwood has to give up to improve his command (velocity, spin rate, movement?) affects his ability to 1.) miss bats in and out of the zone, and 2.) induce weak contact. That’s the line he’ll have to toe – if he gets too zone-oriented with his pitches, he risk getting crushed. If he just lets it fly, he gets wild.

The good news is that the stuff is there. The ability to adjust is there. He’ll just keep plugging away on it. And, hey, he’s only 28.

Author: Michael Cerami

Michael Cerami covers the Chicago Cubs, Bears, and Bulls at Bleacher Nation. You can find him on Twitter @Michael_Cerami