The Chicago Cubs are heading into the 2018 season with what can arguably be called baseball’s best starting rotation, one that is easily in MLB’s top five. Joe Maddon has already declared that this is probably the best starting five he will have worked with.
Jon Lester is getting the Opening Day start, but you could line Yu Darvish, Kyle Hendricks, and Jose Quintana one after the other and easily make the case that each could make that first start for just about every other club across baseball’s landscape.
Notably missing from that praise is a pitcher who isn’t getting the same type of buzz that his four teammates are. Heck, he’s not even getting as much publicity as sixth starter Mike Montgomery. I’d venture to guess that most casual fans know little of the former Colorado Rockies hurler outside of his contract, and even that may have faded.
If you recall, the three year, $39 million pact stood as the richest of the offseason for quite a while and was forced to be restructured due to escalator bonuses for appearing on a lone Cy Young ballot. How anonymous is this guy? We haven’t even bothered to use his name yet.
No, Tyler Chatwood does not bring quite the same cachet as his illustrious teammates.
The four other starters are experienced on baseball’s biggest stages, stretching from World Series success and decorated postseason and regular season accolades. Chatwood, on the other hand, has toiled in relative obscurity. He’s never exceeded 158 innings pitched, his career ERA and FIP numbers are north of 4.00, and he’s bounced back and forth between the rotation and the bullpen.
But when you dig beneath his 8-15 record from 2017 and his sub-.500 career record and consider that he played the bulk of his career at Coors Field, a mile-high hellscape for most pitchers, you start to see why his real potential screamed out to Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer.
Among qualified starters last season, Chatwood was 24th overall and 12th in the NL in road ERA (3.49), just above the likes of Dallas Keuchel and Zack Greinke. That alone is rather significant when you project a future that will see him pitching away from Denver pretty much exclusively.
Another aspect that should bode well for Chatwood is his exceptional groundball rate. His 58.1 percent rate ranked fifth among starters that pitched at least 140 innings and his 58.6 rate on the road also ranked fifth among pitchers with at least 50 IP away from their respective home parks.
Generating a high percentage of worm-burners in front of a defense of Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, Javier Baez, and Anthony Rizzo sure won’t hurt.
According to FanGraphs, Chatwood has seen his soft contact rates increase from 18.9 percent in 2016 to 22.1 last year. His medium contact rates have decreased over the past three seasons, from 57.7 percent in 2015 to 48.8 in 2017, and he has done a better job of limiting hard contact, down nearly four percent from 2015.
Those were all among the numbers behind the numbers that had Chatwood high on the Cubs’ list this past winter. Theo Epstein sat down with Cubs broadcasters Len Kasper and Jim Deshaies during a recent broadcast to discuss, among other topics, what drew them to Chatwood (full audio below).
Epstein acknowledged Chatwood’s command issues throughout his career (4.17 BB/9) but talked up the 28-year-old’s “stuff” and raw potential.
“He’s always had plenty of stuff,” Epstein explained. “We think he’s extremely talented, has a lot of raw ability but is also really engaged and good member of the team, wanting to get better and eager to show what he can do away from [Coors Field].”
Epstein lauded Chatwood’s arsenal, which includes both a two-seamer and four-seamer in addition to the typical complement of breaking balls. ZiPS has Chatwood posting a 12-10 record, 4.24 ERA, and 4.94 FIP, which, while not stellar by any means, would all represent improvements over last year’s fifth starter. But the Cubs believe he can be far better than those projections.
By getting him in a new environment and leveraging an abundance of analytical information, not to mention pairing him with pitching coach Jim Hickey, could help Chatwood to reach his full potential on the North Side.