Tyler Chatwood Finally Benefiting Elite Spin Rate Cubs Touted Last Year

With his spot in the starting rotation now occupied by Cole Hamels, right-hander Tyler Chatwood knew he would be working out of the bullpen in 2019. The idea was not completely foreign to Chatwood, who gained experience as a swingman with both the Angels and Rockies.

Nevertheless, he had never made more than eight relief appearances in any of his eight previous seasons, a mark he has already surpassed with 13 this season. Chatwood has been deployed as a Swiss Army knife this season, working single innings and long-relief, making an emergency start, and even locking down a save on May 25

While Chatwood is probably not best suited for the closer’s role in a larger capacity, he has found success working primarily as a reliever out of Joe Maddon‘s bullpen. He has pitched 29.1 innings across 14 appearances (one start), posting a 2.76 ERA with a 19.7 % strikeout rate and a 14.8% walk rate that, while still lofty, is much better than last season (19.6%). Peripherals like that mean an elevated 5.10 FIP, which he is combating by holding opposing batters to a .212 average while leaving 90.1% of runners on base.

Numbers like that can change in a heartbeat for relievers, but Chatwood’s success (and his ability to maintain it) can be traced, at least in part, to the same thing that made him attractive to the Cubs in the first place. Despite high ERA and walk numbers with the Rockies, the Cubs identified Chatwood’s elite spin rate as something that could play up outside of Coors Field. While that didn’t exactly happen in 2018, we may seeing it start to pay off for the right-hander.

Chatwood currently sits in the 98th percentile of MLB pitchers with an average curveball spin rate of 3,032 RPM and his 2,464 RPM average on the four-seam is in the 94th percentile. Both of those numbers are up from a year ago, a trend that continues with Chatwood’s remaining offerings.

Chatwood’s spin rate on his cutter (2,756 RPM), sinker (2,504 RPM) and changeup (1,789 RPM) are all career highs for him since Statcast began tracking it in 2015. Stemming from that uptick across the board has been a decrease in opponent batting average. Among his four main offerings (four-seam fastball, sinker, cutter, and changeup), the best hitters have been able to do is a .222 average against the cutter.

That said, perhaps the biggest difference-maker for Chatwood this season has been his sinker. Batters teed off on the pitch in 2018, averaging .306 with a .518 slugging percentage. This season, however, those respective marks sit at .179 and .256 as Chatwood has increased his usage of the pitch more than 12 percent from season to season.

Just as important as spin rate is the ability to locate those pitches with more precision in 2019, leading to more positive results. Below is a FanGraphs heat map of all 186 sinkers Chatwood has thrown this season. As you can see by all the red boxes, he is consistently getting it in on the hands of right-handed batters, resulting in a 58.3% groundball rate.

His improved sinker command can also be seen in how he’s getting the ball down in the zone more. That is evidenced by a 19.2% flyball rate this season that sits nearly nine points below last season and would be a career best if it holds.

It should be noted that Chatwood is also throwing harder than ever, which is to be expected with his move to the bullpen on a full-time basis. It’s a long season, though, and there is no doubt Chatwood will have peaks and valleys as the outings pile up. What will make the difference is whether he is able to maintain the positive trends he has established in the early going this season. Continuing to bust righties in while throwing more strikes will help him avoid the regression suggested by some of his peripheral numbers.

With some of the best spin rates in baseball and improved command by his side, Chatwood should continue to play a pivotal role in the bullpen for the rest of 2019 campaign.

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