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The Tyler Chatwood dilemma

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What can the Cubs do about a pitcher who can barely find the strike zone?

Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images

The Cubs could have chosen to skip Tyler Chatwood this time through the rotation; on normal four days’ rest his turn would have come up today, the off day, and the Cubs could have gone with Kyle Hendricks, Jon Lester and Jose Quintana (not necessarily in that order) against the Padres.

But they chose not to, they chose to give Chatwood yet another chance to work things out and prove that he’s worth retaining in the big-league rotation.

Maybe this is the last chance, maybe there’s something physically wrong with him, maybe it’s just mechanics that can’t be fixed.

Fans, of course, have had opinions on this. This should not surprise you. Some of those opinions are about things that can’t be done. Let’s take a look at some of these “proposals.”

“Send him to Iowa!”

Well, you can’t do that. Literally, you can’t. Players with as much service time in the major leagues as Chatwood (more than six full years), and who don’t have options, have the right to refuse an outright assignment to the minor leagues. Chatwood would have to clear waivers to be so assigned (and he would, no one would claim that contract), but after that he could just say “no.”

Beyond the contractual reasons, there’s simply no reason to do this. If there are mechanical things to work on, then working with big-league pitching coach Jim Hickey is probably the best way to fix them. If he simply doesn’t have command, pitching to Triple-A hitters isn’t going to solve that issue, he’d basically be piling up walks in the Pacific Coast League.

Decades ago, a pitcher like this might have been assigned to the minors. But the way modern baseball is structured, it simply won’t happen; Chatwood isn’t going to pitch for the Iowa Cubs unless it’s on a rehab assignment.

“DFA him!”

Some people like to say this, not understanding what “designated for assignment” even means. A DFA simply gives the club doing it seven days (used to be 10, but this was changed in the last CBA) to either trade the player, or eventually get unconditional release waivers. The player is immediately removed from the 40-man roster, but continues to be paid under the terms of his contract.

A DFA is generally used when a team needs to clear a 40-man roster spot and doesn’t have any intention of bringing him back, or wants to stash him in the minors if he clears waivers, as was the case recently for Chris Gimenez.

A DFA would be pointless for Chatwood. No one will claim his contract, and at this point no team is going to trade for him, either. If the Cubs did let him go, not only do they have to pay him the balance of his deal — which amounts to a little over $30 million — but they’d retain his contract figures of $12.5 million in 2019 and $13 million in 2020 as “cap hits” to the luxury-tax limit. This would be a really bad idea and would constrain Cubs spending in future years.

So, for better or worse, the Cubs are stuck with Tyler Chatwood. What I don’t understand is how a pitcher can establish a fairly consistent walk rate over 130 games (113 starts) and 647⅔ innings over six seasons — 4.2 per nine innings before this year — and then suddenly, as a Cub, that rate nearly doubles, currently at 8.0 per nine innings.

In my view, there are only two possible explanations:

  • He’s got something seriously wrong with his pitching mechanics, or
  • He’s injured.

You would think a pitching coach with as much experience as Jim Hickey could fix a mechanical issue. Here’s some video of Chatwood that might help explain what’s going on. Or not. First, two from last year.

Chatwood striking out Buster Posey, September 5, 2017 [VIDEO]

Chatwood striking out Chris Taylor, September 10, 2017 [VIDEO]

Chatwood striking out Alex Gordon, March 18, 2018 (spring training) [VIDEO]

Chatwood striking out Scott Schebler, July 7, 2018 [VIDEO]

(If you’re looking for video of Chatwood walking hitters, of course, that’s not going to be saved.)

Here are some charts (via Fangraphs)! First, from this year.

2018
Fangraphs
2018
Fangraphs

Now, here are the comparable 2017 charts.

2017
Fangraphs
2017
Fangraphs

Let me first say that obviously, I’m no pitching coach nor expert in this area. But it does appear that Chatwood’s delivery was somewhat more compact in 2017 than in the two 2018 examples. Further, from the charts, there were more pitches in the zone in 2017, particularly against lefthanded hitters. That’s likely a mechanical issue — but it could, conceivably, be caused by an injury that might make him alter his motion slightly. That’s pure speculation, of course, but it certainly wouldn’t hurt to put Chatwood on the DL and have him work his way back through rehab assignment starts. All pitchers have some form of arm fatigue or minor aches and pains during the season; the Cubs have used DL stints for quite a number of relievers this year, and they certainly could do so for Chatwood. Duane Underwood Jr., who was reasonably good in his one start last month against the Dodgers, could be recalled to take Chatwood’s spot in the rotation, temporarily.

Somehow, the Cubs have not done poorly in Chatwood’s 16 starts. They’re 8-8 in those outings, which has to qualify as a minor miracle given how poorly Chatwood has pitched. Here are the Cubs’ team W/L records with each pitcher who’s started a game this year.

Jon Lester: 15-3
Kyle Hendricks: 6-12
Jose Quintana: 12-6
Tyler Chatwood: 8-8
Yu Darvish: 5-3
Mike Montgomery: 5-4
Jen-Ho Tseng: 1-0
Luke Farrell: 0-1
Duane Underwood Jr.: 0-1

The most remarkable number there, besides Chatwood’s, is the poor team record with Hendricks starting. You will not be surprised to learn that Hendricks ranks 93rd among 129 qualified starters this year in run support. Other Cubs rankings for run support among qualified starters:

Jon Lester: 2nd
Jose Quintana: 9th
Tyler Chatwood: 16th

Anyway, I’ve digressed a bit. Chatwood’s been bad, but the team has been a bit lucky in his 16 starts. Perhaps Friday is a “last chance” and they’ll re-evaluate during the All-Star break. Personally, I think a DL stint is the right answer to help reset Chatwood and make him the effective starter the Cubs thought they were getting when they signed him to that three-year deal last December.