Into The Woods

As we’ve discussed while the Hot Stove took forever to warm up, the Cubs might have to dig a little in their search for a starting pitcher or two. There wasn’t an obvious piece out there like the winter they signed Jon Lester or the clear filler of John Lackey when the 4th spot opened up in the winter before 2016. The market is thin, the two pitchers at the top in Jake Arrieta and Yu Darvish are awfully expensive for the questions they bring. So the Cubs might have to buy and sculpt, and that’s what they look to have done with the signing of Tyler Chatwood today.

The good thing about Chatwood is it’s pretty clear what’s good about him and what the problems are. And then there’s stuff in the creamy middle that we can dissect and we’re sure the Cubs have too that might unearth something more than appears on the surface. The good stuff: Chatwood gets a ton of grounders. His groundball-percentage has been tickling 60% the past two years. Given the Cubs infield defense, you have to be excited about that. One of the many challenges of pitching in Denver that doesn’t get talked about as much is that due to the thin air and constant sunshine the infield there turns into a runway by the middle of summer. The Rockies infield defense is usually pretty good, but certainly the Cubs should be something of an upgrade.

Secondly, Chatwood doesn’t give up a ton of hard-contact. His rate was below 30%, which is good, though can still get you punished in Coors. Which it did, heavily. Chatwood had a .381 wOBA against at home last year, against a .297 on the road. Guys who give up contact get punished in the Rockies… and for the Rockies.

And obviously this is where the concern is. Chatwood doesn’t strike many guys out at all, never topping 20% in K-rate. He also walks far too many hitters, as the past two years that’s been over 10%. The Cubs must feel they can get him over the plate with a tweak or two, because we know this is a team ultra-concerned about walks after last season.

There’s also something else I’m sure the Cubs are looking at, and that’s Chatwood’s jump in velocity last year. Chatwood’s average velocity on his fastball jumped to 94.7 last year, a rise of over two MPH. Same story with his cutter, which if he threw enough innings would have qualified as one of the most effective cutters in the league. Chatwood was also able to generate more sink on his curve, though he doesn’t throw it that much. He shortened up his slider so that FanGraphs basically thinks it’s a cutter.

Thanks to the movement to his arm-side, Chatwood has been much better against righties in his career than lefties, and that’s another thing that Jim Hickey is going to have to sort out. With his shortened up slider Chatwood doesn’t have much to get in on lefties, so maybe Kyle Hendricks will have to teach him that comeback-cutter to catch the inside corner.

How this shakes out the rest of the Cubs’ winter plans is unclear. You could obviously see them wrapping up the Alex Cobb business, saying these are their #4 and #5 and that’s it. But Chatwood’s durability brings that into question a bit. He’s never made more than 27 starts in a season, made 25 last year with eight relief appearances. So…just spit-balling here…Say you were going to sign a Japanese pitcher, who’s accustomed to only making one start per week. And say you were going to keep him on that schedule to avoid fatigue/injury. And say you would need two swing guys who can dip into the rotation and back to the pen to fill in those extra days. Why… say… the Cubs now have two swing guys in Chatwood and Montgomery….

Ok, maybe that’s a stretch. The more likely explanation here is that the Cubs saw Chatwood’s increased velocity and movement and figure if their new pitching coach can harness all that into the zone, they have a real steal on their hands. Then again, they probably thought that with Eddie Butler, too.

At first, $40 million sounds like a lot, but considering what the market is for starting pitching, $13 million a year really isn’t all that much. It’s less than what Lackey got last year and could he possibly be worse? Cobb will probably come in more expensive, but seeing as how the Cubs are basically spending nothing on Hendricks and Quintana for what they provide, you’ll live with it.

The problem isn’t Chatwood’s stuff. The Cubs just have to craft more control out of it, and suddenly they might have a real surprise on their hands. Thumbs up.

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