The Chicago Cubs made their first big move toward rebuilding their rotation. With Jake Arrieta and John Lackey on the way out, the team needed to pick up a promising starter to try and fill out its rotation. Instead, they decided to spend $38 million on Tyler Chatwood.
The soon-to-be 28-year-old Chatwood inked a three-year, $38 million deal with the Cubs on Thursday. He’s coming off a season in which he posted a 4.69 ERA over 147 2/3 innings with the Colorado Rockies.
If you squint, you can see the upside with the move. Chatwood is still relatively young at 27, he averaged 95 mph on his fastball last season and he’s been great away from Coors Field the past two years.
Those arguments are tenuous, though. He might be younger compared to other free-agent pitchers, but he’s rarely been good. His best season came in 2016, when he posted a 3.87 ERA over 158 innings. While throwing hard is nice, Chatwood’s uptick in velocity didn’t help him post dominant numbers last season.
But it’s Chatwood’s home/road splits you’ll hear touted most. Even the Cubs managed to slip a reference to them in the press release announcing the move.
Upon first glance, things look promising. Over the past two seasons, Chatwood has posted a 2.58 ERA over 157 1/3 innings away from Coors Field. Perhaps the Cubs believe a change of scenery will benefit Chatwood greatly.
But those numbers wilt under closer examination. Chatwood’s peripherals aren’t drastically better on the road. His strikeout rate and walk rate don’t change much. Chatwood’s strikeout rate away from Coors Field the past two seasons has hovered around 19 percent. That’s a slight uptick, but not elite. It would have ranked Chatwood 40th among qualified starters last season.
His walk rate has been a bigger issue. It’s actually increased on the road, hovering just under 12 percent the last two years. Among qualified starters, Robbie Ray’s 10.7 percent walk rate led the majors in 2017.
Roughly $13 million per year is a small price to pay for a starting pitcher. But it’s not like Chatwood has been durable over his career. Chatwood’s career high in innings pitched is just 158. It’s tough to trust him to eat a ton of innings, and his walk rate prevents him from pitching deep into games when he’s out there.
The Cubs aren’t just hoping to improve Chatwood’s performance on the field, they are also hoping they can keep Chatwood healthy for three years.
There are reasons to expect some improvement, of course. Coors is hell on pitching. Chatwood’s home run rate is better on the road. His extreme ground balling ways should play better behind the Cubs’ infield. His curveball — which appears to have gotten better last year — might be far more effective away from altitude.
The Cubs are more than likely to receive the benefit of the doubt with this signing. They are viewed as a smart franchise, and have had success turning around pitchers in recent years. Jake Arrieta and Kyle Hendricks stand out, but there have been others. The team inexplicably turning Chatwood into a perennial 200-inning No. 2 starter is somehow on the table given their track record. That wouldn’t be the case had Chatwood signed with a middling franchise.
There’s no denying the Cubs have a strong coaching staff and front office, and that should only help Chatwood’s development. But it’s tough to ignore just how much has to go right in order for the Cubs to come out of this deal with their next great reclamation project.
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