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The curious case of Tyler Chatwood

Why the Cubs will need him (to be good) in 2019.

Chicago Cubs v Pittsburgh Pirates Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images

When the Cubs signed Tyler Chatwood to a three-year deal worth $38 million before the 2018 season, they thought they knew something other teams didn’t. His fastball is in the mid-90s and he has a curveball with an exceptional spin rate, but perhaps it was clouded by the friendly-hitting Coors Field. Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer were convinced they discovered a piece of coal that they could polish into a diamond that would eventually sparkle in their starting rotation.

Unfortunately, that never happened. In 2018, Chatwood walked 95 batters in 103.2 innings, pitched to a 5.30 ERA, and was moved to the bullpen in late July. This was one of the Cubs offseason moves that resulted in their early exit of the 2018 NL playoffs. Yu Darvish signed a six-year, $126 million contract in February 2018, but only pitched 40 innings and was shut down for the year with an elbow injury by late August. So with two years left on his deal, what do the Cubs do with Tyler Chatwood now?

With Brandon Morrow expected to miss the first month of the 2019 season and Pedro Strop now nursing a strained hamstring, the Cubs have some serious bullpen questions to address. C.J. Edwards has not fully proven that he can throw strikes on a consistent basis to become the Cubs’ premier relief pitcher.

Starters Jon Lester and Cole Hamels have been consistently productive, but they are both 35 years-old and any major regression from either of them would create a negative ripple effect in the Cubs pitching staff. Regardless if the Cubs need him as a spot starter or a reliever coming out of the bullpen, the errant right-hander will need to be able to come in pounding the strike zone. A bounce back year from Tyler Chatwood is obviously what the Cubs want, but they actually might need it.

A minor flaw in his mechanics, which was addressed in the offseason, may help him find the plate more consistently; Chatwood took his glove tap away mid-season to try to find better command. Habits are hard to break because he was still jabbing during his delivery, which negatively affected his timing. Pitching coach Tommy Hottovy worked with Chatwood to help him simplify his delivery by eradicating all the extra movements, and while these tiny adjustments are often scoffed at by your average sports fan, they can sometimes turn careers around.

Baseball players are often characterized as “soft” or “non-athletes” because of the specificity to their craft. In baseball, a small adjustment can make a huge difference. Just ask Justin Turner, who was a career .260 hitter and a non-roster invitee in 2013 with the Dodgers until he discovered launch angle. Ask J.D. Martinez how he turned himself into one of the best hitters in baseball shortly after getting cut by the Houston Astros during spring training of 2014, just by simply lowering his hands and getting his foot down earlier.

It seems the work that Chatwood did in the offseason is paying off. He only has four walks in 12 innings pitched thus far during spring training, and the majority of them came during one bad outing. Like most pitchers this spring, Chatwood is benefiting from the use of Rapsodo, courtesy of the Cubs R&D department, a high-speed camera device that tracks and measures a pitcher’s velocity, vertical break, and spin rate. The bottom line is that it’s helping him progress and not revert back to any of his poor mechanical impulses.

If the Cubs front office can unlock the untapped potential of Tyler Chatwood, they will have finally found their diamond in the ruff.