With how effective Tyler Chatwood has looked out of the bullpen the last two months, there’s a compelling argument that he should be a high leverage reliever as October baseball inches closer, rather than the long reliever role he has had all season. Not only was he highly effective last Saturday against the Pirates in the Cubs’ much-needed road victory, in which he inherited runners on first and second with nobody out and completely shut the door, but he has also pitched very well in his last eight appearances. Over that two-month span, he has a 1.76 ERA, 20 strikeouts, and only four walks in 15.1 innings pitched. That is more dominant than any relief pitcher in the Cubs’ bullpen, and it’s baffling that he has not been given more of an opportunity to showcase his ability in high leverage situations this season, especially given how bad the bullpen has been lately.
A lot of people think that Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer made a huge mistake by signing Chatwood a year and a half ago after his catastrophic season last year. But even with how much he struggled, that is no excuse to rationalize why he has not been given the benefit of the doubt this season. After his brutal 19.6% walk rate in 2018, he is down to 11.8% this year. While that is by no means putting him near the top of baseball, it’s right around his walk rate in 2016 and 2017 with the Rockies that warranted his ~$13 million annual salary. This proves that he no longer is having control issues and that last year was an anomaly. The fact of the matter is that the Cubs are getting the pitcher they paid for in the 2017 offseason, and they are not utilizing him in a way that benefits the team.
In addition to dominating lately, Chatwood has a solid 3.79 ERA over the year, which is well below the league average of ~4.50. With the exception of his June struggles, in which he had a 7.98 ERA in 14.2 innings pitched, he has been putting up the best numbers of any reliever the Cubs have, including closer Craig Kimbrel. While I assume Kimbrel will be given the closer role now that he has returned from the IL, as he should, the setup man should be between Chatwood or Rowan Wick. While this probably seems very obvious at this point for any fan who has watched how the bullpen has pitched in the last couple months, there still remains ambiguity on who the second or third best high-leverage arm is in the bullpen. I am unaware if it is the front office or manager Joe Maddon that continues to not trust Chatwood, but that viewpoint should be dispelled right now.
Saturday’s game brought the first type of high-leverage innings Chatwood has seen in months. Hopefully this continues, as Chatwood has arguably the best putaway stuff of anybody in the bullpen. With the exception of Craig Kimbrel, not having the movement or velocity to strike opposing hitters out in key situations has been a pervasive problem in the bullpen all season. Rowan Wick has helped in that regard considerably with his resurgence recently, but guys like Brandon Kintzler, Kyle Ryan, Steve Cishek, and Derek Holland simply lack the ability to strike hitters out in key situations. This was fully on display Friday night when the Cubs blew their 2-1 ninth-inning lead to the Pirates. Kintzler walked in the tying run after being up 1-2 in the count because he could not strike Cole Tucker out. Tucker kept fouling Kintzler’s pitches off until he was eventually walked. Kintzler has had a phenomenal season and probably wasn’t ready for that type of situation right after coming off the IL. However, regardless if he was ready or not, a pitcher like him cannot be the guy the Cubs turn to in the eighth or ninth inning with a lead of three runs or less. Kintzler’s best pitch is his sinker, which is used to induce groundballs, not strike hitters out. Because of this, he is utilized best coming into dirty innings, throwing that sinker, and hoping it results in a double play.
It’s not as if what I’m saying is a subjective viewpoint, it is backed up by facts. According to FanGraphs, at 23.4%, Chatwood has the fourth-highest strikeout rate of any relief pitcher on the roster with at least ten innings pitched, behind Kimbrel, Wick, and Pedro Strop. And given how badly Strop has been since the All-Star break, you can pretty much rule him out of receiving the ball in any high leverage situations moving forward. After two months of dominating performances, you would think the Cubs would be jumping at the chance to give Chatwood opportunities to prove the organization's decision to sign him was correct, but they have done the exact opposite. Chatwood has proven that he deserves the trust to be handed the ball in key situations, and it's about time the organization recognizes this.
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