“He’s going to keep getting better and better,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said of Carl Edwards Jr. on May 1st. “He’ll be a closer someday, there’s no doubt.”
Three months after the Cubs manager cast that vote of confidence, Edwards has moved further away from the closer role. The lanky righty has struggled in his latest ~400-pitch sample, walking well over 6.5 batters per nine innings since the start of June. Isolating the Cubs reliever’s performance even further, his BB/9 in July was a decimal below eight per full game.
Edwards’ struggles were capped by a Matt Wieters grand slam in the finale of the Cubs’ three-game set against the Washington Nationals. Maddon’s tone after the game was the polar opposite from when he took the podium in early May.
“I don’t have a solid answer,” said Maddon. “He has been missing the plate, I agree. It seems like it has been away, away from the righties primarily. So we’ll just try to figure out different ways to get him back in the zone. But health-wise, he’s fine.”
So, uh, what happened to the closer of the future?
When the hard-throwing pitcher was on his game prior to June, he pinpointed the outside portion of the zone with his trademark four-seamer. Righties had no shot against the 95 mph cutting fastball at which they had to reach even to make contact. Then, starting in June, Edwards began leaving pitches over the middle of the plate or outside the right portion of the zone to righties, just like Maddon described.
These trends can be illustrated in the heat maps below, in which dark red and pale yellow zones represent high and low frequencies, respectively.
April – May
The loss of command hasn’t been influenced by health issues, as Edwards has geared back to reach upwards to 98 mph several times during his recent struggles. And there are no significant differences in either his horizontal or vertical release point. Suddenly not being able to hit his spots is something of an enigma.
Maddon was insistent on working with Edwards through his struggles by continuing to place the young pitcher in high-leverage situations. Doing so cost the Cubs a few recent games. But with the re-emergence of Hector Rondon, the closer of the future might be pitching in lower-leverage situations for the short term.
To successfully navigate those high-stress innings, Edwards will need to find a way to replicate his April and May outings. If he doesn’t, then I will surely have a heart attack.