My son pitched Saturday in his Little League game, walking four consecutive batters before being lifted. As someone who has worked with him quite a bit, I could tell right away what was wrong. For whatever reason, he sometimes does this thing where he breaks his hands early and then brings the ball up rather than pulling it back. By separating so far from his body, and from a premature point in the overall motion, his control is greatly reduced.
Thing is, such an exaggerated mechanical flaw in a 9-year-old is both a) somewhat expected, and b) painfully easy to discern. That’s not always the case, at least it shouldn’t be, with a major leaguer. So while Tyler Chatwood resembles a Little League pitcher in that no one really knows where the hell the ball is going to go when he releases it, there’s a frustrating lack of immediate feedback to go along with his vexing results.
We’ve written on these pages about the righty’s attempt to get on top of the curveball in order to maximize its efficacy, but that pitch has largely failed him thus far this season. So has the fastball, in particular the two-seam, which was nothing short of atrocious in his most recent start. Chatwood imploded in the 4th inning, when he allowed four runs despite giving up a single hit on only three balls put in play.
But to what can we attribute the suck that Chatwood has tried but failed to avoid?
“It’s a complicated delivery,” Joe Maddon said after the game. “His stuff is high-end. We just have to get it over the plate.”
Yeah, getting it over the plate would be a good thing for a guy who clearly does have excellent life on his pitches. For as tough a time as he’s had throwing strikes, Chatwood currently sports an 8.82 K/9 that’s 2.6 strikeouts above his career average and 1.32 more than the high-water season mark he set in 2014 with the Rockies.
The trouble is that he’s just not getting the ball over the plate enough for those strikeout numbers to make a lick of difference.
“I know what [the problem] is,” Chatwood told reporters after the game. “I feel like it’s an easy correction but I’m fighting it right now. It’s just a matter of having it click.
“It’s an easy fix. I know I can do it. In my bullpen I’ve proven I can do it. It’s just a matter of taking it into the game.”
Pardon me for belaboring this point, but what Chatwood is saying here sounds exactly like the conversations I have with my son. We’re out there working one-on-one and he’s able to hit my glove with the fastball, even locating up and down or on the corners. In the game, however, the mechanics break down and no backstop is safe.
But Chatwood’s got an extra 19 years of experience and it’s not like he should be dealing with butterflies or the transition from flat ground to the mound. Still, something is happening between his bullpen sessions and his game performance that’s leading him to walk roughly 0.83 batters every inning. Or maybe it’s happening between his ears.
Whatever the origin, the results have got something to do with his release point, which has trended downward since the 2014 season. His best season was actually 2013, when he posted a 3.15 ERA and 3.66 FIP over 20 starts (111.1 IP), which are really good numbers for Denver. We can see that he not only had a relatively high release point that season, but that all of his non-changeups were grouped very tightly together.
With respect to the error bars, which give a little leeway here and there, we can see that Chatwood’s respective release points ranged anywhere from 3/4 of an inch to perhaps as much as two inches in any given season. In 2013, however, they appear to be bunched together in a cluster of perhaps 1/4 of an inch.
As a note, the numbers are actually a little bigger than what I’m listing because the graphs are broken down by tenths of feet, not by actual inches. Even so, it’s more a matter of the variance between the pitches than it is being precise about the measurement. I have also neglected the changeup almost entirely because that pitch accounts for only 4.3 percent of his lifetime total and is not all that relevant.
Now let’s look at the current season to determine whether we can draw any conclusions as to why Chatwood is doing what he’s doing.
The first thing that stands out to me is the literal up-and-down nature of the graph, which tells us that Chatwood is tinkering with his mechanics and not really finding that sweet spot. He’s also pitching from an overall lower release point that we’ve seen in the past. But if I had to draw any direct correlation between what’s shown on the graph and what shows up in the box scores, I’d be at something of a loss.
Perhaps someone smarter than me — and that’s a long list of people — can better discern something here. All I can figure is that the significant fluctuation in the error bars indicates that Chatwood is simply all over the place and can’t get into a routine in which he’s able to consistently repeat his motion and release, particularly with the fastball and curve.
You want to believe that he’ll be able to correct this, since there’s a great deal about his stuff that tells us he should be able to get significantly better results. Whatever that block is, and Chatwood seems to be indicating that it’s mental, he’ll need to remove it posthaste. Not only will that yield better results for the Cubs, but it’ll make his starts much easier to watch.