This time last year, Tyler Chatwood and high-leverage situations were two things Cubs fans hoped would never come together. In the first season of his three-year contract, the right-hander led the league in walks (95) and posted an ERA north of 5.00, mostly as a starter.
He was kicked out of the rotation late in the year and barely saw action down the stretch as the Cubs floundered and eventually lost in the Wild Card game. Many wondered aloud whether it would just be best for the Cubs to cut their losses and part ways, even if that meant eating his salary.
Still relegated to the bullpen for the 2019 campaign, Chatwood worked in the offseason to streamline his mechanics in an effort to cut down on his lofty walk rate. With roughly two-thirds of the season over, Chatwood’s success as a long reliever is coming into focus and one statistic is jumping off the page.
It’s not his ERA (4.11) or even his decreased walk rate (12.4%), but rather a metric that seeks to account for performance in a game’s biggest moments. FanGraphs’ “Clutch” statistic is “a measurement of how much better or worse a player does in high leverage situations than he would have done in a context neutral environment.”
This figure compares a player to himself to determine how much said player is in big moments, with zero as the baseline and 2.0 among the best in the game while -2.0 is dreadful. As of post time, Chatwood ranks eighth among National League relievers (min. 30 innings) with a 0.76 clutch number. That is the best mark in the Cubs’ bullpen and slots him somewhere between above-average and great by FanGraphs’ assessment.
It’s important to point out that Chatwood has held every role imaginable for the Cubs this season. He has started, performed multi-inning relief, finished games in blowouts and even locked down a save, just the third of his big league career. That being said, he has thrived in one specific area in which the Cubs could use additional help.
Cubs relievers as a group rank 13th in the NL with a -0.74 clutch figure and have multiple blown saves to their credit. And while Chatwood was partly responsible for one of the more recent collapses, allowing a game-tying double in the 8th inning of a 5-3 loss to the Brewers last week, that performance ran contrary to what he’s done in big spots this season.
Even after that, Chatwood is holding opposing hitters to a .130/.200/.174 slash line in highest-leverage moments. Of the 25 batters he’s faced in that sample, only five have reached base (three hits, two walks), while 64.3% have put balls on the ground and another 32% have struck out. In a slightly larger sample, Chatwood has limited 59 opponents to a .305 OBP and .317 wOBA with runners in scoring position.
Neither of these splits offers enough evidence to draw firm conclusions, but that’s to be expected given the nature of Chatwood’s work this season. Even so, it’s clear that he has experienced success coming through in clutch situations. Thanks to a fastball that averages almost 96 mph and improved command of his breaking stuff, the righty is making the most of his move to the bullpen by stepping up for his team.
With Pedro Strop posting the second-worst clutch number among Cubs relievers (-1.03), Chatwood is a candidate to eat up important outs until he proves he cannot. Joe Maddon has never been one to ride a hot hand, but he do well to deploy Chatwood more frequently in order to capitalize on his success and help bridge the gap to Craig Kimbrel in the 9th.