Through his first two starts of the season, Tyler Chatwood has looked like a completely different pitcher. And no, I don’t just mean the incredibly good results that include a 2-0 record, 0.71 ERA, and a strikeout percentage roughly two-and-a-half times greater than his career average. Chatwood very literally looks different out there, from his simplified delivery to the confident poise with which he operates.
Okay, maybe that last bit is slightly subjective, but I’ve been around enough Little League pitchers over the past few years to have become an amateur body language expert. I don’t mean any disrespect to Chatwood by comparing him to pre-teens, but he seemed to have that same sense of not really knowing where the ball was going when it left his hand.
Especially in that first season with the Cubs, there were times when he looked defeated right from the start. Maybe his shoulders slumped just a tad or his expression was a little on the sour side.
Though he might not admit it, nor does he need to, I’d be willing to bet that the weight of expectation played a role in that. Chatwood was a big acquisition at the time and came saddled with all kinds of hype about how much better his stuff would play once he got out of the thin Rocky Mountain air. The stuff played all right, all the way out of the zone en route to an 8.25 BB/9 mark that was nearly three walks higher than the next pitcher in baseball (min. 100 IP).
Chatwood issued 95 free passes in 103.2 innings, a tally that looks even worse when you consider that he only struck out 85 batters. He was finally, mercifully demoted to the bullpen in August, but then made one final start in which he allowed three runs on two hits and three walks — with no strikeouts — over just two innings. The 2019 season saw Chatwood pitch almost exclusively out of the bullpen, throwing harder and putting up career-best strikeout numbers in the process.
That’s when the change in his demeanor occurred, perhaps because he released his grip on expectations and stopped pressing for results. The uptick in performance was almost immediate.
“I was just fighting my cutter the whole year,” Chatwood told reporters after Saturday’s effort. “It was too hard and I was getting around it to try to manipulate it. So I just went back to a grip I used to throw.”
Tyler Chatwood said he began working on a revised cutter grip in 2nd half last year. Here, you can see the month to month horizontal movement from '19. It has remained at that same finishing level so far in '20 pic.twitter.com/UOwrrxM3JY
— Jordan Bastian (@MLBastian) August 2, 2020
Learning to trust the cutter again was a big part of Chatwood’s resurgence last season and his early performances show that he’s got ironclad faith in it now. To wit, he went from throwing it only about 10% of the time last season to nearly 30% this season. That’s part of the change, just having the confidence to be able to throw it to any batter and make it to do what he wants.
“It’s just consistent,” Chatwood explained. “I feel like I can run it in at a lefty’s hands, or try to have depth and down and away to a righty, or back foot to a lefty. I feel like I’m able to manipulate it two ways right now and the velocity stays on it, which I think is a big part.”
If he keeps this up, the man most fans were hoping would be cut loose might actually be bucking for an extension. The Cubs are likely going to need to replace two other starters in Jon Lester and José Quintana for next season, and what figures to be a depressed free agent market might make Chatwood a very reasonable option. Of course, he could be pitching himself out of the budget for a team that has been maddeningly frugal over the past two winters.
However the future ends up playing out, the Cubs should be commended for sticking by Chatwood and helping him to bounce back from that debut season. But the real credit goes to Chatwood for tweaking his delivery and battling through issues with confidence and control to refashion himself as a better pitcher than he’s ever been.
While it’s highly unreasonable to hope for these incredible results to continue along the same trend line Chatwood has established so far, the formula he’s using is entirely sustainable. Which is to say working the cutter all over the zone with high frequency keeps hitters guessing and saws them off when they do manage to make contact. This dude is fun to watch on the mound, a big change from what we saw in 2018, and I wouldn’t at all mind seeing him in a Cubs uniform beyond this season.