The annual General Manager meetings are currently taking place in Orlando, Florida, and while there may not be any significant moves that happen this week, it’s only a matter of time until baseball’s hot stove starts really heating up. David Stearns identified starting pitching depth as the top priority for the Milwaukee Brewers this offseason and told reporters that the club is “casting a wide net” in their search for reliable arms. One player who could draw interest from Milwaukee is Tyler Chatwood.
Chatwood, 28 next month, began his career as a 2nd round draft pick by the Angels back in 2008 despite undergoing Tommy John surgery as a high schooler. Though he demonstrated some clear control issues and didn't light the world on fire in terms of results, Chatwood was able to rise up the minor league ranks relatively quickly and made his big league debut in 2011 at the age of 21. His rookie season was a bit of an adventure, as he managed a 4.75 ERA across 142.0 innings, but walked nearly as many batters (71) as he struck out (74) and both FIP- (123) and DRA- (146) painted him as one of the worst starters in the American League.
The Angels had apparently seen enough after that lone season and shipped him to Colorado in November of 2011 in exchange for Chris Iannetta. Chatwood struggled in his first season with the Rockies (as many pitchers do) but showed some signs of like in 2013, posting a 3.15 ERA across 20 starts and 111.1 innings pitched. Disaster struck in early 2014, however, as Chatwood went down with an elbow injury that ultimately required a second Tommy John sugery, some 8 years after his first such procedure. That recovery and rehab process shelved Chatwood for most of 2014 and all of the 2015 season.
Chatwood returned to the mound healthy in 2016 and put up the best season of his career to date. He made a career-high 27 starts and pitched 158.0 innings, logging a 3.87 ERA/98 FIP-/103 DRA-. That success didn’t quite carry over to his walk year in 2017, however, as Chatwood bounced between the starting rotation and bullpen during the season while compiling a 4.69 ERA/107 FIP-/101 DRA- in 147.2 innings.
For a pitcher who has put together only a 4.31 ERA along with 6.1 K/9 and 4.2 BB/9 during 647.2 innings during his MLB career, Chatwood does have a few things going for him that make him quite an interesting free agent. First off is his relative youth, as he’ll be one of the few free agent starters on the right side of 30 when the 2018 season begins. There’s also the matter of his dramatic home/road splits. Chatwood posted a 6.01 ERA in 70.1 innings at Coors Field in 2017 and owns a 5.25 ERA in 332.1 innings at the park in his career. Away from the Rocky Mountains, however, Chatwood pitched to a 3.49 ERA in 77.1 innings last season and has produced a terrific 3.31 ERA in 315.1 road innings.
Chatwood attacks batters with an arsenal of fastball/sinker/slider/curveball/changeup and his in second year post-TJ surgery, experienced a significant jump in fastball velocity. After averaging 93.3 MPH on his heater in 2016 (per Pitch Info), Chatwood ramped his fastball up to 95.3 MPH in 2017, which was the 17th-fastest among pitchers with at least 140 innings as well as the hardest Chatwood has thrown during his big league career. Chatwood’s curveball had one of the highest spin rates in baseball in 2017 and his changeup was particularly difficult for batters to handle, even though he only threw it sparingly.
As mentioned above, Chatwood’s struggled with his control as a professional. He’s walked 10.4% of the batters he’s faced as a big leaguer, including a career-worst 12.2% in 2017. He hasn’t missed a ton of bats, either, though things did trend in the right direction last season. His 19% strikeout rate in 2017 was a career-high, as was his 9.9% swinging strike rate. Where Chatwood really excels is keeping the ball on the ground and minimizing hard contact. He’s induced grounders at a 54.7% clip in his career, including greater than 57% in each of the last two seasons. He also held opponents to around a 29% rate of hard contact in 2016 and 2017 and has yielded hard contact only 28.7% of the time in his career, while league-average is typically closer to 32%. Chatwood had some home run issues in 2017 (1.2 HR/9), but then again so did the rest of the league thanks to the juiced ball. It’s not something that’s really plagued him during the rest of his career.
Tyler Chatwood isn’t an ace; he is a youthful pitcher (younger than both Jimmy Nelson and Chase Anderson) with a decent track record as a back-end starter. But what makes him an especially enticing free agent target is the potential for untapped upside. He’s been a much better hurler outside of Coors Field during his career and he features plus velocity and gets tons of worm burners with fastball as well as a slider, curve, and changeup that all graded out quite well in 2017. With the right pitching coach - someone like the highly-regarded Derek Johnson - helping to tweak his pitch usage and mechanics, there’s reason to believe that Chatwood could take another step forward in 2018 once he’s free from the hell of high altitude.
Chatwood does come with significant injury risk, having twice undergone UCL surgery and never having tossed more than 158.0 innings in a season during his career. That, along with his more middling track record, will serve to keep the his next contract at a pretty reasonable level. MLB Trade Rumors predicts he’ll get 3 years and $20 mil while Dave Cameron of Fangraphs forecasts a 3 year, $30 mil pact. That’s hardly a prohibitive level of cash these days, especially for a team like Milwaukee with only $61 mil in payroll projected for 2018. Tyler Chatwood has already been hailed as “this year’s Charlie Morton” and he would certainly look good suiting up for the Milwaukee Nine in 2018.
Statistics courtesy of Baseball Prospectus and Fangraphs