Blue Jays betting on upside and spin with Tyler Chatwood signing

Former Chicago Cubs starting pitcher Tyler Chatwood has signed with the Toronto Blue Jays. (Charles Rex Arbogast/AP)

If early November’s quick-strike signing of Robbie Ray showed us something, it’s that the Toronto Blue Jays are willing to bet on stuff over recent results. Ray’s fastball-slider-curveball mix is devastating when it’s on, helping him generate some of baseball’s highest whiff and strikeout rates year over year. Problem is, he hasn’t reliably located those pitches on the plate. That’s partly why he pitched to a 6.62 ERA in 2020, and entirely why only one MLB pitcher has walked more batters per nine innings than Ray since the beginning of 2018.

That one pitcher is Tyler Chatwood. Late Monday night, the Blue Jays agreed to terms with Chatwood on a one-year, $3-million deal that, as reported by colleague Shi Davidi, could be worth $5.5 million if the 31-year-old reaches certain incentives.

It is Toronto’s second transaction of consequence this winter and a mirror image of its first. Like his southpaw teammate Ray, the right-handed Chatwood can manipulate the baseball in ways most pitchers can’t. The spin rates on his fastball and curveball have both ranked within MLB’s 92nd percentile or above four years running. Like Ray, he can use his uncommon ability to rack up swing-and-miss, as he did in a short-sample 2020 when he struck out 29.1 per cent of the batters he faced. But like Ray, he hasn’t often been able to locate that premium stuff where he wants to.

And like Ray, he’s spent the last several seasons trying to figure himself out. Chatwood’s toyed with different grips, he’s added and subtracted pitches. He’s tweaked his mechanics, he’s worked out of the stretch with bases empty. He’s been tried in a variety of roles by a Chicago Cubs coaching staff searching for one that stuck. At one point in 2019, Cubs manager Joe Maddon even used him as his closer and watched Chatwood work a 12-pitch save.

That Chatwoood was pitching out of Chicago’s bullpen at the time speaks to how sideways things went on the three-year, $38-million deal he signed with the Cubs in December 2017 to pitch in the rotation of a presumptive World Series contender. But it’s his performance in that relief role — Davidi reports Toronto intends to use Chatwood out of the bullpen — that also indicates the potential he could bring to the Blue Jays going forward.

Throwing closer to maximum effort in shorter stints, Chatwood’s fastball sat 96 m.p.h. and occasionally reached 99. The pitch’s elite spin rate gives it the illusion of rising as it approaches the plate, and Chatwood used that to his advantage by working four-seamers up in the zone to exploit lofty swings, while relying on two-seamers down to generate groundballs (Chatwood’s 55.3-per cent groundball rate since 2016 is MLB’s seventh-highest over that span).

Meanwhile, he greatly increased his cutter usage, particularly against right-handed hitters. Yet another high-spin offering, Chatwood’s cutter produced a 46.6-per cent whiff rate in 2019 — the opposition batted .097 with a .201 wOBA against it.

When he started that cutter on the glove-side of the plate and let its life do the rest, the pitch was extremely effective:

Howie Kendrick is way off-balance chasing this one:

Here, it features so much late life that it hits the dirt and still generates an awkward swing from Aristides Aquino:

It’s no wonder, then, that Chatwood came into 2020 throwing the pitch more than ever, tunneling it off his sinker and mixing it in more frequently against left-handed hitting.

Again, the pitch was a difference-maker, generating a 42.9 per cent whiff rate in 2020. It helped Chatwood’s curveball play up, too, as hitters now had to worry about multiple out pitches with two strikes.

Here, in a start last August, Chatwood uses the cutter in a 1-1 count to get a whiff from Gregory Polanco:

Then, at 2-2, Chatwood goes to his curveball in the same lane, which looks similar to the cutter out of his hand but moves in a different direction at a slower speed, and generates the same result:

That was one of Chatwood’s 11 strikeouts that day. Having earned his way back into Chicago’s rotation, he was dazzling in his first two outings of 2020, allowing a run on six hits and four walks over 12.2 innings, striking out 19. But he was shelled by the Kansas City Royals his next time out — 11 hits, eight runs, seven outs recorded — before being sidelined for two-and-a-half weeks with a back issue. He was ineffective in his return outing and pulled from his next due to a forearm strain. And that was the end of his season.

Yes, it’s quite a mixed bag. Which is why the Blue Jays are getting Chatwood for less than a quarter of his 2020 non-prorated salary. After three seasons of spotty command, ineffectiveness, and injuries, Chatwood is seeking an opportunity to re-establish his value. And there’s material risk here for the Blue Jays that his struggles will continue, his walk rate will remain elevated, and the deal won’t work out.

But there’s more than enough upside to take on that risk, particularly considering the modest price tag. Toronto has a strong track record of identifying undervalued relief arms, and the club’s coaching staff has a high success rate helping those pitchers realize their potential. Chatwood gives them four effective pitches to work with, two of which generate a substantial amount of swing-and-miss. He also has a changeup he’s used sparingly yet effectively against left-handed hitting over his career — the mid-80’s offering has been exceptionally tough to barrel, holding hitters to average exit velocities below 85 m.p.h. each of the last four seasons — which sounds awfully similar to another high-spin fastball-thrower the Blue Jays plucked from the Cubs, Thomas Hatch.

Toronto still must upgrade its starting rotation if it’s going to contend this season, but Chatwood isn’t here to provide that upgrade. He’s here to pitch out of the bullpen, where he was effective in 2019, where any command issues can be better managed, and where his high-spin stuff can play up. And it’s not hard to envision him fitting into a number of roles depending on how well things go.

He could be deployed as a bulk reliever piggy-backing off a two-times-through-the-order starter. He could work in shorter stints leaning on a fastball approaching triple-digits and two effective out pitches. He could see high leverage work if he can replicate the success he had early in 2020. He could see low leverage duty if he can’t rediscover that form. It’s possible he even makes a spot start here and there as the Blue Jays endeavour to cover innings after a 2020 season in which only Hyun-Jin Ryu and Tanner Roark exceeded 35 innings pitched.

But more than anything, it’s his stuff that the Blue Jays are betting on — that they can be the team to find a way to get Chatwood in the zone more consistently, to show him how best to use his wide arsenal, and to help him get the most out of all that spin. As with Ray, the upside is obvious. Unlocking it is the challenge.

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