The early portion of the 2017 Chicago Cubs season has been frustrating to most fans. I think that deep down most people are able to realize that what we are seeing is simply a good team that is facing some struggles. It happens, we all know that too, but in the moment it’s hard to realize that struggles do happen and should be overcome. That’s why it’s important to focus on the jewels that are still shining through, despite the struggles. Those jewels are what will help you through the lean times, and they are what will help the team even when it moves past the present day struggles.
One such jewel is the hard throwing righty out of the pen, Carl Edwards Jr. There has always been a high degree of potential in Edwards; he has been a prospect to watch for some time and added much needed depth to the bullpen during last year’s playoff stretch. Edwards became such an integral part of the team that he was the man given the ball to start the bottom of the 10th inning in Game 7 of the 2016 World Series. He wasn’t able to finish that inning, but for two batters he flashed the brilliance that had made him a much-hyped prospect.
In 2017 Edwards has built upon those flashes, and in the early going has proved to be a dominant force out of the bullpen. He may or may not be the closer of the future, but one thing is certain when it comes to the man with the straw-like figure: His stuff is good enough to close right now. The Cubs are lucky enough to be in a position where they don’t need Edwards to be the closer because Wade Davis has been just as dominant in that role. That means that Edwards is getting plenty of experience being a go-to arm for Joe Maddon in the toughest of situations.
How did Edwards go from a potential stud with flashes of brilliance to a shutdown reliever? The simple answer is that he truly began to trust his stuff. That’s too simple of an answer though, because the stuff was always there and Edwards never would have advanced to where he did if not for it. The more complex answer is that Edwards has made some minute changes that are making a notable difference.
The nastiest pitch in Edwards’ repertoire is his fourseam fastball. It can reach up to 98 mph and has a crazy amount of backspin. That backspin is important, because Edwards’ fastball is actually a very straight pitch. But, his velocity combined with the backspin gives the illusion of a fastball that is rising. Numerous studies have shown that fastballs don’t actually rise, but the right combination of velocity and location can make it look like a fastball is doing just that. That’s what Edwards has done for most of his career. The thing is, in 2017 he’s actually throwing his fastball a lot less—66 percent of the time this year as compared to 72 percent in 2016.
The pitch that Edwards is now throwing more is his almost as nasty curveball. He’s throwing this pitch 32 percent of the time in 2017, whereas he threw it 26 percent of the time in 2016. The key to Edwards’ curveball is the amount of vertical movement he gets on the pitch. Everything Edwards throws moves in on righties and away from lefties. The most extreme example of this is his curveball, which averages a vertical movement of -47. He is able to bust this pitch inside on righties, and away from lefties, with a very high level of vertical movement. Compare that to the vertical movement found on his fastball of -11, and it’s easy to see how his curveball builds off of the movement already present in his fastball.
The vertical movement that Edwards was getting in 2016 is very similar to what he is getting in 2017. In 2016 his fastball averaged -13 while his curveball was at -47. So, it’s not that Edwards all of a sudden has a lot more movement to his pitches. Rather, it comes back to selection and how Edwards has dialed back on his fastball more and has instead used his curveball more often. Batter handedness hasn’t really been a factor either, as Edwards’ curveball sits at -48 against righties and -46 when it’s a left hander at the plate. Edwards is consistent, and his curveball discriminates against righties and lefties with equal measure.
The biggest change, although it may seem minute, comes in the horizontal release point employed by Edwards. The vertical release point used by Edwards has remained consistent from 2016 to 2017 for all of his pitches. However, this year there has been a significant change in the horizontal release point for his curveball. In 2016 his curveball averaged -1.28 for its horizontal release point. This year the same pitch has averaged -1.47. That’s a slight increase towards the third base side of the rubber, but it’s a change that has made Edwards’ curveball start inside just a bit more on righties and catch less of the plate against lefties. A minute change, but one that has made his curveball a pitch he can rely on more than in previous years.
What this all means is that hitters are swinging less at Edwards’ curveball. This year the lanky right hander has only seen his curveball swung at 32 percent of the time, a decrease of 6 percent from 2016. The added vertical release point combined with his having the confidence to throw his curveball more has resulted in more hitters being unable to swing at said pitch. Last year Edwards’ curveball was nasty, as opposing batters were only able to hit .114 against the pitch. This year, well, the new and improved Edwards curveball is so far unhittable. As of this writing opposing batters are faring .000 against it. He took a pitch that was devastating to begin with and has managed to make it even better with just a subtle change.
It’s no longer about potential with the South Carolina native. Posting a DRA of 1.57, a WHIP of 0.62, and a K/9 of 11.1 is a realization of that potential. Edwards may not be a name bandied about when the baseball discussion turns to great relievers, but it should be. The young Cub has made changes in his game that have taken his promise and turned it into a reality that the other teams don’t want to face. The closer is the closer because he’s the closer, but Edwards is the closer before the closer because he’s simply devastating when toeing the rubber.
Lead photo courtesy Charles LeClaire—USA Today Sports