Of all the pitchers in the Cubs’ bullpen, Carl Edwards, Jr. is the most exciting. His fastball consistently sits in the 96 mph range, and both it and his curveball generate what Brooks Baseball uses its Professor Frink voice to call “an extremely high number of swings and misses.” To date this year, he has generated a 14.85 whiff percentage on the fastball and 18.06 on the curve.
Essentially, swinging the bat against CJ usually means that the hitter has precisely enough time to think “that was a bad idea” as he hears the ball hit the catcher’s mitt.
Edwards also is that rare relief pitcher whose fun quotient is inversely proportional to his body fat percentage. (As most of you know, pitcher fun/fat is usually a direct ratio. In MLB circles, this is known as The Rod Beck Principle.)
He throws 96 seemingly based entirely off of the inner rage generated from a lifetime of listening to “Hey CJ, want to gain weight? Eat a grape!” His proficiency with The Worm is responsible for turning the Cubs bullpen into a Bollywood credits sequence anytime Kyle Schwarber hits the Jumbotron.
And lest we forget, he got the first two outs in the most important inning in Cubs history. Then he followed it up with a postgame celebration that looked like he’d just crawled out of the Shawshank sewer with a W Flag. (And if you haven’t already, you should read his Players Tribune account of why he flies it as a tribute to one of his best friends. It’s genuinely moving.)
Ever since Edwards got called up to the big leagues to stay, there has been talk about him taking over the closer’s role for the Cubs. And with Wade Davis about to depart for free agency this offseason, the timing seems like it could work out for him. But there’s one small catch to this plan, and we’ve seen it several times this year…
Occasionally, Carl Edwards, Jr. has…that inning.
You know exactly the kind I’m talking about. The kind where Edwards trots in from the bullpen, and we reflexively think, “Great, the eighth is taken care of. This will be fun to watch.” And then he treats the strike zone the way Jerry Seinfeld handles Ke$ha. Eventually the bases are loaded, nobody is out, and Joe Maddon has to lift him for another reliever.
To be clear—this is not to argue that the occasional appearance of that inning has made Edwards anything resembling a sub-optimal pitcher. Far from it–as his 1.3 WARP, 2.55 DRA, 1.00 WHIP, 13.2 K/9, or pretty much every stat on his page suggests. He’s great, and those numbers are those of someone who should be under serious consideration as a closer of the future.
Instead, the problem is that that inning is pretty much the only thing holding Edwards back from reaching his ceiling as a pitcher. As the above-mentioned stats indicate, when Edwards has his command working, his stuff is unfair. It’s the only time in competitive athletics that a 160 pound man can make make it look like he went through puberty before Giancarlo Stanton.
But when Edwards’s control deserts him, he becomes Mitch Williams with better balance. It’s been very difficult for him to fight his way out of these predicaments and keep the floodgates from opening. And that’s one of the skills of an elite closer—to find a way to retire major league hitters and maintain the lead on a day when his stuff isn’t working the way he wants.
By my count, Edwards has had five such outings in 2017, in which Maddon has had to lift him and attempt to find another reliever to clean up the mess. These range from two walks sandwiching a catcher’s interference call that left a bases loaded no out situation for Justin Grimm on April 10 to walking the bases loaded in two-thirds of an inning and forcing Pedro Strop to strike out Yadier Molina on June 2.
Of course, the most notorious such instance came on July 21 when Edwards was tasked with protecting a 3-2 lead against the Cardinals. After a leadoff double and two walks, he was removed, and the Cubs proceeded to allow nine runs to score without recording an out in an inning that lasted approximately as long as it takes to read Infinite Jest. And it was just as upbeat.
Much has been made about Edwards’s 5.4 BB/9 rate this season as a cause for concern. It’s a pretty unfortunate number, because it’s big enough to hold him back from being an elite pitcher but too small to land him a book deal.
Here’s the thing: in those five outings mentioned above, Edwards has walked 11 men in 1.2 innings. Those five appearances account for 42 percent of his season’s walk total to date. So while it sounds like hyperbole, it turns out to be true: five appearances are pretty much everything that stands between Edwards and greatness.
Thankfully, Edwards appears to be fully aware that despite his many successes at the big league level, he has yet to maximize his abundant talents on the mound. And he has a great role model sitting with him in the bullpen whose example could potentially show him the way. Back in May, Edwards told Mark Gonzales that he has used Wade Davis as a case study for his own career, explaining:
“I feel like we’re somewhat the same pitcher with the same pitches, but I don’t really use all of them…Let’s say ten years down the road, I’m not throwing 90 mph plus. I’ll still know how to close out games or come into games with several pitches and throwing them with confidence.”
It’s good to know that solving the riddle of that inning is also Edwards’s self-stated goal as a pitcher. And he couldn’t find a better role model than Davis. As Len Kasper has repeatedly noted, no matter what fresh hell Davis might create, he always carries himself as if the ninth inning is just a break from his full-time job announcing the Super Sounds of the 70s in Reservoir Dogs.
Davis’s best quality is that he’d be the perfect role for Kevin Costner: no emotional range. Because of this, he’s able to maintain control of himself at all times on the mound. And then utilizing his repertoire of pitches, he’s eventually able to figure out a way to extricate the Cubs from jams that would crush other relievers—as anyone who watched his performances against the Padres and Braves can attest.
Those are exactly the kind of escape acts we’d all like to see from Edwards at some point. The nature of relief pitching means that there will be days where that inning will rear its ugly head. When that happens, the Cubs hope that soon Edwards will be able to channel his inner Davis and keep gutting it out until he finds his way out of self-created problems. And if that’s the case, Edwards’s statline will find its inner Davis as well.
And if the student does eventually become the teacher, we can only hope that sometime next month Anthony Rizzo will homer and we’ll see Davis doing The Dougie.
Lead photo courtesy Caylor Arnold—USA Today Sports