“No. No! NO! Stop it! Stop it, please! I beg you! This is sin! This is sin! This is sin! It’s a sin, it’s a sin, it’s a sin!”
–Little Alex, A Clockwork Orange
–Me during any Tyler Chatwood start
Actually, hold on a sec… that implies that a Chatwood start is like watching the 70th greatest film of all time. So that’s not a good comparison at all. Let me start again…
Tyler Chatwood starts are like watching Hostel. They’re the baseball equivalent of torture porn. Which means that Chatwood’s best hope to win a game is that the Kansas City Royals hear that comp before he starts against them and decide to forfeit.
You know about the ghastly numbers by now: 45 walks in 48 1/3 innings, accounting for an 8.28 DRA and -1.7 WARP. At this point, Chatwood is the only pitcher in MLB who could place a ball on a batting tee and somehow make it sail to the backstop.
Of course, it wasn’t supposed to be this way. On the day Chatwood signed with the Cubs, things sounded much more optimistic, with Theo Epstein promising, “We’re getting him into an environment where we think he can gain consistency with all of his pitches and play to his strengths more.”
That environment, of course, was the Field of Dreams. Because the only place where Chatwood’s pitches and consistency fit in the same sentence is in a work of fiction.
Theo’s quote was based on one of the most popular talking points surrounding Chatwood’s acquisition. And to be fair, it’s not just him—this particular idea has cropped up pretty much every time a former Rockies pitcher signs elsewhere. Namely: now that Chatwood was out of the pitching hellmouth that is Coors Field, his numbers were bound to improve. And maybe improve substantially.
It sounded like it made sense, right? Almost every story about the Chatwood signing quoted his home/road splits from 2017, and they seemed promising. A 5.17 ERA, 1.57 WHIP, and 1.17 HR/9 at Coors were offset by their road counterparts: 3.76 ERA, 1.41 WHIP, 0.78 HR/9. The most optimistic among us projected those away numbers for a full season and thought the Cubs could have a steal.
Yeah, about that…
It turns out there’s not really much evidence to support the idea that ex-Rockies pitchers experience a career renaissance when they join a new team.
I took a quick look at all of the starting rotations the Rockies have assembled since their inception in 1993. (IMPORTANT SAFETY WARNING: The National Institute of Health recommends that you do not look directly at the stat line for any Colorado starting pitcher. Unless you’re the president.) And I kept track of how many of those Rockies starters posted seasons of 2.0 WARP or above after escaping Coors Field.
(And yes, I realize 2.0 WARP is a rather arbitrary number. Especially since Wrigley Field would look like the town from Footloose hearing Kenny Loggins for the first time if Chatwood somehow ended this season with a WARP of 0. I’m just using it as a cut-off point to establish a definitive good season.)
So after spending way too much of my day perusing the Brian Bohanons and Jason Jenningses of the world, it turns out that over the course of 25 years, the number of Rockies starting pitchers who went on to amass 2.0 WARP in any season after leaving Colorado was…
Even worse, if I narrowed the search to Rockies pitchers posting 2.0 WARP in more than one post-Coors season, that reduces this rather uninspiring roster to: nine. Or to put it another way, there have been almost as many ex-Rockies pitchers posting multiple 2.0 WARP seasons as there have been Tyler Chatwood walks per nine innings (8.4).
Or if you prefer a different unit of measure: as many Willson Contreras f-bombs per Chatwood mound visit.
So why does this idea that pitchers improve substantially upon leaving Colorado exist? Part of it might be that when most people think of ex-Rockies starters, they immediately think of the most prominent example of this phenomenon. Indeed, Darryl Kile reestablished his ace credentials after leaving Denver for St. Louis. Because after two seasons in the Mile High air, he had to go the city with all the humidity. And it worked as Kile posted astounding 8.1 and 5.9 WARP seasons with the Cardinals. But he was very much the exception rather than the rule regarding ex-Rockies hurlers.
The group of pitchers with multiple 2.0 WARP seasons also included old friend and World Series Champion Jason Hammel who had a nice three-year stretch averaging 2.5 WARP from 2013-15. But it was mostly filled with players like John Thomson and Shawn Chacon—journeyman hurlers who would occasionally crack the 2.0 WARP barrier in years when things broke right.
(Again, if the Cubs could somehow figure out how to turn Chatwood into John Thomson, we would be ecstatic. At this moment, most of the fanbase is thinking of solving the fifth starter problem by arguing “Technically, the MLB rules never said it’s illegal for a golden retriever to pitch…”)
The point is that with a few outliers, the idea that Colorado Rockies starters become good pitchers once they get closer to sea level is a fallacy. And as we’ve seen thus far, counting on that theory to work when you assemble your rotation for a new season could backfire in an extremely painful way.
Also… there’s this. Even with Chatwood’s splits indicating he was a quality pitcher on the road in 2017, some advanced metrics weren’t buying it. Upon closer examination, DRA dropped a diss track on this very notion, as Chatwood registered an unsightly 5.90 away from Denver compared to 5.22 at home.
The theory that a pitcher with Chatwood’s stuff could significantly improve once he got out of the mile high thin air appeared to make sense at the time of his signing. But in reality, there wasn’t much precedent at all to suggest it was going to happen and the Cubs ignored some significant warning signs along the way.
Basically, signing him was like deciding to close the deal with your summer camp significant other just as you started to hear a disembodied voice whisper, “Kill kill kill…”
Only in Chatwood’s case, so far everybody has gotten to third base.
Lead photo courtesy Patrick Gorski—USA Today Sports
Special thanks to Rob McQuown for pointing me in the right direction regarding Chatwood’s DRA splits.