We're running down the top 19 questions surrounding the Cubs heading into Opening Day 2019.

Next up: Who's more likely to bounce back - Tyler Chatwood, Brian Duensing or Brandon Kintzler?

As of today, much of the Cubs’ pitching staff is -- for better or for worse -- a mystery. Their ceiling is undeniably high; the likelihood of them reaching it is the bigger concern. You could talk at length about the concerns of any arm on their staff (and believe me, we plan to) but for today, let’s focus on three names: Tyler Chatwood, Brian Duensing, and Brandon Kintzler. The Cubs will be spending upwards of $20 million on the three of them in 2019, a sizeable investment for a trio of pitchers that, combined, only got to 200 innings pitched last year. Still, all three present intriguing value, given their abilities to fill niche roles within a bullpen. Chatwood sees himself as a starter, though he’s probably better served in a long-relief role when camp breaks. Duensing can be a productive lefty specialist, and Kintzler’s ground ball-inducing prowess is well-known.

Asking for all three to be lights-out is a reach, bordering on foolish. Given a clean bill of health and positive regression, however, it’s not unrealistic to think one or two could be real contributors throughout the summer. So who’s most likely to bounce back? Let’s look at the three cases:

Tyler Chatwood

Chatwood feels like the most obvious choice, if only because the Cubs are on the hook for paying him $12.5 million and desperately want him to be. It goes without saying that 103 innings with a FIP over five and a *negative* K-BB% isn’t going to cut it this year. He’s never exactly had a strong command of the zone, but walking 8.25 batters per 9 innings is staggering. Of all pitchers who threw at least 100 innings last year, Chatwood’s 19.6 BB% was far and away the highest. The 2nd-highest BB% belongs to Arizona’s Robby Ray, who was six percentage points behind - something the D-Backs can live with when you also strike out almost 35% of the batters you face.

Chatwood’s always going to be a high-WHIP guy, an unfortunate byproduct of just how good yet raw his stuff is. Per Baseball Savant, Chatwood’s fastball spin rate rests in the 93rd percentile of all major league pitchers. His curveball spin rate ain’t too shabby either, coming in at the 92nd percentile. He’s continued to increasingly rely on his cutter -- first introduced in 2016 -- to the point where it was his second-most thrown pitch last year. That’s good news for Cubs fans: Chatwood never missed many bats with his 4-seamer or sinker, but his cutter gets swings-and-misses at a 28% clip - with batters hitting just .186 against it. Even more encouraging is that Chatwood’s closest comp, according to Baseball Savant, is St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Miles Mikolas, one of the most underrated pitchers in baseball.

 

Still, seven years in, Chatwood’s rapidly approaching the dreaded “he is what he is” territory. For the grain of salt it’s worth, his Spring Training results have been terrific so far. Minus an unforeseen injury, there’s little-to-no chance he leaves Arizona as a member of the Cubs’ rotation. That’s not to say he won’t start games this year, and it’s not to say he can’t contribute. Many of his peripherals suggest there’s a useful pitcher hidden in there somewhere, though many of his results suggest otherwise. 2019 will go a long way in determining if Chatwood’s meh results were a product of pitching in Colorado, or if Chatwood’s meh results were a product of him being a meh pitcher.

Brian Duensing

Duensing was one of the best relievers on the Cubs during a terrific 2017 campaign, which made his disappointing follow-up season in ‘18 all the more bitter.  Left shoulder fatigue put him on the D.L. in early July, and he didn’t factor much into the Cubs’ stretch-run, only pitching 10.1 innings in the 2nd half of the season (he pitched 27.1 innings in the 1st half). There’s no way around it - Duensing was bad last year. His HR/9 almost doubled, his K% dropped 10 percentage points, and he was walking over 4 more batters per 9 innings than he was in 2017. Though he made his name as a sinkerball guy, he’s not-so-subtly moved away from the pitch, to the point now where he’s only throwing it half as often (22%) as he was during his peak years (48%).

Going away from the sinker isn’t a bad thing - it’s probably not a coincidence that Duensing’s best season came when throwing all 5 of his pitches at (fairly) proportional rates. The transformation was 3-4 years in the making:

It's been an admirable transformation, and also a questionably-successful one. Since becoming a relief pitcher in 2013, Duensing has been, optimistically, a replacement-level pitcher. In fact, he’s been worse than replacement level in three of the six seasons since heading to the bullpen. Duensing’s career, like many mid-tier relievers, really seems to vary season-by-season. Take a look:

With Xavier Cedeno still shut down with a little over 2 weeks left, it’s possible Duensing breaks camp as the Cubs’ lefty guy (also Cedeno’s contract -- unlike Duensing’s -- isn’t guaranteed). Maybe with a full offseason of building up shoulder strength, 2019 Duensing might look more like the 2017 version. But the numbers show that his results have been a year-by-year dice roll, and there’s no reason to expect that’d be any different in 2019.

Brandon Kintzler

Of the three, it’s Kintzler who already has the most defined role going into 2019. For the last three seasons, Kintzler’s ground ball rate (GB%) has consistently ranked in the Top-25 of qualified relievers. That’s his bread and butter, and that’s what the Cubs are going to need out of him this summer.

The problem, of course, is that Kintzler’s ability to induce ground balls was not much more than league-average last season. His rate (48%) with the Nationals held back what was better stint (53%) with the Cubs, but he hasn’t matched his career average (56.4%) for a full season since he was with the Twins in 2016. Mike Montgomery, Eddie Butler, and Anthony Bass were all better at getting grounders than Kintzler, even if you’re only including his 18 innings in Chicago.

The bigger, underlying issue is that Kintzler’s GB% has dramatically dropped each season since 2016:

2016 (Brewers): 61.9%
2017 (Twins/Nats): 54.9%
2018 (Nats/Cubs): 49.7%

It’s an interesting predicament: here’s someone who’s remained an above-average ground ball guy while also very clearly declining. On paper, Mike Montgomery would be better fitted for that role -- and I’d even hear an argument for Pedro Strop -- but both are needed to fill more pressing needs. Given his whole body of work, plus the fact that he did look a bit more like his normal self (even if the results weren’t there) after being traded to the Cubs, Kintzler’s spot in the bullpen feels pretty safe for now. But let’s say Tyler Chatwood turns into a serviceable long-relief option, freeing up Mike Montgomery - then what? Having too many reliable bullpen options has never sunk a season, but I can’t imagine Kintzler’s leash is going to be as long as some people think.

 

The Answer

Realistically? Kintzler. Matching his GB% (53%) from his 18.1 IPs with the Cubs would still place him in the upper echelon of groundball pitchers, even though it’d be his 3rd-straight season falling short of matching career averages. Putting 2017 aside, even Kintzler’s worst seasons still had him getting ground balls over 50% of the time. That’ll work for the Cubs. Given the other groundball options that they have at their disposal, they’d probably be better off with a revitalized Chatwood, but it’s Kintzler who looks like the best bounce-back candidate.

The complete 19 for '19 series:

19. Who will be the Cubs' leadoff hitter?
18. Who's more likely to bounce back - Tyler Chatwood, Brian Duensing or Brandon Kintzler?
17. How different will Joe Maddon be in 2019?
16. Can Cubs keep off-field issues from being a distraction?
15. How can Cubs avoid a late-season fade again?
14. Is this the year young pitchers *finally* come up through the system to help in Chicago?
13. How much will Cubs be able to count on Brandon Morrow?
12. How does the Addison Russell situation shake out?
11. Will Willson Contreras fulfill his potential as the best catcher on the planet?
10. Will the offseason focus on leadership and accountability translate into the season?
9. Will payroll issues bleed into the season?
8. Will Javy Baez put up another MVP-caliber season?
7. Will Jon Lester and Cole Hamels win the battle against Father Time for another season?
6. What should we expect from Kris Bryant Revenge SZN?
5. Do the Cubs have enough in the bullpen?
4. What does Yu Darvish have in store for Year 2?
3. Are the Cubs the class of the NL Central?
2. Is the offense going to be significantly better in 2019?
1. How do the Cubs stay on-mission all year?

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