19 for '19: Is there any hope for Tyler Chatwood, Brian Duensing, or Brandon Kintzler?

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19 for '19: Is there any hope for Tyler Chatwood, Brian Duensing, or Brandon Kintzler?

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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Small sample size: A look at Cubs' early-season statistical pace

Small sample size: A look at Cubs' early-season statistical pace

As the Cubs put the finishing touches on a sweep in Miami, they are now roughly 1/10 of the way through the 2019 season.

If they had their way, they obviously would've preferred to boast a better record than the current 8-9 mark through 17 games, but things are trending in the right direction for most of the club. (Playing a three-game set against the hapless Marlins will certainly help the good vibes.)

But since the Cubs got out to a 1-6 start, they've gone 7-3 and now have a +18 run differential, good for second in the Naional League.

That puts the Cubs on pace to win 76 games with a +171 run differential. For perpsective, the 2018 Cubs won 95 games with only a +116 run differential.

A lot can happen over the 90 percent of the season that remains and The Small Sample Size crowd is out in full force in April, as usual. By themselves, none of these stats really mean anything or tell us much beyond "Player X is off to a hot start" or "Pitcher Y is struggling." 

But that doesn't mean we should just ignore the stats and pace some players are on. Where's the fun in that? 

So let's take a look at some of the early-season stats surrounding the 2019 Cubs:

Javy Baez

El Mago has been red-hot of late, collecting 11 hits in his last 18 at-bats. That currently puts him on a season pace of:

229 hits, 143 runs, 48 doubles, 57 homers, 152 RBI

You can bet he'd finish near the top of NL MVP voting once again if he maintained that pace all year long. (However, he'd still probably lose to Christian Yelich, who picked up right where he left off last season and is currently on pace for 77 homers and 222 RBI. Seriously.)

Baez is the poster child for the small sample size claim. He was hitting just .232 with a .735 OPS as of Saturday morning, and his season pace would've looked a whole lot different had this article come out then. He's in the midst of an upswing, so these numbers are skewed. 

However, with the way he's driving the ball to the opposite field right now and turning singles into doubles, don't be surprised if he approaches the 83 extra-base hits he put up last year.

Willson Contreras

On pace for: 57 HR, 114 RBI, 86 BB, 143 K

...and that's in only 448 projected at-bats. 

Those would certainly be NL MVP caliber numbers from a guy some expected to challenge for the award after his blistering stretch in the middle of 2017. Contreras was so hot that he actually might've approached 30 homers and 100 RBI that year if he hadn't hurt his hamstring and missed a month.

If he stays healthy, his record-setting start to 2019 helps make those benchmarks seem like a possibility once again.

Contreras won't maintain his 1.224 OPS or .766 slugging percentage all season, but he looks like a completely different hitter than he was last year, when he hit just 7 homers in the first half and had only 10 all season.

Jason Heyward

On pace for: 38 HR, 105 RBI, 133 R, 95 BB, 57 K

To put those in perspective, here's Heyward's season average in each category during his first three years in a Cubs uniform: 

9 HR, 55 RBI, 62 R, 46 BB, 73 K

So even with a serious regression from his hot start, it wouldn't take much from Heyward the rest of the way to top his 2016-18 average stat line. 

The power is definitely eye-catching, but the walk-to-strikeout ratio is particularly noteworthy. His command of the strike zone is a huge reason why he's been able to hit .353 with a 1.052 OPS in the first 1/10 of the season.

Heyward has looked so good, he's now hitting fifth in the Cubs — a spot that once belonged to...

Kyle Schwarber

On pace for: 29 HR, 57 RBI, 48 BB, 181 K

Schwarber is in the midst of a tough stretch right now, so these numbers look off — especially the strikeouts (he's whiffed 12 times in his last 5 games). The power is still there, but the RBI total remains low and even the walks are suspiciously below his standards.

Schwarber has a career 13.4 percent walk rate and drew free passes at a 15.3 percent clip last year. This season, he's all the way down to 8.8 percent. 

Daniel Descalso 

On pace for: 86 RBI

Where is everybody who mocked the Descalso signing over the winter? In hiding right now, probably. 

The veteran has been exactly as advertised in the early going, with a professional and advanced approach at the plate. That includes a 7-for-12 mark with runners in scoring position (plus 4-for-7 with runners in scoring position and two outs). 

Descalso has been having some great at-bats, but there's no way those numbers will continue at their current pace all season. So don't bet on 85+ RBI, especially when he's only on track for 419 at-bats.

Ben Zobrist

On pace for: .379 OBP, 86 BB, 67 K, 48 R, 0 XBH

Zobrist turns 38 next month, but there's no way he suddenly lost all of his power. This is a guy who put up double digit homers every season from 2008 through 2017 before hitting only 9 last year. Age may be catching up to him a bit and sapping some of his slug, but he still hit 28 doubles last year in 455 at-bats.

He continues to keep his strikeouts and walks nearly even, as even with a 2-strikeout performance Wednesday night, Zobrist still has more free passes than whiffs this season. Between his 86-walk pace, the .379 OBP and the fact he spends most of his time in the leadoff spot in the Cubs order, it's surprising he's only scored 5 runs so far. That should change once Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo start heating up.

Speaking of...


We don't need to worry about a pace for Bryant and Rizzo. Everybody knows they're struggling. 

This is the only stat you need to know:

Just wait until these guys start hitting. This Cubs offense is going to be a force to be reckoned with all year. (Unless, you know, they "break" in the second half again...)

Now, on to the run prevention...

Pitching stats are not as much fun to project out over a full season simply because they don't play every day and the small sample size carries even more weight (especially for relief pitchers). 

But here are a few fun pace stats for some Cubs arms:

—Cole Hamels is on pace for 29 wins and 0 losses.

—Jose Quintana is projected for 276 strikeouts in 200 innings. (His career high in whiffs was 207 in only 188.2 innings in 2017.)

—Jon Lester is on pace for only 29 starts, which would be the first time he failed to take the ball at least 30 times in a season since 2007.

—Brad Brach is on track for 95 walks in 67.2 innings. He's never walked more than 38 batters in a season (and that came in 79.1 innings in 2015). 

—Kyle Hendricks is ticketed for 133 runs allowed...but only 76 of those would be earned. The Cubs defense has done him no favors to begin the year.

—Pedro Strop is projected to lead the Cubs in saves with...10. He is the only Cubs pitcher to pick up a save through 17 games and he has just the 1 (from April 11 against the Pirates).

—Steve Cishek is on pace for only 67 appearances — a pretty big step down from the 80 games he pitched in a season ago.

—Brandon Kintzler is projected to give up only 58 baserunners in 76.2 innings (48 hits, 10 walks) while striking out 86 batters. He has never finished a season (in which he's made at least 10 appearances) with more strikeouts than innings pitched and his career-low WHIP was 1.065 in 2013, when he surrendered 82 baserunners in 77 innings.

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CubsTalk Podcast: Todd Hollandsworth gives an outside perspective


CubsTalk Podcast: Todd Hollandsworth gives an outside perspective

Former Cubs TV analyst Todd Hollandsworth talks with Luke & Kap and gives an outside perspective on the 2019 Cubs.

—Holly talks about being in the the TV booth and on the road every day with the Marlins. (0:46)

—Todd shares his thoughts on the 2019 Cubs and how the team was built through the draft. (1:51)

—Holly breaks down Jose Quintana's recent run of great starts. He Also talks about Yu Darvish and if what we saw Monday was for real. (4:03)

—Todd talks about the N.L. Central. Draws similarities to the N.L. East. He says the Cubs still win the division - IF they pitch. (5:37)

—Holly shares his thoughts on former Marlin Christian Yelich and his dominant start to the 2019 season. (8:05)

—Todd talks about the "Yelich" trade and how the deal has worked out (so far) for the Marlins. (11:09)

—Holly discusses Javy Baez sliding into second base and the replay review system in MLB. Where do they go next? How can MLB fix the problem with aggressive base-running vs. being too cautious when sliding. (13:17)


Cubs Talk Podcast


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