MLB.com Columnist

Mike Petriello

5 reasons Chatwood could be this winter's breakout FA

2.57 road ERA last two seasons sixth-best in baseball

5 reasons Chatwood could be this winter's breakout FA

Last November, the Astros signed Charlie Morton to a two-year deal worth $14 million, a move that raised some eyes, given that an injury-prone Morton was headed into his age-33 season carrying a career 4.54 ERA, and that he'd made only four appearances for the 2016 Phillies before suffering a season-ending hamstring tear.

This November, Morton finished off the best season of his career by throwing the final four innings in Game 7 of the World Series, after having also thrown 6 1/3 innings of one-run ball in Game 4 and five scoreless innings in Game 7 of the American League Championship Series. In exchange for a free agent contract that barely cracked the top 25 of overall value last offseason, the Astros received some crucially valuable innings, and they have him for 2018, too.

Now, 29 other teams are going to be thinking about how they can find the next Morton, the next undervalued low-cost pitcher with questionable traditional stats and history who just might be an incredibly useful player if put in the right situation. They'll all have their guesses. We have ours. Let's introduce you to Tyler Chatwood, formerly of the Rockies.

By the surface stats, there's not much to see here. Chatwood had a 4.69 ERA, 71st-highest of the 90 pitchers with 140 innings. He had an 8-15 win-loss record; only one pitcher had more losses. He's had Tommy John surgery, twice, most recently missing all of 2015. He's thrown more than 150 innings just once. This is, of course, the point. Undervalued pitchers are supposed to have flaws, otherwise they wouldn't be undervalued.

Chatwood escapes a jam with K

Yet for all the obvious issues, Chatwood has some extremely interesting underlying skills, too, and we know that outcomes and skill level aren't always the same thing. We can point to five different areas that should cause you to look past the uninspiring results and look ahead to a pitcher who could make an impact in 2018.

The Coors Factor

As we must do with every Rockies player, we have to start here. It's extremely difficult to pitch at Coors Field, as over 20 years of data has proven, and it was especially so for Chatwood, who had a 6.01 ERA at home, the ninth-highest of 139 pitchers who threw 50 home innings. If we look at the last two seasons, his 6.07 ERA is the fifth-highest of 138 pitchers with 100 home innings. You can't survive, much less thrive, with numbers like that. 

But on the road, he's been a totally different pitcher. In 2017, his 3.49 road ERA was 29th of 134 pitchers with 50 road innings, similar to Dallas Keuchel or Jose Quintana. Combining 2016-17, his 2.57 road ERA was sixth of 126 with 100 road innings, similar to Max Scherzer or Chris Sale. We don't want to dwell on this too long, because there's a lot of other items to get to, but just keep in mind his home field when you think about his overall numbers, because a version of Chatwood not spending half his time in Colorado would almost certainly be a better one.

The High Spin Rate

It was immediately obvious from the day the Astros signed Morton that part of the appeal was in his high curveball spin. Despite the abbreviated 2016 season, his curveball spin ranked with the elites in baseball, and spin is like velocity, in that you don't need to see a ton of pitches to know that it's there. With Houston, Morton threw his curveball a career-high 28 percent of the time, and it was a successful pitch for him -- among the 90 starters who threw a curve to at least 50 hitters, his was a top-five pitch according to our latest and greatest Statcast™ quality of contact metric, xwOBA.

Chatwood has elite curve spin, too. In 2017, there were 229 pitchers who threw 100 curves, and his spin rate of 2980 RPM was the fifth-highest, well above the Major League average of 2489 RPM, and just ahead of Morton himself (2874 RPM). When he throws it right, you can see what that does to a quality hitter like Jake Lamb, back in July.

Chatwood fans Lamb

But Chatwood threw it only 10 percent of the time in 2017. "I had a two-year layoff and I didn't have a really good feel for it," he said during Spring Training. As the Majors continue to move away from fastballs and back towards breaking pitches, this is exactly the type of pitch you'd want to see more of. (For what it's worth, he's got very good four-seam spin for a starter, too.)

The Velocity Bump

Part of what made Morton so appealing, as well, was that his velocity was up. After averaging 92.2 mph on his fastballs from 2012-15, he was up to 93.7 mph before he was hurt in 2016, then 95 mph in 2017, touching as high as 98.5 mph in the playoffs. "I just went out there and tried to throw the ball hard," was his deceptively simple explanation to local media in 2016.

It's rarely that simple, but we saw the signs of added heat from Chatwood, too. He averaged 93.5 mph on his fastballs in 2013-14, before his elbow injury, then only 92.6 mph in 2016 as he worked his way back. But in 2017, that was up to 94.6 mph, an improvement that could be attributed both to another year off of surgery and mechanical changes he made with his feet.

Chatwood strikes out Votto

The Ground Ball Ability

As hitters continue to try to elevate the ball for home runs, the best way to counteract that is to force hitters to keep the ball on the ground. Looking at the 200 starters who allowed at least 200 batted balls, the top three in groundball percentage were impressive names Dallas Keuchel (68 percent), Marcus Stroman (63 percent), and Lance McCullers Jr. (62 percent). Chatwood was 11th of those 200, at just below 55 percent. Morton was 14th, at 53 percent.

The Changing Role of a Starting Pitcher

We've known for some time that most non-elite pitchers are less productive as they go deeper into games for a variety of factors, and teams have been reactive to this as they go into the playoffs. They don't ask more than pitchers can give, for the most part.

This is true for Morton and Chatwood, too. In Morton's final two seasons before joining the Astros, he allowed a .319 wOBA the first time through the lineup, a .324 wOBA the second time, and a .347 for the third time or beyond. With Houston in 2017, little changed; he gave up a 1.25 ERA the first time, 3.71 ERA the second time, and 7.18 ERA the third time and beyond.

It's all but identical for Chatwood. Over his last two years, his wOBA allowed each time through was .296 the first time, .339 the second, .358 the third and beyond. He gave up a 2.35 ERA the first time, 5.73 the second time, and a 7.44 ERA the third time and beyond.

Chatwood gets Buxton swinging

The solution there is simply to set expectations properly. If a team signs Chatwood and he offers 16-18 strong outs before leaving, that should be considered "a solid start," not "disappointing short one," but not all teams will see it that way.

In some sense, all the Astros did was look past the injuries for Morton. They saw the velocity, they saw the spin rate, they saw the grounder ability -- all of which is available publicly -- and they gambled on health, while encouraging more curveballs. They didn't ask him to go deep into games, and they won.

It's not hard at all to see something similar with Chatwood. His unimpressive career numbers will obscure some of the skills beneath. With the right team, in the right situation, he could be the steal of 2018.

Mike Petriello is an analyst for MLB.com and the host of the Statcast podcast. He has previously written for ESPN Insider and FanGraphs. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.