You can’t feel too bad when a free agent pitcher signs in Colorado. They know what they’re getting into, and they’ve made the decision in spite of the altitude. But you’ve got to feel a little bit sorry for Tyler Chatwood, the newest member of the Rockies, who will now be shopping for real estate in the Mile High City without having gotten much say in the matter. Denver is a lovely city, but it has something of a history of giving pitchers fits.
The Angels moved the 21-year-old Chatwood for Chris Iannetta, trying to correct one of the biggest mistakes of the 2010 offseason: Trading Mike Napoli. The Rockies add another young arm to the pair they received in the Ubaldo Jimenez trade, as well as their own, homegrown stash. Chatwood isn’t likely to be a fixture at the top of their rotation, but he does give them depth if Alex White or Drew Pomeranz doesn’t look ready coming out of spring training or if Juan Nicasio has a setback as he comes back from the fractured vertebra.
On the surface, Chatwood doesn’t appear to be much of prize for the Rockies or for fantasy players. A K/BB ratio of 1.04 isn’t going to inspire much confidence no matter how it breaks down, but at least it could be somewhat mitigated by either a high strikeout rate or a low walk rate. Instead, Chatwood both walked and struck out about 11 percent of the hitters he faced, which is quite possibly the worst way to have a 1-1 walk-to-strikeout ratio, as it’s both too many walks and too few strikeouts. The minuscule strikeout rate may yet rise into something nominally useful, as he never posted a K/9 under 6.2 in the minors, but the walks have always been with him and don’t appear to be going anywhere anytime soon. Moving out of the AL West will help his ERA some, but if he keeps his WHIP in the 1.50-1.60 range, it’s going to lead to some disaster starts where most of those runners score.
While much of Chatwood’s upside comes from his age and the time he has to reach his potential — he was ranked in Baseball America’s top 100 prospects prior to the 2011 season — I see two things that will help him survive the thin air. First, he doesn’t rely on offspeed pitches. The humidor certainly suppresses ball flight some, but pitchers who rely on breaking pitches must also fight the fact that less downward force means less break. Chatwood threw the third highest percentage of fastballs of all pitchers who threw at least 140 innings last year, so he’ll be less affected by the high altitude than someone like Wandy Rodriguez or Ervin Santana might be.
The second reason Chatwood won’t be ruined by Coors Field is his groundball rate. His 47 percent isn’t pushing the league leaders, but it is above average and every groundball helps when you’re trying to avoid home runs. The balls in play he generates will put some pressure on the Rockies’ defense, which did not grade out to be as good as the Angels’ was last year. That doesn’t bode particularly well for Chatwood’s hit rate, but I’m willing to wait until the offseason is over before making a final judgment on the Rockies’ defense.
So, the good news is that I don’t think the move to Coors will sunder Chatwood. The bad news is that with a high WHIP, low strikeout rate, and reasonably high ERA, he’s not exactly a fantasy goldmine even in a neutral park. If he starts missing bats or at least inducing weak contact, maybe he’ll become a bottom-tier — but playable — option. As of right now, stay away in all formats, NL-only included.