Twenty-one year old Tyler "The Kid" Chatwood shut down a stacked White Sox lineup Saturday night, cementing his status as top pitching prospect in the Angels' organization and injecting a little phenom magic into the young 2011 season. With Kazmir still on the hunt for passable MLB velocity, it looks like Chatwood will remain in the majors for the foreseeable future, so the question is this: what did he do Saturday night that was legitimately good, and what will he have to do to repeat it?
The Kid's preseason scouting report listed a plus fastball running up to 97/98 mph with good life, a hard-breaking curve that also rates as a plus pitch, and a useable, improving change-up. He showed good control throughout his 2010 breakout season, but command of his arsenal within the strike zone was still an issue and his K rate had dropped significantly in the upper minors. In short, he lacked polish. Has that report changed following his MLB debut?
He and Conger had a simple game plan last Saturday: keep the ball down and away from Chicago's sluggers....Conger presented a target below the hitters' knees for 94% of Chatwood's pitches, and set up low and on the outer half of the plate 65% of the time. He didn't call for anything elevated. He asked Chatwood to come inside on hitters only seven times (8%) all night, primarily against right-handers. Planned or not, Chatwood stuck with his heater, throwing it 80% of time, and with eight of his final ten pitches. The thinking must have been, limit Chatwood's opportunities to make mistakes up in the zone, do not give the Sox hitters anything to pull, and force them to catch up with his above average velocity on the outer half of the plate.
The Kid showed decent control, throwing 60% of his pitches for strikes while walking three over seven innings. Command was an issue: he hit his spots (and I mean, really hit them) with only a fifth of his pitches. Regardless, he kept the ball down (bottom half of the zone or lower) 58% of the time, with misses tending to ride in to his arm side, but rarely drifting up in the zone. On pitches beneath hitters' thighs, Chatwood collected four groundouts, including three double plays, while giving up only two hits and two harmless flyballs. On pitches at the thighs or higher, he yielded nine flyballs off the bat, including two base hits and Quentin's homerun. Even without pinpoint control, The Kid succeeded because he kept the ball down. He executed on that simple principal, so I think the evidence points to him being more good than lucky Saturday night.
We haven't seen consistent mid 90's velocity yet, either in spring training or the MLB, but his fastball has averaged 92.5 mph through his first two starts, almost a full mph higher than any other Halos' starter. Hitters are struggling to lift the pitch when it's down in the zone, even after getting multiple looks at the four-seamer (that's not true when he elevates!). He's shown a decent feel for the curve and the change-up, throwing both for strikes and inducing some swings and misses. With up to fifteen mph separation between his fastball and offspeed offerings, his velocity should continue to play up. He has the stuff to continue to shut down good lineups.
What it will come down to is command. His game plan worked Saturday night, and might continue to work for a while longer if he just continues to pound the bottom half of the zone with his heater. However, he will eventually have to adjust when hitters start connecting with the low and away fastball. Keeping hitters off the plate by coming inside could increase the likelihood that he serves up more cookies. In order to boost his strikeout totals, he will likely have to alternate his curve with high fastballs to change hitters' eye level, but intentionally elevating the ball exposes him to more potential mistakes. His change-up is still a relatively new offering, and though he's induced an impressive 21% whiff rate with it so far, the sample size is small and he could lose feel for it in critical situations. Basically, he's going to have to execute new game plans at some point in order to stay good, which will test his command far more than keeping his fastball in the bottom half of the zone. It probably would have been easier on him to do that in AA, but he's an asset to the big league club now (for the time being). Let's see how fast he can add the polish against major leaguers.