Wild Night by Caleb Kilian and where things stand

I often thought of Tyler Chatwood last night.

It wasn’t a player comp for Chicago Cubs rookie Caleb Kilian, and it certainly wasn’t an insult. But watching the start of Kilian’s third big league, it was impossible not to notice the similarities in the kinds of things we’d see from Chatwood with the Cubs: good speed, good movement, obviously impressive stuff and a varied pitch mix… but also lots of uncompetitive balls, suddenly losing the ability to command any of these diverse pitches, missing right off the plate when a strike was really needed, erratic delivery, falling behind in the count so often that he was hit hard when he managed to get back into the zone, etc.

What ended up being so frustrating about Chatwood’s time with the Chicago Cubs is that you could see the big pitcher going in there, and you could tell he might even succeed if he solved just ONE of those problems. But they all kept appearing in tandem too often, and suddenly, a guy who had often been a less than 9% walk guy for long stretches of his minor league career (and some of his Colorado debut) was one of the craziest pitchers. at baseball. It was torture to follow.

That was how watching Kilian last night. You can see how he has four high-caliber pitches. You could say if he is able to advance in the count – any count! – it could make the hitter terribly uncomfortable. And you could see how that just wasn’t going to be possible, because he couldn’t throw a strike when he needed to, and he was starting too many at-bats with pitches that were clear balls out of hand. The night never had the chance to be a success.

(It wouldn’t have changed the reality of the savagery we were seeing, but if Jonathan Villar catches the second set, and if he makes a subsequent play on a ground ball, it’s possible Kilian got out of that set without allow any damage AND have thrown half the pitches. Kilian also didn’t get an assist on an Alfonso Rivas grounder who scored a hit, but a play that should have been made.)

What we do know is that SOMETHING is wrong. A guy who walked a total of 13 batters in over 100 minor league innings in 2021, has now walked 16 in 43.0 minor league innings this year (still not bad, but a huge spike), and has also traveled an absurd 12 batters through just 11.1 major league innings. We know there has been a big increase in speed and stuff over the last 18 months, and with that you can expect a small increase in steps, at least initially. But this measure? The savagery we see? It is quite another thing.

Among pitchers with at least 10 innings pitched this year, Caleb Kilian’s 20.3% called strikes plus smell rate (i.e. how fast you throw a pitch and it becomes a clean hit) is the third-lowest in all of baseball. It generates the fourth-fewest swings outside the strike zone because it throws so many pitches that the batter can immediately diagnose it as a ball. Again, this seems so far removed from what we know to be Kilian’s strengths.

Something is wrong. I don’t mean physically, as we had no indication that there were any health issues. I also don’t want to say mentally/trust/yips, because I don’t want to speculate on that stuff without a lot more information.

As I’ve seen a lot of people mention this topic: I also don’t want to say there’s anything wrong with adapting to big league baseball, both because there’s had similar balls used at times at Triple-A this year, and because we have yet to HEAR from Kilian or anyone else with the Cubs that he loses control of the ball. (I’m totally open to hearing that excuse, though, if there’s some relevance and something special about Kilian as to why it affects him as much as the others!)

Instead, my mind immediately goes to the mechanics. Probably because that’s often an explanation, but also because I’m hopeful and want this problem of extreme savagery to derive from something fixable.

The best I can think of right now to do a quick and dirty assessment on whether there might be any mechanical issues (on top of everything else) is to check Kilian’s exit point data for his three starts in the big league. At first glance, it *looked* like he frequently lost his release point, which if true would seem to show up in the data. While it’s not possible to have the exact same starting point to start and throw to throw, the platonic ideal is a pitcher releasing all his pitches from the same spot every time (think Jon Lester, whose point launch was almost comically consistent across starts and locations).

From Statcast, what I notice for Kilian’s three starts is a fairly wide range of vertical release point (two and a half inch range between steps and starts), horizontal release point (two inches) and extension (four inch range), and some of the more extreme outliers came early last night. To be sure, the ranges aren’t HUGE, nor do we have that kind of data for his minor league debut (maybe he always had more variability in the exit point than the medium (although I tend to doubt it based on his command)). Honestly, I was just hoping to see something obvious. I’m not sure there are enough here yet.

In other words, if there’s a mechanical issue that’s surfaced, it’s going to be something too subtle for a guy like me to pinpoint with our eyes. Maybe over time it becomes clearer, either because we get more data or because Kilian is explicitly sent back to work on something.

There was a suggestion in the Sun-Times post-game chat that Kilian was indeed working on some mechanical tweaks that might have gotten into his head a bit, so maybe we have a combination of things going on. ?

Kilian is certainly not going to imply that there is a concern beyond very typical things.

“Instead of missing in the zone, I was missing straight out,” Kilian said, according to Cubs.com. “I was falling behind in the counts [with] the walks. I just hurt myself…. It’s super frustrating, actually, because I feel like I’m digging myself a hole. Like I said, I’m walking people around, I’m falling behind in counts. I feel like it’s not far. I feel like it’s close. Once it clicks, it will be much better.

Maybe. We may never know what was wrong – heck, I hope it does! — and it all ended up being part of the development process as he and the Cubs worked, quietly, on things X, Y, and Z. As we discussed yesterday, that kind of ugliness isn’t all that uncommon young starting pitchers get their feet wet. What gives me pause more than most, however, is that this is extreme savagery coming from a guy who has apparently never had this problem before. That’s why I cling to it a bit, and why I spend more than 1300 words on it.

Until some of Marcus Stroman (just throwing), Wade Miley (still in rest mode) and Drew Smyly (building to work on the mound) are ready to return, Caleb Kilian is likely to keep starting. These are opportunities for development, as long as they do not lead to problems that did not exist before. Guess we’ll just see what he looks like this weekend against the Cardinals in St. Louis.

#Wild #Night #Caleb #Kilian #stand

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