Caleb Kilian’s Wild Night and Where Things Stand

I thought of Tyler Chatwood frequently last night.

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

What wound up being so frustrated about Chatwood’s time with the Chicago Cubs is that you could see the great starting pitcher in there, and you could tell he could even be successful if he just fixed ONE of those issues. But they all kept popping up in tandem too often, and suddenly a guy who had frequently been a sub-9% walk guy for long stretches of his minor league career (and some of his early days in Colorado) was one of the wildest pitchers print baseball. It was torture to follow.

That’s what it was like to watch Kilian last night. You could see how he has four big-league caliber pitches. You could tell that if he’s able to get ahead in the count – any count! – he could make the batter feel awfully uncomfortable. And you could see how that just wasn’t going to be possible, because he couldn’t throw a strike when he was needed, and he was starting too many at bats with pitches that were clear balls out of the hand. The night never had a chance to be a success.

(It wouldn’t have changed the reality of the wildness we were seeing, but if Jonathan Villar catches the second inning pop up, and if he makes a subsequent play on a ground ball, it’s possible Kilian would’ve gotten out of that inning without allow any damage AND having thrown half the pitches. Kilian also didn’t get help on a grounder to Alfonso Rivas that was scored a hit, but a play that should’ve been made.)

What we know is SOMETHING is off. A guy who walked a total of 13 batters across 100+ minor league innings in 2021, has now walked 16 across 43.0 minor league innings this year (still not bad, but a huge spike), and has also walked a preposterous 12 batters across just 11.1 big league innings. We know there was a big uptick in his velocity and stuff over the past 18 months, and with that you might expect a little uptick in walks, at least at first. But this extent? The wildness we’re seeing? It’s something else entirely.

Among pitchers with at least 10 innings pitched this year, Caleb Kilian’s 20.3% called strikes plus whiff rate (ie, the rate at which you throw a pitch and it becomes a non-foul-ball strike) is third lowest in all of baseball. He is generating the fourth fewest swings outside the strike zone because he is throwing so many pitches that are immediately diagnosable by the batter as a ball. Again, that just seems so off for what we know Kilian’s strengths to be.

Something has to be wrong. I don’t mean physically, because we’ve had no indication there are any health issues. I also don’t mean mind/confidence/yips, because I don’t want to speculate on that kind of thing without a lot more information.

Since I’ve seen a lot of folks mentioning this topic: I also don’t mean there’s something wrong with the adjustment to the big league baseball, both because there have been similar balls used at times at Triple-A this year, and because we have yet to actually HEAR from Kilian or anyone with the Cubs that he’s losing the grip on the ball. (I’m wide open to hearing that excuse, though, if there is some relevance and something particular about Kilian as to why it is impacting him and not others as much!)

Instead, my mind goes immediately to mechanics. Probably because it is often an explanation, but also because I’m being hopeful and want this extreme wildness issue to derive from something fixable.

The best I could think in the moment to do a quick and dirt evaluation on whether there might be some mechanical issues (in addition to whatever else) is to check Kilian’s release point data for his three big league starts. To the eye, it has *looked* like he is frequently losing his release point, which, if true, would seem to show up in the data. While not possible to have precisely the same release point start to start and pitch to pitch, the platonic ideal is a pitcher releasing all of his pitches from the same spot every time (think Jon Lester, whose release point was almost comically consistent across starts and pitches).

At Statcast, what I notice for Kilian’s three starts is a somewhat wide range in vertical release point (two and a half inch range among pitches and starts), horizontal release point (two inch range), and extension (four inch range), and some of the more extreme outliers coming in the start last night. To be sure, the ranges aren’t ENORMOUS, and we also don’t have this kind of data for his minor league starts (maybe he has always had more variability in release point than average (though I tend to doubt it based on his) command)). Honestly, I was just hoping I’d see something obvious. I’m not sure there’s enough here yet.

In other words, if there is a mechanical issue that has popped up, it’s gonna be something too subtle for a guy like me to pin down with the eyeballs. Maybe in time it becomes more clear, either because we get more data, or because Kilian is sent back down explicitly to work on something.

There was some suggestion in the post-game discussion at the Sun-Times that Kilian is indeed working on some mechanical tweaks that may have gotten into his head a bit, so maybe we’ve got a combination of things going on?

Kilian certainly isn’t going to let on that there’s any concern beyond very typical stuff.

“Instead of missing in the zone, I was missing just away,” said Kilian, per Cubs.com. “I was getting behind in counts [with] the walks. I just hurt myself…. It’s super frustrating, actually, because I feel like I’m digging myself in a hole. Like I said, I’m walking people, getting behind in counts. I feel like it’s not far off. I feel like it’s close. Once it clicks, it’ll be a lot better.”

Maybe so. We might never find out what was off – heck, I hope that happens! – and this all winds up being part of the development process as he and the Cubs worked, quietly, on things X, Y, and Z. As we discussed yesterday, this kind of ugliness is not all that uncommon as young starting pitchers are getting their feet wet. What gives more pause than most, though, is that it is extreme wildness coming from a guy who never had this issue before. That’s why I keep kinda hanging on it, and why I spend 1300+ words on it.

Until some of Marcus Stroman (only just throwing), Wade Miley (still in rest mode), and Drew Smyly (building up to mound work) are ready to return, Caleb Kilian is likely to keep getting starts. They are opportunities for development, so long as they don’t wound up spiraling into issues that didn’t exist before. I guess we’ll just see how he looks this weekend against the Cardinals in St. Louis.

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