He steps to the mound looking like a child who’s gotten into his dad’s clothes, hat barely kept afloat by his ears and jersey hanging from his willowy frame like a pinstriped sail. At 6-3 and 155 pounds, Carl Edwards Jr. isn’t exactly a great spokesperson for Thickburgers. Nor is he a guy you’d expect to be running the ball up to the plate at 95 mph.
The beanpole reliever is a veritable slingshot, stretching back and firing pebbles that batters can barely see, let alone hit. Edwards mixes a curveball in there for good measure, but the heater makes up 77.4% of his pitch mix at this point. And at 6.5 runs saved (2.94 per 100 pitches), it’s easy to see why. Only the Cardinals’ Dan Kiekhefer (2.96) has greater weighted value on his fastball, though his numbers have come in 4 fewer innings than Edwards.
Lest we give the curve short shrift, Edwards Jr’s Uncle Charlie ranks 13th among all MLB relievers with 3.46 runs saved per 100 pitches. But it’s the fastball that’s really turning heads, not to mention screwing batters into the ground. That’s because they swing and miss on it more than any other four-seamer in the game.
Yes, you read that right: Carl Edwards Jr’s fastball generates the highest whiff rate in the majors.[beautifulquote align=”full” cite=””]His overall swinging-strike mark of 20.2% is behind only Luke Gregerson (20.3%) among 501 MLB pitchers who have logged at least 10 innings this season.[/beautifulquote]
Noah Syndergaard, the Norse god of thunder, induces swings and misses on 22.19% of his fastballs. Marlins phenom Jose Fernandez gets whiffs at a 23.06% clip. Red Sox ace David Price is at 28.86%. And Aroldis Chapman, he of the legendary heater capable of reaching 105 mph, gets batters to miss the ball on 32.71% of the swings they take at his ol’ number one.
Edwards is well ahead of all of them, getting hitters to miss at a 39.64% rate. His overall swinging-strike mark of 20.2% is behind only Luke Gregerson (20.3%) among 501 MLB pitchers who have logged at least 10 innings this season.
That’s not normal, folks. That’s the type of whiff rate you’d expect see on a good breaking pitch, not a fastball. A pitch that has all kinds of movement is likely to induce some ugly swings from time to time. And that’s what makes this particular four-seamer even more of an anomaly: it doesn’t move. At least, not much.
— Eno Sarris (@enosarris) August 7, 2016
Contrary to myth, pitches can’t actually rise. Well, unless we’re talking about wiffleballs. But in actual baseball, gravity is going to impact the horsehide sphere more than the low pressure generated by heavy backspin. It is possible, however, for a pitch to “ride,” or not drop as far. Edwards Jr’s fastball has an average of 8.83 inches of vertical movement (94th least in MLB), a little more than heralded fireballers John Lackey (8.14) and Kyle Hendricks (8.42).
Um, okay, what does that mean? Honestly, it doesn’t tell us much. When we bring horizontal movement into the conversation, however, things get interesting.
Among all MLB pitchers with at least 200 fastballs thrown in 2016, only one has less side-to-side movement than Carl Edwards Jr. If you strung a wire from his hand to the catcher’s mitt, the ball would deviate only 0.26 inches from the plumb line. Only the great Mat Latos (0.09) has a more static offering. So we’ve established that the guy throws hard and straight. How, then, is he getting professional hitters to miss so often?[beautifulquote align=”full” cite=””]Edwards has struck out 25 of the 64 (39%) batters he’s faced despite throwing fewer pitches in the strike zone (38.3%) than all but 16 other major league pitchers.[/beautifulquote]
Anyone can hit a mistake, but a good pitch in the right location can be devastating. And what Edwards Jr lacks in movement, he makes up for in pinpoint accuracy. The heat map below shows exactly how he’s been able to shut down opposing hitters.
By pounding that corner time and again, the slight slinger is stretching righties and handcuffing lefties. That approach might not be as effective were he throwing in the upper 80’s, but his velocity makes him nigh unhittable. To wit, he’s allowing a paltry .136/.208/.136 slash line to lefties and .081/.150/.167 to righties and has struck out 25 of the 64 (39%) batters he’s faced (if you watched the video above, you’ll note that many of the K’s have come on the curve too). That’s despite throwing fewer pitches in the strike zone (38.3%) than all but 16 other major league pitchers who’ve notched at least 10 innings in 2016.
Given Edwards Jr’s relative lack of big league experience and the small sample size from which these numbers are drawn, it’s reasonable to harbor skepticism over his ability to maintain this performance going forward. At the same time, inexperience and youth may be cause for optimism that Edwards can actually improve from here. He won’t turn 25 until the day after the regular season ends and has only pitched 355.1 innings in four-plus professional seasons, the first three of which saw him groomed as a starter.
For all that’s been made of the Cubs’ trio of Pedro Strop, Hector Rondon, and Chapman, it’s Carl Edwards Jr who has really solidified things in the bullpen. His emergence as a potential elite reliever made former elite reliever Joe Nathan expendable. It also makes Joe Maddon’s job easier by increasing the margin for error in the late innings. If I didn’t know better, I’d say this is starting to look like that vaunted Kansas City bullpen that helped the Royals to the World Series title last season.
But I do know better…and I still say this is starting to look like that vaunted KC pen.
The Cubs can change styles, speeds, and sides at will to throw opposing teams off and shorten games. Shoehorning his way into that mix is a kid whose hand envelopes the ball as surely as his hat and jersey seem to swallow him up when he takes the mound. It’s far from an intimidating image and one that I’m sure provides hitters with a little undue confidence.
At least until a couple BB’s dot the lower corner of the zone and a bender sends them back to the dugout with a hangdog look and a lower batting average.