Watching Caleb Kilian pitch for the Cubs so far has been like the 2018 version of Tyler Chatwood after being put through a taffy-pulling machine. The highly-touted rookie is longer and leaner than his predecessor, but seeing him struggle to find the zone while walking more batters than he strikes out has been less than enjoyable. What makes it even tougher is that Kilian’s calling card had been his pinpoint accuracy.
Through his first 116.1 professional innings, the lanky righty walked a total of 15 batters (1.16 BB/9). He’s walked 12 in just 11.1 innings over his first three Cubs starts (9.53 BB/9) and we’re not talking about a bunch of near misses that robo-umps would have called correctly. Whether it’s nerves or timing or [insert your own personal theory], Kilian has thrown way too many uncompetitive pitches.
“It’s super frustrating, actually, because I feel like I’m digging myself in a hole,” Kilian told reporters Monday night in Pittsburgh. “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.”
Two of the seven runs he allowed were changed to earned runs a few innings after his exit when a wild pitch was amended to a passed ball, which underscores another issue with Kilian’s performance that impacts the staff as a whole. I’m speaking, of course, about a defense that leaves more than a bit to be desired, especially considering the way this rotation was supposed to have been constructed.
While injuries have prevented things from working out according to plan, it was obvious from the start that the staff would need a very good defense in order to turn too much contact into outs. The Cubs currently rank 22nd in MLB with just a 10.6% swinging-strike rate, and that drops to 24th and 9.6% if we look at just the starters. Pairing that with a defense that ranks 25th with -14 defensive runs saved is the opposite of peanut butter and chocolate.
Looking at you, Jonathan Villar.
Oddly enough, the Cubs are actually sixth in MLB with an 8.0 UZR, but nearly all of their other defensive metrics confirm the eye test. So when Kilian is out there missing the zone more than he misses bats, he’s eliminating what little margin for error existed for him in the first place. It’s not unfair to say Cubs pitchers are already at a disadvantage to the defense, so that hole Kilian talked about digging already had a head start before he took the mound.
That’s why I still believe it’s in his best interest to stay up with the big club as he tries to establish a rhythm and overcome some of the issues he’s encountered, both of his own making and those that are out of his control. If he can tighten up what’s happening before the ball leaves his hand, it’ll remove some of the pressure on the defense to clean things up after. Figuring those things out now will only make it easier in the future, assuming Jed Hoyer is able to assemble a better roster before long.
The way Kilian bounced back from a dash of adversity in his first start showed a lot about who he can be as a pitcher, now it’s a matter of working through two rough appearances. I think he’s got it in him to do just that and I’m hoping the Cubs agree.