After Chicago Cubs starter Brian Matusz was rocked (shocker!) for six earned runs over three innings (by allowing two-run homers in each inning) in Sunday’s matchup against the Seattle Mariners, Cubs right-hander Carl Edwards Jr. took the mound to start the fourth inning. With only 19 career major-league appearances before Sunday’s game and looking more like a marathon runner than a pitcher (Edwards stands six-foot-three but weighs just 170 pounds), fans from outside Chicago watching the nationally-televised Sunday Night Baseball matchup might have assumed the Cubs were rolling out a Quad-A scrub to eat innings in a game they had all but lost at that point.
Despite the 24-year-old’s slight frame and relative anonymity on the national scale (despite sharing a name with a certain NASCAR driver/Hardee’s spokesman), any doubt or confusion about Edwards’ abilities vanish as soon as he releases his first pitch towards home plate. A wild whirlwind of lanky limbs – Edwards’ body appears to be 75 percent legs – finishes with a smooth release and an exceptionally heavy fastball. In the fourth inning on Sunday, Edwards struck out the side in order on fifteen pitches. Next inning, he sandwiched a weak ground ball to first base between two more strikeouts. Going straight through the heart of a good Mariners order, Edwards twirled a pair of perfect innings on 30 pitches, striking out five.
This appearance was no fluke, as Edwards has been exceptional in his short time with the Cubs this season. In 16.2 innings over 15 appearances, Edwards has struck out 22 batters and allowed just six hits and five walks, good for a 0.66 WHIP. The only home run he’s allowed came in his season debut against St. Louis (1.2 IP, 2 H, 1 R, 0 BB, 3 K), and since then he has allowed only two earned runs (one on 7/6 vs. CIN, one on 7/20 vs. NYM), giving him a 1.65 ERA for the season. While ERA is relatively meaningless in such a small sample size, his excellent peripheral statistics give no reason for skepticism moving forward.
Edwards’ outing on Sunday was perfectly representative of what’s brought him success in his short career: his exceptional fastball-curveball mix. According to BrooksBaseball.net, Edwards has thrown his fastball 77.4 percent of the time this year and the curveball 21.4 percent of the time (there’s also one “sinker” and two “changeups” mixed in, but those are likely just recording errors). While Edwards used the curveball more Sunday night – 13 curveballs against 17 fastballs – the point remains that Edwards has thrived on using his two “plus” weapons and nothing else.
The fastball has been Edwards’ best pitch this season, despite the fact that the pitch is relatively straight. The 204 fastballs Edwards has thrown average 0.23 inches of horizontal movement and 8.75 inches of vertical movement, according to BrooksBaseball (a helpful primer on HMov and VMov can be read here, for those unfamiliar; it’s not as simple as you’d think). Despite its relative straight-ness, though, the fastball has played up well thanks to something called “extension”. Edwards’ fastball has averaged 95.5 mph this season, according to MLB Advanced Media’s Statcast – which is not bad, even by itself.
Statcast, however, also says that Edwards’ fastball generally registers a perceived velocity of almost 97 mph. This is because Edwards releases the ball nearly 8.5 inches closer to the plate than the average pitcher – 6.88 feet of “extension” compared to the league-average 6.18 feet — giving the batter less time to react, thus making his fastball seem faster. Additionally, Edwards has elite spin rate on his fastball, which comes in at nearly 2,600 rpm compared to the league average of 2,240 rpm. While this may sound like a useless stat for geeks, high spin rate has long been linked to higher whiff rates.
Another thing that’s made Edwards’ fastball so effective is his ability to locate it, especially in a place that most pitchers work their entire lives to stay away from – up in the zone. Edwards has thrived in the upper third of the strike zone this year, going there repeatedly and having success doing it. Take a look at a heatmap of Edwards fastballs this year:
And those fastballs that have induced whiffs:
Edwards is afforded the ability to do this not only by his good velocity, but also by the high spin rate. The high spin gives his fastball good “rise” and can make it difficult for hitters to get their hands above the ball and make solid – or any – contact. For the season, Edwards boasts an impressive 19.9 percent swing-and-miss rate on his fastball.
While the fastball is Edwards’ bread, the curveball is definitely his butter – the bread makes up the majority of the offering, but it’s nothing without a little bit of butter. Despite getting used almost four times less than the fastball, the curveball is the key to this entire operation. Without a good secondary offering, hitters can sit on a 95 mph fastball no problem, even if it looks like it’s 97. Edwards keeps hitters off-balance by feeding them a steady diet of hard fastballs, but there’s always a one-in-five chance that he’ll mix in a deuce – and it’s a good one.
Coming in around the low-80s, Edwards’ curve not only has nearly six inches of drop (-5.90 VMov) but also has over six inches of horizontal movement (6.30 HMov). Combine the change in velocity with good movement on both planes, and there’s no wondering why hitters struggle to hit either pitch. It’s tough to hit the fastball when you need be able to adjust to the curve, and it’s tough to hit the curve when you’re actually getting a fastball almost four out of five times.
Just like with the fastball, Edwards has displayed excellent command of the curveball, consistently locating it in places where it will induce swings and misses. Unlike the fastball, the curveball works best down in the zone, which is where Edwards has reliably placed the pitch all season:
Sometimes down in the zone isn’t good enough, however. In fact, Edwards sees the most success when taking the pitch down and out of the zone, even in the dirt. This is quite obvious when looking at a heatmap of the whiffs on Edwards’ curveball this year:
So far in 2016, Edwards’ curveball is drawing swings-and-misses at a rate of 21.1 percent.
Despite making up less than 22 percent of his overall pitches, though, Edwards’ curve has accounted for over 40 percent of his strikeouts this season (9 of 22). Sunday night, Edwards sat down three of the Mariners’ top four hitters with curveballs, sending Robinson Cano and Nelson Cruz back to the dugout after chasing benders well below the knees, then putting an exclamation point on his outing by freezing Franklin Gutierrez with a hook painted on the outside corner to end the fifth inning.
Still just 20 appearances into his major-league career, there’s plenty of time for the league to figure out what makes the “String Bean Slinger” so effective. On the flip side, there’s also plenty of time for Edwards to grow and mature into a consistently dominant force in the Chicago bullpen. While there’s likely nothing that can be done to usurp newcomer Aroldis Chapman as the most explosive reliever on the Cubs’ staff, Edwards is off to a good start making himself known on the national scale. Striking out five of the six batters you face on national television in the middle of one of the wildest games of the year certainly helps the cause, too.