Now that the first half of the season in the books, it’s time to reflect on the Chicago Cubs’ first few months of the season. On the pitching side of things, Cubs’ fans could not have asked for much better. At the break, the Cubs’ pitching as a group owns the fourth best ERA (3.56) in the majors. That number has been fueled by the solid play of the bullpen which owns the fourth best ERA in the majors at 3.09. In addition, the Cubs’ starting rotation has been no push-over despite suffering through injuries and under-performance for much of the year. As things currently stand, the Cubs’ starters own the 11th best ERA in the game at 3.88.
With all that being said, let’s hand out some grades for the Cubs’ pitching staff for their first half performances starting with the ace of the rotation.
Jon Lester: A+
This grade was possibly the easiest to give. Lester has enjoyed a solid first half after struggling for much of the 2017 season. A year after posting a 4.33 ERA, the big left-hander logged the fourth best ERA (2.58) in the National League during the first portion of the season.
That sparkling ERA earned him his fifth All-Star Game selection and his second as a member of the Cubs.
Despite Lester’s ERA, the southpaw is striking out less batters and walking more batters than in previous seasons, fueling a 4.34 FIP. That number, however, has not come back to bite Lester yet and it may never as the lefty is learning a new way of pitching as he enters his mid-30’s.
Kyle Hendricks: C+
After posting ERA’s of 2.13 and 3.03 in 2016 and 2017 respectively, Hendricks entered the 2018 season as a strong candidate to take over the ace role in the Cubs’ rotation moving forward.
While things started out well for the right-hander as he posted a 3.19 ERA through the end of May, that success quickly ended in the month that followed. Over five June starts, Hendricks amassed a 7.03 ERA while walking 15 batters in 24.1 innings. That lackluster performance pushed his season ERA to 4.21 by the end of the month.
Despite a slightly lower strikeout rate this season (18.3 percent) compared to last, Hendricks has looked much better in his last two starts. On July 9, the right-hander spun 8.1 innings of five-hit baseball against the San Francisco Giants, while striking out eight and walking just one batter. His last start was shorter, just five innings, but Hendricks was able to settle in after allowing a first inning two-run home run.
Those two starts fuel optimism that Hendricks will find himself in the second half after posting an ERA near four and a 6-8 record in the first half.
Yu Darvish: F
I take back what I said about Lester’s grade, this one may be the easiest to give. Just months after signing a six-year, $126 million deal with the Cubs in the offseason, Darvish has logged just 40 innings at the big league level. That has been caused by two trips to the disabled list, the latter of which has caused him to miss almost two months with no set timetable for his return.
Of those 40 innings mentioned above that Darvish has pitched this season in a Cubs’ uniform, only about 12 of them have been any good. Six of those came in Darvish’s second start of the season on April 7 against the Milwaukee Brewers. In that game, Darvish allowed just two hits and one run while striking out nine batters. The remaining six frames came in Darvish’s last outing, a May 20 start in which he held the Cincinnati Reds to two hits and one run while striking out seven.
Overall, Darvish has one win and a 4.95 ERA at the All-Star break after many thought he had a chance to start the 89th edition of the game at the beginning of the season. Nonetheless, the Cubs will need Darvish healthy in the second half to stave off the Brewers in the NL Central.
Jose Quintana: B-
Like Hendricks, Quintana has largely underachieved this season. A year after posting a 3.74 ERA in 14 starts for the Cubs after being acquired mid-season, Quintana kicked off his 2018 season on the wrong foot as the left-hander notched a 5.74 April ERA.
Despite that rocky start, Quintana has been better of late, bouncing back with a 3.09 ERA in May and a 1.50 mark in two starts thus far in July. With six innings of shutout baseball on July 10, his last start before the break, Quintana pushed his season ERA below four for the first time this season.
Overall, Quintana is sporting a respectable 3.96 ERA while at the same time owning a strikeout rate of just 20.8 percent and walk rate of 10.7 percent. That latter number is elevated in respect to his career number of 6.8 percent while his strikeout rate in solidly in-line with his career number despite being almost six percent lower than his mark last season.
With that being said, Quintana has under-performed so far this season, but like Hendricks, his last few starts before the break provide hope for a strong second half.
Tyler Chatwood: D-
While Chatwood’s season has been bad overall, it did not start out that way for the 28-year-old right-hander. In five April starts, Chatwood posted a 2.83 ERA, striking out 27 batters in 28.2 innings. Sure, he walked 22 batters but when he was signed it was understood he had previous issues with his control.
Those issues, however, have spiraled into major problems for the Cubs. In 84 innings pitched this season, Chatwood has walked 73 batters coupled with 76 strikeouts. That gaudy number of walks has resulted in a walk rate of 18.6 percent, more than six percent higher than anything he’s posted so far in his career.
While the large number of walks did not seem to bite Chatwood early in the season, they quickly began to as the season wore on. In May and June, Chatwood posted ERA’s north of five while walking 23 batters in 19.2 innings during the month of May.
As July began, things did not get much better for Chatwood. In two starts, the right-hander has tossed 10.2 innings, allowed 14 hits and 10 earned runs, resulting in a 8.44 July ERA and pushing his season mark north of five.
The reason Chatwood received a better grade that Darvish despite the fact his numbers are worse, is the simple reason that Chatwood has eaten the amount of innings he has and stayed healthy to continue to contribute, admittedly mostly in a negative, but that’s more than Darvish can say.
With Darvish on the disabled list for much of the first half, Montgomery was forced to work out of the starting rotation for the majority of that time. That was good news because in 18 appearances as a reliever before joining the rotation, Montgomery was sporting a 5.33 ERA in 25.1 innings.
As a starter, Montgomery has found much more success. The left-hander made nine starts in the first half, posting a 3.20 ERA while holding opposing hitters to a .237/.300/.347 slash line.
While Montgomery’s last four starts have not been ideal (14 earned runs in 21 innings), the southpaw has been able to fill the void left by Darvish without the Cubs having to add a starting pitcher via trade.
Steve Cishek: A
The 32-year-old Cishek has been one of the best bullpen arms for Joe Maddon this season. A side-arming right-hander, Cishek is sporting a strikeout rate of 27 percent which is slightly above his career average.
That strikeout rate and a solid left-on-base percentage (84.4 percent) has helped Cishek find success this season. Currently, the right-hander owns a 1.88 ERA while working the most of any reliever in the Cubs’ bullpen (43 innings).
To put that into perspective, Cishek’s career high in innings came during the 2013 season when the right-hander was closing games for the Miami Marlins. That year, Cishek racked up 69.2 innings in 69 appearances, a mark he is on pace to break this season.
Brian Duensing: C-
In 2017, Duensing was of the better left-handed relievers in the game, posting a 2.74 ERA with an ERA-plus of 161. That outstanding campaign prompted the Cubs to sign Duensing to a two-year, $7 million contract that would take him through his age 37 season.
Early on, it seemed like that deal would work out great for the Cubs. Through May 11, Duensing failed to allow an earned run while continuing to look like the pitcher who posted a sub-3.00 ERA in 2017.
However, things quickly fall apart for the veteran left-hander. After logging a 3.86 ERA to finish the month of May, Duensing gave up 16 earned runs in 8.1 innings during the month of June (17.28 ERA), forcing the Cubs to place Duensing on the DL hoping that could reset the lefty.
Overall, Duensing is sporting a 6.59 ERA and has fallen out of Maddon’s circle of trust for right now. The reason for the “C-” and not a lower grade is simply due to how Duensing started the season, as one of the best relievers in the game.
Carl Edwards Jr.: B+
Since breaking into the majors in 2015, Edwards has proven his worth. Last season, the right-hander logged a sub-3.00 ERA in 66.1 innings, seemly setting himself up for a breakout campaign this season. So far, that is exactly what’s taking place.
Through the first half of the season, Edwards is sporting a 2.89 ERA in 28 innings. In addition, the right-hander owns a gaudy 41 percent strikeout rate, a number that would be a career-best if it holds. To continue the trend of praise, Edwards has cut down on his walks this season, something that has plagued him in recent years. Last year, Edwards’ walk rate sat at 14.5 percent. This season, that number has fallen to 11.1 percent, solidly below his career average.
One of the Cubs’ free agent pick-ups this past offseason was Brandon Morrow. With former closer Wade Davis gone, the Cubs needed another lock down closer for their push to October. They found their man in Morrow whom they inked to a two-year, $21 million deal with an option for a third season. Through the first half of this year, Morrow has lived up to that contract.
The story throughout much of Morrow’s career has been his ability to stay healthy. Injuries over the last two seasons limited the right-hander to just 59.2 innings and 63 appearances for the San Diego Padres and Los Angeles Dodgers. While health issues limited his work load, they did little to affect his work when he did take the mound. In the time mentioned, Morrow posted a 1.96 ERA with an ERA-plus of 211, making him a clear choice to headline the Cubs’ bullpen.
Currently, things could not be going much better for the right-hander. Even though he missed some time with a back issue, Morrow has looked strong in his 30.2 innings of work, posting a 1.47 ERA and converting 22 out of 24 save opportunities.
The combination of Edwards and Morrow at the back-end of the bullpen is a big reason why this group has been as good as they have been this season.
In November of last year, the Cubs claimed Rosario off waivers from the Minnesota Twins. With just 2.1 innings of previous big league experience under his belt, the 24-year-old began the season with the Triple-A club, serving as a depth piece if the Cubs needed him.
As a left-hander pitcher, his serves were in need rather quickly, especially after he posted a 0.47 ERA in 19.1 innings for Iowa. On May 19, the left-hander made his Cubs debut, and did not allow a run through his first five appearances.
Overall, Rosario has allowed six earned runs, good enough for a 1.95 ERA in 27.2 innings. One cause for concern is Rosario’s 4.2 BB/9 and 5.2 K/9 which suggest he is walking too many batters and not striking out near enough.
For now, however, Rosario is making it work and providing the Cubs with a go-to left-hander now that Montgomery is in the rotation and Duensing is struggling.
Pedro Strop: A-
Since joining the Cubs in the same trade that brought Jake Arrieta to the North Side in 2013, Strop has been one of the best relievers to wear a Cubs’ uniform.
Dating back to 2014, Strop is sporting a 2.67 ERA in 276 innings while averaging 10.3 strikeouts per nine and posting a well above average ERA-plus of 152.
This season, Strop is well on his way to logging his lowest ERA since the 2014 season. Currently, the right-hander owns a 2.52 mark in 39.1 innings while at the same time posting an ERA-plus of 168.
While Strop has always been relegated to a middle reliever role, he has shined without receiving much credit for his All-Star-caliber play at times. Without Strop holding down the sixth and seventh innings for the past few years, who knows where the Cubs would be right now.
Justin Wilson: B-
When the Cubs traded for Wilson at the deadline in 2017, he was having one of the better runs of his career. Despite that, Wilson did not bring that to the North Side to finish the 2017 campaign. In 23 games for the Cubs, the left-hander posted an ERA north of five, making fans question the move by the front office.
This season, however, has been much better for Wilson. The southpaw has already racked up 39 innings pitched and owns a solid 2.77 ERA. Still a troubling trend for Wilson is his 6.2 BB/9, a number that is down from the 9.7 mark he amassed during his tenure with the Cubs last season. Coupled with that elevated number is Wilson’s 12.9 K/9 which would be the highest of his career since he struck out seven batters in 4.2 innings back in 2012.
With all the injuries the Cubs have sustained to their bullpen this season, it has been necessary to fill those voids with guys from Triple-A. Those guys listed above have all appeared in at least one game for the Cubs this season but have not made many contributions by themselves, making more of an impact as a group.
In total, this group has logged 73.1 innings this season and worked to a 3.07 ERA. That’s pretty impressive for a group for relievers that started the season in the minors.
Still, that number gets better if you remove Maples’ five earned runs in 2.2 innings. Then, you would see the remaining six relievers have posted a combined 2.55 ERA this season.
As the second half gets underway on Thursday, we will likely continue to see many shuffles among the Cubs’ bullpen staff. With that being said, those moves can be made with confidence knowing those guys have performed well at the big league level at times during the season.
To go along with that, it will be interesting to see if the starting rotation can get back on track after a lackluster first half. If that happens, the Cubs will have no problem reaching October once again.
Stay tuned and check back at the end of the season for final grades of the Cubs’ pitching staff.
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