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Cubs’ Starting Rotation is Beginning to Come Around

Despite getting off to a rough start in 2018, the Cubs' starting rotation is showing flashes of brilliance writes Daniel Shepard. Read about it here.

The struggles of the Chicago Cubs’ starting rotation has been well chronicled this season and for good measure. Over the winter, the front office sunk a combined $164 million into the Cubs’ rotation, filling the shoes of Jake Arrieta and John Lackey with Yu Darvish and Tyler Chatwood.

On paper, that seemed like an upgrade, especially with Darvish being a multi-time All-Star and Chatwood’s solid road numbers during the 2017 season (77.1 innings, 3.49 ERA, 1.228 WHIP). Things on paper don’t always work out in the real world and the Cubs two starting pitcher free agent signings from this past offseason are a perfect example of that.

Darvish, the 31-year-old veteran who the Cubs gave $126 million over six years mere months after his horrific World Series performance, made just eight starts in year one of his contract on the North Side. What turned out to be a stress reaction in his elbow limited the right-hander to just 40 innings, one win and a 4.95 ERA.

While health was the biggest issue behind Darvish’s lackluster 2018 campaign, Chatwood cannot say the same thing, even though he is currently on the DL. The Cubs bet $38 million over three years on the fact Chatwood’s stuff would play up outside of Coors Field and his road splits would become the embodiment of who he would be the remainder of his career. That, so far, has not been the case as the right-hander’s control issues have culminated in a league-leading 93 walks over 101.2 innings. In addition, the 28-year-old owns a 5.22 ERA in 23 appearances (20 starts), helping to drive his move into the bullpen before his placement on the disabled list earlier in the week.

Without Key Pieces, the Rotation Has Found a Groove

In the first half of the 2018 season, the Cubs’ rotation wasn’t much to behold. Darvish was placed on the DL for the final time on May 20 and even though Mike Montgomery stepped up in his place, not much went right for the staff prior to the All-Star break.

With the exception of Jon Lester, who posted a sub-3.00 ERA en route to his All-Star Game selection, Jose Quintana, Kyle Hendricks and Chatwood all struggled to find consistency. While their ERA as a group was not terrible at 3.88, the Cubs’ staff had the sixth highest first half FIP (4.67) in the majors. To go along with that, the staff posted a lackluster 7.62 K/9 rate, a number that ranked 25th in the league while at the same time posting the second highest walk rate (4.13) behind only the Chicago White Sox.

Those less-than-stellar numbers combined with their inability to eat innings (26th in the league at 503), led to the Cubs’ staff posting a 3.0 combined WAR in the first half, 25th in the game.

To kick off the second half, it looked like the only bright spot for the Cubs in the first half — Lester’s performance — would begin to wane also. The big lefty gave up eight, one, four, five and eight earned runs in his first five starts to begin the stretch run. That ballooned his ERA from 2.58 to 3.89 after his outing on August 11.

In that outing, it was reported by The Athletic that Lester had better command of his pitches and even slightly moved his arm slot, changing the angle on his fastball. While that didn’t help him in that start against the Washington Nationals (eight earned runs over 3.2 innings), it has seemly put an end to the veteran’s problems since.

Lester’s next outing on August 16 against the Pittsburgh Pirates was a return to form for the work-horse of the Cubs’ rotation. Over six strong innings, the southpaw struck out eight batters without walking any while at the same time allowing five hits and zero earned runs.

On June 15, Lester took the mound against the St. Louis Cardinals and used 17 change-ups over six innings to quiet the opposing lineup. That outing marked the last time until last Thursday that Lester had used his change-up at least ten times. Even though he failed to get a whiff on a change-up in that outing, opponents swung at the pitch 83 percent of the time, no doubt helping to result in more balls on the ground.

Lester did, however, get a good amount of swing-and-miss on his cutter. Of the 14 he threw in that outing, opposing hitters whiffed three times, or 21.43 percent. That ranked as the second highest whiff percentage for Lester on his cutter this season, behind only a start at the beginning of June.

Into his next outing, the southpaw carried that momentum, inducing seven whiffs on 38 cutters over 5.2 innings of one-run baseball against the Detroit Tigers. That resulted in a solid 18.42 whiff percentage on the pitch, making up for his reduced whiff rate (3.03) on his four-seam fastball.

Lester’s last two starts have been sandwiched around a solid stretch of play from the Cubs’ staffing staff. His outing on the 16th was followed by Cole Hamels‘ seven strong innings of five-hit, no earned run baseball in the second of back-to-back 1-0 victories against the Pirates.

At this point in the season, one would expect two veteran southpaws to carry a pitching staff just like Lester and Hamels have done in their most recent outings. What’s even better is when the entire starting rotation logs a good turn through the order. That is exactly what the Cubs have received over the last week.

On the 18th, Chatwood was called upon to make what would become his final outing before he hit the DL. In that start, the right-hander lasted just two-plus innings and allowed three earned runs and three walks. Chatwood’s lackluster performance in his spot start did not help his standing with management, meaning he will likely remain in mop-up duty if and when he gets healthy.

Since the 18th, the Cubs’ starting staff has received a good outing from the one through five spots in the rotation. Quintana, Lester and Alec Mills failed to reach the sixth inning in their starts, but that did not stop them from allowing a combined three earned runs over 16.1 innings.

Whereas those three lacked longevity in their outings, both Hendricks and Hamels played a role in keeping the bullpen fresh for the stretch run. On the 21st against the Tigers, Hendricks logged seven innings of two-run baseball. Despite giving up ten hits, the right-hander walked just one and struck out three batters.

Perhaps the most sparkling start came just two days ago from newly acquired Cole Hamels. The postseason tested veteran southpaw hurled the Cubs’ first complete game of the season in a 7-1 blowout of the Cincinnati Reds. Even though he loaded the bases in the ninth, Hamels worked around it, allowing just one earned run and two walks while striking out seven.

Outlined by the numbers toward the beginning of this article, the Cubs’ starting rotation was nothing special in the first half of play. So far in August, however, those numbers that generally left much to be desired, have begun to take a step forward.

Entering play Saturday, the Cubs’ rotation owned the ninth best ERA in the league this month at 3.44, backed by a nearly identical FIP of 3.48. As a group, their K/9 stayed consistent with the mid-seven number they posted in the first half, checking in at 7.70 and ranking toward the middle of the league (18th). That low K/9 can be dealt with because of the rotation’s BB/9 of 2.02, a number that is the fourth lowest in the month of August after being one of the worst marks in the league prior to the All-Star break.

The lack of free passes and overall effectiveness of the staff has resulted in 120.1 innings pitched through the first three weeks of the month. After ranking toward the bottom of the league in that category early in the season, that number put the Cubs eighth in baseball, helping to produce the ninth best WAR (2.4) among starting staffs for the month of August.

While the numbers have been much better of late, the Cubs’ last turn through the rotation produced even better results. Their 2.36 ERA and 2.57 FIP rank fifth in the game over the last seven days. The Cubs’s sparkling staff ERA over this most recent stretch has been driven by a remarkably low hard hit percentage.

As a staff, the Cubs have allowed a hard hit rate of just 19.6 percent, a number that leads the majors over the last week while at the same time inducing the ninth most ground balls in the game (43.3 percent).

Soft hit balls on the ground have worked wonders for a starting rotation that has struggled to be consistent this season. With one of the best defensive units in the majors, Cubs’ pitchers can get by with less strikeouts (K/9 of 6.55 over past last seven days – 28th in baseball), even though they continue to allow an elevated amount of free passes (BB/9 of 2.62 over past seven days – 20th in baseball).

Cubs’ fans and management alike hope this recent stretch of stellar play is just the tip of the iceberg as to what this group of pitchers can do. Remember, this last turn through the rotation did not feature a fifth starter with extensive major league experience as both Montgomery and Chatwood are on the DL.

At the beginning of the season, it would be hard to imagine the Cubs’ rotation actually doing better without Darvish being a major contributing factor. With his absence, the Cubs have had to lean heavily on lesser proven pitchers and their bullpen to shoulder the load.

Despite the bad news on Darvish’s health and the lack of a stable fifth starter right now, many of the signs point to the rotation finally turning a turn for the better. If the Cubs can get at least four of their starters in a groove going into the postseason, it will do this team wonders.

On Saturday evening, Quintana did his part to uphold the recent success of the rotation in his start against the Reds. Over five innings, the southpaw allowed just two earned runs on six hits. Like many of his fellow rotation mates this season, Quintana had his problems with the free pass, allowing three in his outing versus just two strikeouts.

Nonetheless, Quintana’s outing is just the latest in a week-long list of solid performances by the starting rotation. Amidst all the injuries and setbacks this season, that is a welcomed sign for a team with its eyes set on postseason baseball.

Follow Daniel Shepard on Twitter-Feature Photo Credit: ESPN.com 

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