Analysis Cubs

Cubs: Starting Rotation’s Postseason Experience Could Pay Off in October

After acquiring Cole Hamels, the Cubs now have a trio of starting pitchers with vast postseason experience. Daniel Shepard writes that could pay huge dividends in October.

Dating back to their historic World Series run two years ago, the Chicago Cubs have consistently fielded one of the best starting rotation’s in the game of baseball. From 2016 to present, the Cubs’ starting staff ranks third in wins (195), 10th in K/9 (8.15), first in opponent BABIP (.275), second in ERA (3.61) and 11th in WAR (35.8).

Those numbers represent a standard that has been set over the last handful of years by the players that have rotated in and out of the starting staff since 2016. One of those names — Jake Arrieta — played a large role in the Cubs’ success during the 2015 season which played a big part in gearing the team up for that fateful 2016 campaign. Arrieta, who won a Cy Young Award for his sub-2.00 ERA in 2015, had a very solid run in his four full seasons wearing pinstripes. Over 119 starts, Arrieta logged a 2.67 ERA, firing six complete games (two no-hitters) all while recording an ERA-plus of 152.

However,¬†Arrieta’s greatest contribution to the Cubs very well could have been his postseason performances. Who will forget his masterful outing in the 2015 Wild Card Game against the Pittsburgh Pirates in which the right-hander went the distance, allowing just five hits and striking out 11 to advance the Cubs to the NLDS? Or his gutsy World Series Game 2 performance that lasted just 5.2 innings, but was good enough to even the series after the Cubs were shutout in Game 1?

Those are just two outings of nine total that Arrieta graced Cubs fans with before signing a three-year, $75 million deal with the Philadelphia Phillies this past offseason.

Even without Arrieta, or John Lackey (another pitcher with vast postseason experience), the Cubs’ rotation is in great shape as October inches closer and closer each day.

Cubs’ Rotation is Brimming with Postseason Experience

One of the mainstays in the Cubs’ rotation for the last four years has been Jon Lester. Through is ups — 19 wins, 2.44 ERA and 171 ERA-plus in 2016 — and his downs — 4.33 ERA, 26 home runs allowed and 103 ERA-plus in 2017 — the southpaw has been the horse for the Cubs’ staff.

Even in his rough year of 2017, Lester ate 180 innings, a more-than-solid number for a pitcher with over 2,000 innings on his left arm.

In fact, Lester has 2,342.1 innings of regular season play under his belt, a number that equates to 212 frames per season. What’s even more impressive than Lester’s durability and extensive track record from April to September is his track record from September on.

The 34-year-old entered the 2018 season with almost a full season’s worth of postseason experience and among some of the greats when it comes to October baseball. For his career, Lester’s 148 postseason innings rank sixth All-Time while his 21 starts are tied for ninth and his 124 career strikeouts are 10th best.

Those numbers put Lester right in the middle of names like Whitey Ford, Greg Maddux and John Smoltz, guys that are mentioned in the same breath as the Hall of Fame.

With two and possibly three years left on his six-year contract, Lester has a real shot at passing some big names on those lists, especially if he continues to pitch like he is right now. Currently, the southpaw is sporting a 3.53 ERA and a 122 ERA-plus. If that second number holds, it would be the second highest such one Lester has posted since joining the Cubs.

Save for a rough stretch around the All-Star break, Lester has bounced back nicely since his lackluster 2017 campaign that had some people talking about possible decline. With those talks pushed firmly down the road, the Cubs are hopeful Lester can string together a few more solid starts before they head into the postseason.

If that happens, the left-hander would be set replicate his past success in the playoffs. Throughout much of his career, Lester has been the number one postseason starter, getting the call in Game 1 of the NLDS and NLCS two years ago, one year before starting Game 2 in each of those series. As things stand right now, Lester seems likely to get the Game 1 call again this October, but this time, the Cubs have a new Game 2 option.

Since his 2.13 ERA in 2016, Kyle Hendricks has been a crucial piece of the Cubs’ rotation and postseason hopes. It was Hendricks who started Game 7 of the 2016 World Series and perhaps more importantly, Game 6 of that season’s NLCS against the Los Angeles Dodgers.

In three short seasons, Hendricks has racked up 50 innings of postseason experience, pitching to a 2.88 ERA, a number that includes a sparkling 1.42 mark during the Cubs 2016 run. Even though Hendricks had been the Cubs go-to Game 2 starter in 2015 and 2016 before starting Game 1 of the NLDS last season, he likely won’t get that call in 2018.

That is because Cole Hamels is now on the roster. In a trade with the Texas Rangers before the July 31 non-waiver deadline, the Cubs landed what appeared to be a washed up Hamels from a struggling ball club. With a few tweaks to his mechanics and the thrill of once again playing in a pennant race, Hamels owns a 1.00 ERA in a Cubs uniform, pushing his regular season ERA from 4.72 prior to the trade to a much better 3.67.

Hamels’ success with the Cubs only adds to the depth of their rotation moving into the latter portions of the season. In Spring Training, Yu Darvish was the shiny new piece to the puzzle but since his injury, the Cubs have been forced to look elsewhere and landed on Hamels.

It’s good for the Cubs that Hamels is on the roster because he also sports a track record of success in the postseason. Like Lester, Hamels is no stranger to starting the first couple games of a series, the all important match-ups that can set the tone for how a series of games will go. In total, the southpaw has 98.1 innings of postseason experience, enough to get his name on some of those leader-boards mentioned above.

Hamels’ 2008 postseason was special for the southpaw. That postseason, he made five starts, putting him among some elite company, winning four of those decisions on his way to a 1.80 ERA that October, a number that won him NLCS and World Series MVP honors.

The Cubs Have Cornered the Market on Postseason Experience

Chicago’s success over the last three seasons is unrivaled. Since 2015, the Cubs have won 373 games, the most in baseball during that stretch of play. That success has led to postseason births every season since the end of the 2014 campaign.

For that reason, many of the Cubs players, including pitchers, have racked up a ton of time in the bright lights of October. This season, the Cubs are perhaps the most equipped to face the playoff than they have been in recent seasons, at least on the starting pitching side of things.

Lester, Hendricks and Hamels have combined for 296.1 total innings of postseason experience thus far in their careers. Of the teams currently leading their division or the Wild Card race (Boston Red Sox, Cleveland Indians, Houston Astros, Atlanta Braves, Colorado Rockies, New York Yankees, Oakland Athletics, Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals), not one of them can field three starting pitchers with that many innings after the regular season. Only the Yankees come close with Lance Lynn, C.C. Sabathia and Luis Severino having racked up 194.1 such innings.

Because of their advantage in the experience department, the Cubs could have the upper hand in October even if other teams may field a more talented roster. We have seen time and time again that teams only need three of four starting pitchers in the postseason to be successful.

With a combination of Lester, Hendricks and Hamels pitching games one through three of a divisional match-up, it would give the Cubs a huge advantage over either the Brewers or Cardinals who do not have that many postseason-tested starting pitchers on their rosters.

I’m not saying experience alone will carry the Cubs back to the World Series. What I am saying is in October, every game and every pitch is magnified 100 times that of a regular season contest. That’s why it is always important to have salty veterans like the Cubs have to lead a starting rotation that can be backed up by an even stronger lineup.

Lester, Hendricks and Hamels give the Cubs a fearsome trio of postseason-tested starting pitchers that should greatly help the Cubs’ chances to win their second World Series title in the last three years.

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