It’s been a long, winding road for the Cubs’ rotation this season. The preseason rotation featured stalwarts Jon Lester and Kyle Hendricks, last season’s blockbuster trade piece Jose Quintana and off-season acquisitions Yu Darvish and Tyler Chatwood. On paper, this group appeared formidable, among the best of the National League, and was thought to be a major strength of an expected fourth straight playoff appearance (and third straight division title.)
Things happen, of course, and thankfully this front office has responded in-kind. Amidst all of the troubles this rotation has endured this season, the Cubs remain firmly in first place in the NL Central with the league’s best record. This isn’t by accident, even if the front office made miscues with their off-season signings. Instead, the front office has proven once again it understands the importance of thinking ahead, maintaining flexibility, and taking chances when necessary.
There’s No Denying the Bad
There’s been an impossible amount of ink spilled on Darvish, whose season was both short-lived and, when healthy, far below expectations. As for Chatwood, who I personally viewed as a fantastic addition as a back-end starter, he literally spiraled out of control en route to losing his rotation slot.
The ineffectiveness of the two supposed final pieces to a playoff rotation couldn’t be more impactful. Yet somehow, someway, this team has prevailed, and the rotation has only gotten better in their absence.
The Cubs Always Find a Way
Slotting Montgomery into the rotation proved prescient, as he has posted a solid 3.38 ERA (3.72 FIP) in 77.1 innings as a starter this season. And while Monty will almost certainly be a swing-man during the playoffs, his effectiveness and durability as a starter has given the Cubs a breath of fresh air that was supposed to be provided by Chatwood. There’s no denying the significance he has on this team, despite an ever-evolving role.
Then, of course, there’s Cole Hamels, who has been nothing short of an ace since joining the Cubs.
Hamels’ Dominance as a Cub Can’t be Overstated
Admittedly, few could have foreseen Hamels pitching to the tune of a 1.00 ERA (2.24 FIP) in his first 45 innings with the Cubs. He’s given up just 33 hits in that stretch while holding batters to a paltry .237 wOBA — numbers that, while small sample size, are above and beyond ace status. He’s clearly been a shot in the arm for a Cubs staff that sorely needed it, and moving forward, after seven starts, he’s proven he deserves to be the team’s ace this postseason.
Track records are important, of course, yet the importance of what the present tells us can not be denied. While Lester and Hendricks alike have better overall postseason numbers, Hamels has the pedigree of that magical 2008 run — in which he won both the NLCS and World Series MVP awards. There’s also the reality that both Lester and Hendricks have been pitching well lately, and while Hendricks remains my favorite player, it is an unquestionable reality that Hamels has been the most dominant Cubs pitcher since the trade deadline.
Hamels has yet to give up more than two runs as a Cub, has averaged over six innings per start and has produced a terrific 54.5 ground ball percentage. One could talk about the numbers ad nauseam, but there’s another factor to consider: Cole Hamels has looked the part of an ace. Whereas Lester and Hendricks have both showed glimpses of dominance, and Jose Quintana has slowly returned to form, Hamels has grabbed the ball every fifth day and all-but guaranteed a ‘W’ for the North Side.
The Snowball Effect
Since Hamels’ first start with the Cubs on August 1, the rotation has pitched to a 3.21 ERA, holding opposing hitters to a .370 slugging percentage, surrendering just 2.2 BB/9, all to the tune of a sparkling 3.23 FIP. These numbers are all near the top of the league, suggesting that Hamels’ presence has impacted more than just every fifth game — his success has permeated throughout the rest of the rotation.
When you have a rotation brimming with confidence, the rest of the team follows suit. And when you add in a positional player like Daniel Murphy, whose impact on the offense has been similarly brilliant to that of Hamels, you wind up with a squad that’s confident, playoff-tested and hungry for a championship.
The Cubs may or may not reach their fourth straight NLCS, and even if they do, the road to the World Series — even if it’s through Wrigley Field — won’t be easy. I get that we’re only in early September, and several things could happen between now and the playoffs. But right now Hamels is our ace, and if the season continues to unfold how it has since August 1, our best bet for another World Series is with Cole on the mound in game one of the NLDS.
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