Since May 15 the Cubs have been mired in a tough stretch, managing just a 5-9 record and holding onto first place by just a half game. Several factors can be reasoned into the poor play of late, the most obvious and painful being that of the starting rotation.
When a team as good as the Cubs maintains a two week slump there’s never one clear cut reason why, but there are certainly indicators that suggest where improvement (or the hope for positive regression) lies. For that reason it’s not appropriate to place the blame entirely on the starters — even if a looming cloud of culpability resides over their collective heads. That said it’s certainly worth looking into what, exactly, has been happening with the team’s starters, and what to expect moving forward.
The Numbers are Telling
Before we dive into the past 14 days it’s important to note how sturdy the rotation has been on the season as a whole. A more-than-palatable 4.9 WAR that ranks 10th in the majors has been buttressed by decent numbers, both traditionally and peripherally. Cubs starters rank 11th in both ERA (3.97) and FIP (4.05) with middle-of-the-road strikeout out and walk percentages (22.1 and 8.4, respectively). They have one of the lowest HR/9 (1.15) in the game and maintain the second best ground ball percentage (48.1) while stranding runners at an average clip (73.2 percent).
These numbers suggest what you might expect from a group that mostly consists of savvy veterans. Outside of Yu Darvish there are no power arms in the rotation, meaning that crafty veterans in Cole Hamels and Jon Lester lead the way in escaping jams and limiting damage. Kyle Hendricks continues to out-pitch his peripherals (stop me if you’ve heard that before) while Jose Quintana remains an importantly consistent cog. In short, there’s nothing surprising here at all.
The past two weeks have belied that point, of course. What’s interesting to note is that the rotation’s ERA is ugly in this stretch (6.50) while advanced statistics (4.44 FIP) paint a more favorable picture. In fact outside of ERA the rotation has stayed relatively in line with their season numbers, with one glaring difference: BABIP.
It might sound optimistic and simplistic, but bad luck has hampered the rotation more than anything. While the starting five have yielded a .302 BABIP for the season (sixth highest in baseball, but anything around the .300 mark is nothing to be alarmed about) in the past 14 games they have an obscene .380 mark. To put this in perspective it’s not only the highest BABIP in the majors during this stretch, it’s the highest by a country mile — a whopping thirty points!
Because the starters are striking out (19.7 percent) and walking (7.8 percent) batters during this stretch at clips commensurate with season numbers, there’s little concern with regard to giving up free passes or surrendering contact too often. Their ground ball rate has dipped a bit (43.3), with a slight increase in HR/9 (1.35) and bigger increase in hard contact (42.3 percent, from 37.9). So you could argue the needle is pointing in the wrong direction outside of BABIP, but that seems like a rushed conclusion when purveying the data as a whole.
None of these numbers are terrible outliers, again laying claim to the fact that bad luck — more than anything else — has been the cause of their recent demise.
It’s entirely reasonable to remain confident in this unit.
Could Regression be Legitimate?
While everyone knew that Lester would not maintain his otherworldly 1.16 ERA that he had early in the season, to suggest that he’s suddenly going to be a liability on the mound is laughable. First of all, we’ve seen this act from the vet before. Look no further than last year, and with his anticipation that he’s working through his kinks, we should be confident in his status moving forward. (The same goes for Hamels. Another veteran, another pitcher that understands how to adjust after a tough stretch.)
Of course, these are more assertions and assumptions than they are facts. But track records are just as important as predictive statistics, and what we know about our two lefty veterans is that they are absolute gamers. To question them right now seems both short-sighted and lacks awareness. (Come back if they’re still struggling next month).
What About Darvish?
What’s lost in all of this is the potential resurgence of Darvish. I get that an ERA north of five with a FIP to match aren’t exciting, but consider the following: Yu’s velocity is solid, he’s inducing more ground balls than he has ever before, and his last three starts are quite encouraging.
While his last outing doesn’t look great on paper, he pitched into the eighth inning for the first time in his Cubs career, and did so with an impossibly strong wind blowing out to center. In the two starts previous he gave up just five earned runs over 11.1 innings, and in his last three starts he has 23 strikeouts against five free passes in 18.1 innings.
As with the struggles of Lester and Hamels it’s too early to assume the opposite of Yu — that he’s poised for a breakthrough for the rest of the year. The above numbers are encouraging, however, and shouldn’t be ignored or dismissed because of the frustration(s) surrounding his early tenure on the North Side.
The Rotation will be Fine
I remain bullish with regard to the rotation. You can say with near certainty that Lester and Hamels will rebound, and there are enough positive indications to suggest Darvish might finally turn the corner. Throw in the ever consistent ‘Q’ and quiet dominance of Hendricks, and you’ll likely see the rotation feature some of the best numbers in the senior circuit come October.
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