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MLB Playoffs 2017: A look at Cubs and Nationals starting pitchers

Hamstrings have never mattered more to a series!

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Jake Arrieta throws in his last start of the season against the Cardinals
Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

As the playoffs loom the most important pitching issue facing Chicago and D.C. may not be pitch counts, location, or velocity. The most important question in both cities appears to be the state of two hamstrings. Specifically, the hamstrings of Jake Arrieta and Max Scherzer, who both are slated to pitch in this series. Both left their last starts prematurely due to injury.

As of this writing the Cubs have announced their rotation order. Jake will get as much rest as possible and start in game four. He’ll be preceded in the rotation by Kyle Hendricks, Jon Lester and Jose Quintana.

The Nationals have been a bit cagier. They’ve announced that Stephen Strasburg will get the Game 1 start, and there are rumors that Dusty Baker has told Gio Gonzalez he will get the start in Game 2. It is still unclear if the Nationals are going with a three or four man rotation, but it looks like the game three starter would be Scherzer with game four either going back to Strasburg or to Tanner Roark.

Now that there is a much clearer sense of the match-ups I wanted to do a more in-depth look at the starting rotations to get a sense of each individual starter and how they compare. Most of the stats are the same as yesterday, but I did add one that might need a bit of an explanation: ERA-.

ERA- is a stat on Fangraphs that takes our normal ERA number and tries to adjust for the league average and park factors. I won’t get into all the fancy equations, what you need to know is that a score of 100 for ERA+ would be a perfectly average pitcher. Lower numbers are better, so an ERA- of 95 indicates a pitcher was 5 percent better than the league average pitcher. In short? It gives us a baseline of what the average pitcher did this year and how the Cubs and Nationals rotations compare to that average. You can read a pretty sweet write-up of how this stat works (and how it’s related to it’s Baseball Reference counterpart, ERA+ at Beyond the Boxscore).

Know your enemy: A look at the Nationals

Nationals starting pitchers NLDS

Pitcher ERA 2nd Half ERA ERA- K/9 BB/9
Pitcher ERA 2nd Half ERA ERA- K/9 BB/9
Strasburg 2.52 0.86 58 10.47 2.41
Gonzalez 2.96 3.08 68 8.42 3.54
Scherzer 2.51 3.24 57 12.02 2.07
Roark* 4.67 3.9 107 8.24 3.18
ERA, ERA-, K/9 & BB/9 Fangraphs

Last year the Cubs had two of the top vote getters in Cy Young balloting in Hendricks and Lester. This year the Nationals will likely wind up in a similar spot. They have three starting pitchers with ERAs under 3.00. The drop-off between Gonzalez and Roark has been pretty stark this season, which explains why they are toying around with a three man rotation. Let’s take a look at each of these pitchers individually.

Stephen Strasburg

I’m going to be very blunt: Stephen Strasburg is having the best year of his career. His second half has been ridiculous. I am a massive Kyle Hendricks fan and I want nothing more than to celebrate him winning another postseason game for the Cubs.

This match-up is incredibly difficult.

Beating Strasburg in the second half has not exactly been easy, in fact it hasn’t been done since August 19. From the second inning of that game, until September 17, he had a 35-inning scoreless streak. He’s given up a grand total of six earned runs since coming off the disabled list in mid-August, has an ERA of 0.86 over those 62⅓ innings, and pretty much everything has improved. That impressive run has contributed to an ERA- that indicates that Strasburg is 42 percent better than league average this year. For comparison, the only lower ERA- in the NL belong to Clayton Kershaw (56) and Scherzer (57).

That doesn’t mean a Strasburg start is an automatic win for the Nationals. He’s only started one postseason game. Injury concerns, including a DL stint over the All Star break this year, have been a constant concern in his career. To be frank, if I were the Nationals, Strasburg’s health is the reason I wouldn’t want to go with a three-man rotation at any point of the postseason. It’s also the main reason I went looking at pitch counts and innings totals yesterday.

Gio Gonzalez

All right, after telling you all that Strasburg is having the best second half this side of 2015 Jake, I feel a lot better about this section. Gio Gonzalez is having a great year, but he’s having a human great year with his ERA hovering around 3.00. His K/9 rate is not super-human like Strasburg or Scherzer and he will absolutely walk a guy. By ERA- he’s been the fifth-best pitcher in the National League (the non-Nationals, non-Kershaw person rounding out the top five is the Diamondbacks‘ Robbie Ray, if you’re keeping track at home). This is undoubtedly a tough match-up, so let’s look for some reasons to hope.

The Cubs have a really good track record against Gonzalez. They have not lost a game he has started against them since 2015, including a 5-4 victory earlier this year in D.C., however those games have been close and I’d expect nothing less after the number of close games the Cubs and Nationals have played this year.

One note, while Gonzalez is in the middle of one of his best seasons ever, it is worth remembering from yesterday’s post that he has thrown a ton of pitches and innings this year relative to his averages. His September/October ERA skyrocketed to 5.47 in games against the Marlins, Braves, Phillies and Pirates. If that Gio shows up in Game 2, I like the Cubs chances of stealing a game in D.C. before they return to Wrigley Field.

Max Scherzer

Scherzer is having an excellent season. His 2.51 ERA is lower than last year’s Cy Young campaign’s 2.96. As mentioned above, by ERA- Scherzer has been 43 percent better than the league average and the second best pitcher in the NL. So yes, this looks lopsided, but if we dig into the numbers a bit there are some silver linings.

First of all, Scherzer’s numbers in the second half came back to earth a bit. It’s not just the change in ERA, either. In the first half batters were OPSing .514 against Scherzer, in the second half that number is up to .655. Don’t get me wrong, .655 still isn’t great, but it’s an improvement the Cubs batters will certainly take. Also, as Gwalchavad pointed out in the comments in part one of this series yesterday, Rizzo, Heyward and Russell are all hitting over .300 against Scherzer. For what it’s worth, he’s pitched at Wrigley Field twice in the last three years. In 2015 he threw seven shutout innings against the Cubs on May 27. On May 6, 2016 he got lit up early and was chased after allowing seven earned runs in five innings

Finally, while Max Scherzer has had some brilliant starts in the postseason, he’s also had some duds. It’s worth remembering that the Nationals lost both of his starts last year against the Dodgers. And he was playing that series healthy.

Tanner Roark*

If the Nationals wind up going with a fourth starter it will be Tanner Roark. I think this is most likely to happen if they are up 2-1 after game three. I cannot imagine he’d get the ball if they were down two games in the series. It is also possible we’d see Roark out of the bullpen.

Tanner Roark had his career year last year when he sported a 2.83 ERA in 210 innings. This year he’s returned to earth with a 4.67 ERA in 181 innings. His second half was better than his first half as you can see above, but his Sept/Oct ERA was right in line with his year at 4.83.

He was slightly worse than league average this year, as his ERA- of 107 indicates. If you’re looking for a comparison on the Cubs stats wise, the person Roark most resembles is John Lackey (ERA- 105, ERA 4.59). That said, he’s won three out of his four starts against the Cubs going back to 2015. I’m sure you remember the game the Cubs won on May 8, 2016.

Our hometown heroes: A look at the Cubs

Cubs starting pitchers NLDS

Pitcher ERA 2nd Half ERA ERA- K/9 BB/9
Pitcher ERA 2nd Half ERA ERA- K/9 BB/9
Hendricks 3.03 2.19 69 7.93 2.58
Lester 4.33 4.46 99 8.97 2.99
Quintana 4.15 3.74 96 9.87 2.91
Arrieta 3.53 2.28 81 8.71 2.94
ERA, ERA-, K/9 & BB/9 Fangraphs

As you can see the Cubs have their work cut out for them in this series. The starting pitching of the Nationals has been one of their strengths this year. Let’s take a closer look at some of these numbers and see how the Cubs match-up as we head into this weekend.

And just so I don’t have to repeat myself four times, there is an obvious theme with the Cubs starters: after a rocky start they seemed to pull it together in the second half. I guess pitching into November will do that to you, because it wasn’t just the Cubs.

Kyle Hendricks

What more can I say? All he does is get guys out. No one seems to know or appreciate this better than his teammates. When Jon Lester was asked about the decision to have Hendricks start game one this was his answer:

As you no doubt already know, very few people can evaluate postseason pitchers the same way Lester can, and that is high praise.

Kyle’s second half looks like vintage Kyle, which is very good for the Cubs. Due to his stint on the DL he didn’t quite meet the inning qualification to be ranked in Fangraphs ERA- over the course of the season, but at 69 he’s tied with Dallas Keuchel and only one point behind Gonzalez. His 2.19 ERA is exactly what we’ve come to expect from Kyle.

He’s also been excellent in the postseason. While the baseball Gods keep conspiring to keep him from notching actual wins (don’t get me started on the win stat) it’s worth noting that the Cubs have won four of the seven games he’s started, including the most important win in Cubs history. His ERA in 34 postseason innings is 2.38. That is a substantially longer and more impressive postseason resume than his game one opponent, who has pitched one postseason game: a 2014 loss against the Giants.

Jon Lester

The one pitcher in the Cubs starting rotation who didn’t have a complete rebound in the second half was Jon Lester. At times he seemed brilliant, and at others he just didn’t seem able to get it together. Fangraphs seemed to think the problem was pitch location. Bleacher Nation summed up the effect of that nicely:

As I was writing the Series Preview for the Cubs/Rays two-gamer yesterday morning, I was rifling through Lester’s stats and noticed something rather striking: his lefty/righty splits for this season.

Versus Lefties: .206/.233/.343, 35.1% K rate, 2.7% BB rate, 13.25 K/BB, .245 wOBA; 2.19 FIP

Versus Righties: .268/.341/.459, 21.3% K rate, 9.3% BB rate, 2.27 K/BB, .340 wOBA; 4.65 FIP

Those are some shocking splits, and before you take comfort in the dominant lefty nature of the Nationals line-up, I should note that they have reverse splits and are hitting lefties better than righties this year.

So in the spirit of candor, yes, I’m a bit concerned about Jon Lester. However, it’s really hard to be super worried about a guy who is one of the best postseason pitchers on the planet. Jon Lester is a monster in the postseason. There are very few pitchers with more postseason experience and he truly does seem to thrive in big games. Check out this piece from last year’s World Series for more information but this is relevant:

Lester’s postseason ERA as a starter is 2.55, and that’s over 19 starts and 127 innings. He’s two-thirds of the way through adding an extra season to his career, basically, and it’s been a tremendous one.

All in all, Lester vs. Gonzalez might appear to be an edge to the Nationals, but it might not be as lopsided as it appears at first.

Jose Quintana

Welcome to the postseason, Q. This will be Quintana’s first postseason start of his career and as I’ve already noted for the Nationals’ pitchers, that can be a bit of a wild card. It will be interesting to see how he handles himself.

I take a lot of comfort in the fact that if Quintana rises to the occasion he has the stuff to contend with anyone, even Scherzer.

While his ERA- at 96 indicates Q has had a pretty average season, it’s important to note that his second half was better than his first half. He had a particularly good Sept/Oct with an ERA of 2.51 over 32.1 innings.

He has never faced the Washington Nationals. It will be interesting to see what they do with his stuff, hopefully that lack of familiarity will give the Cubs a bit of an edge.

Jake Arrieta

Before there was 2017 Stephen Strasburg, there was 2015 Jake Arrieta, and while a streak like that may never happen again in our lifetime, it was truly a sight to behold. Jake will probably never be that guy again, but as the second half wore on it seemed like he was channeling his inner Jake again, which was very good news for the Cubs in the postseason.

His July ERA dropped to 2.25 and he looked dominant in starts against the Reds, Orioles, Cardinals and White Sox. In August his ERA dropped to a minuscule 1.21 and in the only game he lost (against Arizona on August 2) he pitched seven innings and only gave up one run. Sept/Oct were not nearly so kind with an ERA of 6.10. His one solid start against the Brewers was surrounded by two less than stellar outings in Pittsburgh and St. Louis, and he was sidelined with the hamstring injury I mentioned early in this post. The Cubs have, wisely, pushed Arrieta back to game four to give that hamstring as much rest as possible.

He had some success in close games against the Nationals in 2015 & 2016, although his lone start against them in June of this year was not one of his better outings. His postseason record is substantially more robust than either of the possible opponents he’ll face in Roark or Strasburg, but it’s a lot more rocky than Lester’s or Hendricks. A look at his postseason page on Baseball Reference is pretty telling - he’s either automatic or getting hit around pretty hard, and there really isn’t a lot of in between.

This is likely Jake’s last month as a Cub. If his hamstring is healed and if he can channel the Jake that won two games against the Indians in the World Series last year, the Jake of this July an August, it could be a very good last month for the Cubs. It’s a lot of ifs, but it very well be the key to the postseason for the Cubs.

A reminder

Tomorrow we’ll conclude this series with a look at the bullpens and how they compare before the NLDS officially begins tomorrow night.