In 2016, Cubs pitching led the National League in fewest runs allowed — by 56, a significant margin. Starting pitching was a particular strength, as Cubs starters overall posted a 2.96 ERA and 1.067 WHIP, and Kyle Hendricks led the major leagues with a 2.13 ERA, the first time any Cubs pitcher had led the majors since 1938.
So far this season, Cubs pitchers aren’t doing quite as well. Through 19 games, Cubs starters have posted a 4.06 ERA and 1.288 WHIP, allowing 16 home runs in 108⅔ innings. In general one of the issues has been that starters haven’t gone deep into games. Only two Cubs starters have thrown seven innings in a game this year, out of 19. That’s not good and has put pressure on the bullpen.
Let’s look at each of the 13 men who have pitched for the Cubs so far this season.
Kyle Hendricks: 1-1, 6.19 ERA, 1.375 WHIP, -0.1 fWAR. Hendricks’ success last year was predicated on two things: inducing weak contact, and locating his changeup to induce hitters to swing and miss. Neither of those has happened this year, not enough, at least. There’s an article by Jeff Sullivan on Fangraphs today showing the difference between 2016 Hendricks and 2017 Hendricks, and it’s subtle but there’s clearly something that’s changed. Hopefully he can make the necessary adjustments to get back to what he was doing last year.
Jake Arrieta: 3-0, 3.65 ERA, 1.014 WHIP, 0.3 fWAR. Jake looks pretty much like the pitcher he was last year, with one positive exception: he’s not walking as many hitters. This is good; the five home runs he’s allowed in 24⅔ innings isn’t. I doubt we’ll ever see 2015 Jake again, and that’s not a criticism — it’s unlikely any pitcher will ever come close to that again. If Jake could settle somewhere in between last year’s version and the 2015 version that would be just fine.
Jon Lester: 0-0, 2.66 ERA, 1.268 WHIP, 0.6 fWAR. Lester has three excellent starts this year and one clunker, the clunker being his last outing against the Reds. Overall his start to 2017 suggests that he could come close to repeating his 2016 season, which was one of the best of his career.
John Lackey: 1-3, 4.88 ERA, 1.292 WHIP, 0.1 fWAR. Lackey has had first-inning problems in all four of his starts, but has recovered to throw six innings in all of them. Lackey’s ERA in the first inning is 13.50 (seven runs in four innings), 4.05 in all other innings. He’s been durable; if he can figure out the first-inning issues he should be able to put up a season like last year’s.
Brett Anderson: 2-0, 3.54 ERA, 1.574 WHIP, 0.3 fWAR. Anderson’s start Monday against the Pirates was the first time he completed six innings this year. It registered as a “quality start” despite the fact that he walked six, which is obviously not optimal. Anderson’s strength is getting ground-ball outs and he’s shown some of that this year, but not yet enough.
Wade Davis: 2-0, 0.00 ERA, 0.600 WHIP, four saves (no blown saves), 0.4 fWAR. Davis has been as advertised so far this season after a rough spring training. His velocity has been just fine, and he’s allowed just three hits and two walks in 8⅓ innings, with nine strikeouts.
Koji Uehara: 0-1, 2.35 ERA, 1.174 WHIP, 0.3 fWAR. Uehara doesn’t really throw hard anymore, but locates well. One bad outing (April 16 vs. the Pirates) mars an otherwise spotless record in nine total appearances.
Carl Edwards Jr.: 1-0, 0.00 ERA, 0.571 WHIP, 0.2 fWAR. CJ has been really, really good so far this season. He’s allowed just four baserunners (one hit, three walks) in seven total innings. The Cubs are managing his appearances so that he doesn’t throw too many days in a row. I suspect he’ll work his way into a primary setup role later this year.
Hector Rondon: 0-0, 1.23 ERA, 0.818 WHIP, 0.0 fWAR. After a rough spring (which also included getting hit hard in the World Baseball Classic), Hector has done just fine in eight total appearances covering 7⅓ innings. He’s allowed just six baserunners (two hits, four walks) and struck out 10. This gives Joe Maddon the ability to mix-and-match setup guys.
Pedro Strop: 0-1, 5.68 ERA, 1.421 WHIP, -0.3 fWAR. Strop struggled early, but has now had three straight scoreless appearances, allowing just one baserunner (a walk) in 2⅓ innings, so hopefully whatever was wrong earlier has now been fixed.
Mike Montgomery: 0-2, 2.31 ERA, 1.543 WHIP, 0.1 fWAR. At times he seems like the forgotten man in the pen — he’s thrown just twice in the last six games. Joe Maddon might be saving him for long-relief outings, as he’s really the only pitcher there suited for such a role. As it was last year, walks are still an issue: eight in 11⅔ innings. There’s obvious talent here, if he can get his command and control straightened out he could be a key contributor.
Justin Grimm: 1-0, 6.52 ERA, 1.448 WHIP, -0.4 fWAR. I wish we could get the 2015 version of Grimm back, as last year and this year he’s struggled. His outing Monday night (two scoreless innings) was significant, I think, in getting him back to a level where he can make important contributions.
Brian Duensing: 0-0, 8.53 ERA, 1.579 WHIP, -0.1 fWAR. About the only thing that’s right about Duensing’s numbers is that he hasn’t walked anyone in 6⅓ innings. Otherwise he’s been hit pretty hard. He did throw a scoreless inning Monday that gives some hope, but if he keeps getting hit hard the Cubs might have to try someone else in this bullpen spot.
As it was when I looked at the hitters on Monday, these are all small sample sizes. But one of the big strengths of the 2016 Cubs was the starting rotation. So far this year we’ve seen only glimmers of that, and they definitely need to work their way up to having the starters consistently go seven, so as to take pressure off the pen. If they can get back to that level, this team could run off some long winning streaks.