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Grading the Cubs starters: A sigh of relief

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And some encouraging peripherals.

Chicago Cubs v Milwaukee Brewers
Lester comes back with a solid outing against the Brewers
Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

The second time through the (starting pitching) order was the inverse of the first time. It wasn’t perfect. Kyle Hendricks got knocked around a little bit, Tyler Chatwood got knocked around even more. But I for one breathed a sigh of relief that all of the starters now have a decent start under their belt. Honestly, minus the Hendricks start, I think this was a lot closer to what the Cubs thought they were getting with this rotation.

I mean, three quality starts, three wins, and 29 strikeouts makes for a pretty fantastic week of baseball. The Cubs are going to have a shot to do great things if that continues. But let’s do a deep dive on each start before we go further:

Jon Lester

Jon Lester looked like he might be on his way to another first inning meltdown. With two outs and two strikes on Ryan Braun he walked Braun, who almost immediately stole second. I covered that incident extensively already, so suffice to say, Lester was able to pull it together after throwing Braun out at third.

Lester delivered a gem. He pitched six innings of shutout baseball, allowing only three hits, the single walk to Braun and he had six strikeouts. This is the Lester the Cubs need to have a successful 2018.

Cubs pitching line April 5th
Baseball Reference

Oh, and as if a quality start from Lester wasn’t enough, his velocity was up a titch from his fist start too. I’ll still be keeping an eye on it, but that is certainly good news.

Lester pitch velocity by type
Brooks baseball

I’ll take six innings of shutout baseball with only a single walk any day. This start gets an A-, if he’d pitched longer or had more strikeouts it’d probably be an A. I’ve got to reserve A’s and A+’s for some growth down the line.

Kyle Hendricks

Kyle Hendricks did not have a great second outing. In fact, this start against the Brewers was about as un-Kyle like as a start we’ve seen in a long time. The last time Kyle Hendricks gave up four or more earned runs in the regular season was June 4, 2017, right before he landed on the disabled list for six weeks (although he did give up four earned runs in back to back starts against the Nationals and Dodgers in the 2017 postseason).

It was a similar type of game to his June start in some ways, in both Hendricks held his opponents scoreless through the first innings before giving up a four spot. In both he was pulled with a pitch count in the 80s after his opponents just seemed to figure him out. In both most of the damage was done via the long ball.

Interestingly, in looking at Hendricks’ numbers against the Brewers one thing I noticed is that his velocity was higher for this start than it was in a comparable start in April last year, as you can see below:

Kyle Hendricks velocity by pitch type April 14, 2017
Brooks Baseball
Kyle Hendricks velocity by pitch type April 6, 2018
Brooks Baseball

That’s a pretty massive jump and a good sign for Hendricks going forward. He’s going to give up a few long balls here and there. In his final line for this game the most concerning element is that he gave up nine hits with quite a few more fly balls than we are used to seeing. It’s worth keeping an eye on, but I’m not panicking over this yet.

Cubs pitching line April 6th
Baseball Reference

Overall, I give this start a C-. There are too many hits and the contact was harder than normal, but the velocity was way up as well.

Yu Darvish

Yu Darvish looked fantastic and was precisely the pitcher that the Cubs thought they were signing in the offseason. First let’s look at this line:

Cubs pitching line April 7th
Baseball Reference

But beyond the line, which I would take any time, watch this montage of Yu Darvish just baffling people at the plate [VIDEO]:

I will take a quality start with two hits, one walk and nine Ks any day of the week. I imagine you would too. A-

Jose Quintana

Some days I feel like Jose Quintana is just destined to be overshadowed. He’s been one of the most consistent starters in baseball, but no matter where he pitches he’s always behind a guy or two. This start was almost identical to Lester’s, but frankly Q had better stuff even though he walked two.

First the line:

Cubs line April 8, 2018
Baseball Reference

Another quality start, another shutout, a ridiculous 52 strikes out of 87 pitches thrown. Oh, and then there is this: according to Cubs Insider, Quintana is playing around with a new curveball and it’s outstanding:

Brooks Baseball

I don’t even know what to make of this, that is an absolutely ridiculous year over year change for a curve. They discuss how working with Jim Hickey may have changed the way Quintana approaches his curve and, well, if this is real woe unto batters who are facing Quintana because this pitch looks unhittable.

New pitching coach Jim Hickey is not unfamiliar with helping pitchers succeed with curveballs. He tutored Mike Montgomery on the very pitch that sealed a World Series championship for the Cubs, made James Shields and Alex Cobb two of the most valuable pitchers in the league during their prime, and is currently working with Kyle Hendricks and Tyler Chatwood to improving their breaking balls as well.

I encourage you to read the whole piece, if for no other reason than they have a sick video of Quintana’s new curve and it’s mesmerizing to watch.

Quintana also gets an A- for a solid start and a beautiful pitch.

Tyler Chatwood

I was so incredibly excited at the start of this game. After walking way too many guys in his Cubs debut it looked like Tyler Chatwood had vanquished his control issues. He threw 10 pitches in the first inning. They were all strikes. He had a ton of swinging strikes. He got two Ks. It was beautiful:

Chatwood’s first batter April 10, 2018
MLB Gameday

But, alas, that was unsustainable and pretty soon it seemed like the Pirates were just teeing off against the Cubs fifth starter as you can see from this line:

Cubs pitching line April 10, 2018
Baseball Reference

First the good news, Chatwood’s control was excellent. He threw 100 pitches and 69 of them were strikes. He struck out seven and only walked one. The problem is that the Pirates were hitting those strikes, and while the ground ball rate wasn’t terrible, it wasn’t the elite ground ball rate the Cubs were hoping for when they signed Chatwood.

I’m not panicking about this start any more than I was panicking about Hendricks’ start, for what it’s worth. It was great to see Chatwood throw a less wild game and the Pirates have been incredibly hot at the plate, recently. It’s possible he just ran into a team when they were hot.

That said, this is also a C-, it’s below average and not what the Cubs need from their fifth starter.

Takeaways

After a mixed bag in Miami and Cincinnati it was nice to see Lester, Quintana and Darvish rebound. With the exception of Kyle Hendricks’ fly ball rate there are also a lot of peripherals that look encouraging.

I wasn’t exactly worried about the Cubs starting staff after the first week of the baseball season, but I’m definitely breathing a sigh of relief after the second time through the order.