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Grading the Cubs starters: The good, the bad and the ugly

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A look back at the third time through the rotation.

MLB: Atlanta Braves at Chicago Cubs
Darvish leaves the game in the fifth inning against the Braves
Jim Young-USA TODAY Sports

Thank heaven for small sample sizes. It’s been a rough week(ish) for Cubs pitching. This last time through the order wasn’t particularly pretty for any of the Cubs starters. There were issues. There were control issues. There were walk issues. There was an outing that fell apart after a balk. And yes, there were a few reasons to believe that it’s just been an impossible task for the starters to get settled in this April, but I’ve got to be honest, no one would call the last week of Cubs pitching pretty.

Jon Lester

This was one of two okay starts of the week and it wasn’t particularly pretty. The good news: the Cubs won this game even after Lester struggled a bit. Here is Lester’s line from his start against the Pirates: 5.0 IP 7H 4R 4ER 3BB 3K 1HR.

Jon Lester Pitch Map
Brooks Baseball

Lester was missing up and in a lot more than he usually does. He threw 96 pitches and the bullpen came in to shut this one down. Luckily this was a day the Cubs’ bats were working overtime and the Cubs managed a 13-5 victory.

I’m also officially over worrying about the lower velocity in Lester’s first start. His numbers were tracking his better second start and I think if he improves on location just a bit, his starts will look more like his second start going forward.

Lester velocity by pitch type third start
Brooks Baseball

This gets a slightly lower grade because of the number of earned runs around, but it’s worth noting almost all of that damage came on a Sean Rodriguez three run home run in the second inning. Even though it took a lot of pitches and wasn’t a quality start, Lester did enough to get a victory in this outing and there are some positive signs going forward.

B-

Kyle Hendricks

Kyle really hasn’t had the best luck this year in his starts. This start looks good on paper. 6.0 IP 5H 2R 2ER 3BB 7K. Unfortunately for Kyle, two things happened in this game earned him a loss (both of them are reasons I think the win/loss stat for pitchers is pretty silly, for what it’s worth). First, the Cubs offense decided to sit this game out and only scored one run during this game. Second, eventful Justin Wilson decided to show up for this game and when he relieved Hendricks in the seventh inning he promptly gave up four runs in two-thirds of an inning putting the game seemingly out of reach.

Kyle Hendricks Pitch Map

This map is a little bit wild for Hendricks, which probably explains the three walks. However he did manage to get seven strikeouts in 91 pitches and record a quality start.

One other note, since I think I brought it up in the comments. I was initially worried that Hendricks might be giving up more fly balls and hard contact than in years past. I was particularly nervous that he’d given up four home runs in three starts. So I went back to look at his 2017 and see how common that was. I’m glad I did, because it turns out four home runs in a three game stretch for Kyle happened a few times in 2017, including his first three starts of the year last year.

I happily stand corrected and here’s hoping that the Cubs bats and bullpen decide to show up for his next start.

B

Yu Darvish

This start looked pretty good until the “balk” in the fifth inning and then the wheels came off this start really fast.

Let’s talk about this balk. Joe Maddon didn’t think it was a balk. Yu Darvish didn’t think it was a balk, either. And according to Darvish, Freddie Freeman also didn’t think it was a balk. None of that really mattered, because according to umpire Bruce Dreckman Darvish balked, and all of the sudden the start unraveled. The Sun Times reported Maddon’s reaction:

“Obviously, everything went south after the balk, which was not a balk, but it was called a balk,” Maddon said. “It seemed to create a little bit of awkwardness because he was doing well up to that point. He got into a groove. Everything seemed to be working really well. It seemed like after the balk, things changed a bit.”

Darvish continued:

Darvish, who has a hesitation at the beginning of his windup, acknowledged he was frustrated by the call. He held his arms out with palms up after the call, seeking an explanation.

“The umpire told me it was because I paused the motion,” Darvish said. “But over the course of my career, I’ve done that many times, and it’s never called a balk. Even Freeman told me it wasn’t a balk.”

There has been more than a bit of hand wringing over how Darvish responds to pressure, and I definitely get that. The following from ESPN is a pretty good sample:

It was that kind of post-adversity result that led to so much hand-wringing over Darvish’s response to the big stage of the Fall Classic. And until he comes through again on that big stage, that’s going to be part of the larger discussion around the talented righty. Darvish is a potent, top-of-the-rotation ace who has the highest strikeout rate of any qualifying pitcher in baseball since he reached the majors in 2012. The focus on his troubles is not fair, but that’s sports in the 21st century.

I’m not going to pretend I didn’t think something similar, however, as I wrote about his reaction to performing poorly in the World Series, I think it’s worth noting that Darvish didn’t shy away from the situation or try to avoid responsibility for it. That’s the only way to improve this going forward, and I have no doubt he has the support of the entire Cubs coaching staff. From the same ESPN piece:

“I definitely look at the good parts of the game,” Darvish said. “As well what I can take away, like the home run to Tucker today. I can look back and make improvements. I look at both the good and the bad.”

Darvish is unfailingly honest in his answers, offered up through his interpreter during postgame media sessions. So it wasn’t surprising that he admitted that the balk -- just the fourth of his career -- got to him.

“[I was] frustrated,” Darvish said. “Again, because it had never occurred before. It was in a critical situation, and then it happened. So that’s frustrating.”

That’s more than enough about the balk. Let’s look at the line: 4⅔ IP 9H 4R 4ER 4BB 4K. Almost all of that damage was done in the fifth. You can see the effectiveness drop in this pitch chart by inning:

Yu Darvish Pitch Counts and Strikes by Inning
Brooks Baseball

Of the 105 pitches that Darvish threw, 39 of them were in the fifth. His strike rate went from improving to imploding. This is a hard start to grade. The first 4 innings are A- territory, the last two-thirds an F.

I’m rounding it out to a C-. Yu’s got to be able to pull it back together after a balk, but I loved what he had earlier in this game.

Jose Quintana

This was not a good start. It was also terrible weather. I’m pretty much praying this is an aberration, but let’s see what went wrong for Quintana that might night be weather related. Here’s Quintana’s line from a terrible, not good, very bad, start: 2⅓ IP 7H 7R 7ER 4BB 1K 70 pitches

First the good news, the killer break on Quintana’s curve ball was back, which should be a nice weapon in his arsenal going forward. He threw 16 of them with an average vertical break of 7.29 in as you can see below:

Jose Quintana pitch by type
Brooks Baseball

The problem for Quintana was location. Four walks in 2⅓ innings is a lot of walks, the percentage of strikes he threw by inning went from 60.71 percent in the first down to 52.38 percent in the second and then cratered at 42.86% in his final third of an inning of work before Joe sent for Eddie Butler. You can see the location problems in his pitch map:

Jose Quintana pitch map
Brooks Baseball

I’m tempted to give this an F, and it definitely looks like an F, but given the weather conditions I sort of feel like it’s when a student failed a test because something terrible happened at home. I’m giving this a D- for right now. I would certainly understand if other people called it an F.

Tyler Chatwood

Tyler Chatwood is pretty much exactly as advertised. A plus curveball, a decent ability to manufacture soft contact, and A LOT of walks. I mean, you will be forgiven if you didn’t realize that Chatwood threw a one-hitter against the Cardinals because with seven walks they were on base pretty constantly.

Tyler Chatwood pitch map
Brooks Baseball

That is all over the place for 97 pitches, and yet, strangely effective. I barely even know what to do with this. a one hitter is great. Seven walks are terrible. Seven Ks is pretty good and tied with Kyle Hendricks for the most K’s in this round of Cubs starters.

And let’s not forget, he held the Cardinals and check and gave the Cubs a chance to win. This loss is really on the bullpen.

This start gets a C and really epitomizes the theme of the week: round three with the Cubs starters had some good, some bad and some ugly.

Here’s hoping they are getting the latter two out of their system in April to set up stronger starts as the weather warms up.