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Grading the Cubs starters: a mixed bag to start 2018

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Velocity, pitch counts and walks! Oh my!

Yu Darvish makes his Cubs debut
Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to what will become a season-long look at starting pitching. Long term I’m thinking of this as a way to grade starting pitchers based on key stats, but I knew if I focused on stats today I’d get nine million (well-deserved) “SSS” replies in the comments. A lot of the numbers aren’t even close to meaningful yet (God help us if Quintana puts up a season long 9.00 ERA). So today I’m mostly looking at velocity, pitch make up and some movie scenes that I thought about during the first week of Cubs baseball.

Generally, consider this a stats focused place that will necessarily have to look at other things from time to time. I’ll mediate that through A-F grades, because I taught for seven years and all of us know what an B+ looks like (kind of). Hopefully it’s a useful one-stop shop here for starting pitcher updates.

So, without further ado, let’s take a look at what Cubs pitchers did in their opening starts.

Jon Lester: Speed 2

I’m an optimistic person by nature so I was initially worried about writing about this start, because, well, it wasn’t pretty. I mean, I guess the good news could have been that we won this start despite it not being particularly great?

Fear not, Cubs fans and read on! I found some okay news.

Last year the early word on Lester (and all of the Cubs starters, for that matter) was that he’d lost a bit of velocity. Depending on the pitch you were looking at he was down between .8 and 1.5 mph on the pitch. It was generally assumed that hurt his effectiveness and there was even more speculation about whether it was the result of deep runs in the postseason in 2015 and 2016. You can see the velocity drop clearly in this chart:

Jon Lester pitch velocity by pitch type 2007-2017
Brooks Baseball

The Cubs also went pretty far into the postseason in 2017. Whether Lester’s velocity is down again because of that, or because he’s 34 years old, it’s down even more in 2018. Here is the single game velocity data from his debut on March 29th:

Jon Lester pitch velocity by pitch type 3/29/2018
Brooks Baseball

This is slower than his 2017 average and quite a bit off of 2016. The only pitch that is still a touch over 90 mph is the four-seam fastball. The sinker is no longer a shade above 90, it’s a shade below 90. The cutter is about .5 miles per hour off his average from 2017. The curve ball and change are both about 1.5 miles per hour slower.

I spent about 17 seconds being unbelievably alarmed at these numbers, and then I decided to run one more filter and I calmed down almost immediately.

It turns out that Lester’s month by month numbers in 2017 showed a really slow start in March and April last year as well, and he picked up velocity as the season continued. See for yourself:

Jon Lester pitch velocity by pitch type by month 2017
Brooks Baseball

I realized that March to March comparisons for Lester last year look statistically similar. 2017 wasn’t Lester’s best year. It was a far cry from his 2016 campaign. But this rotation shouldn’t need Lester to be an ace to get back to the playoffs, I’m not going to panic about Lester for at least two more starts.

I give this start a B-, it’s better than what we got from Darvish or Q, but that’s mainly because Joe had a quicker hook. Plus, we won. Hopefully this is a wake up call.

Kyle Hendricks: All he does is get guys out

It’s ironic that the best start of this group resulted in a loss.

Maybe that’s just a good reminder given the way the early season has played out so far. Eighteen scoreless innings against the Marlins and the Reds?! What can I say? Baseball gonna baseball.

The worst part about this start is that Hendricks didn’t get to pitch longer. Given the tight score he got lifted at 78 pitches for a pinch hitter. I am not criticizing that move, it was the right call at the time. I just wish Kyle could have gone one more inning although it probably wouldn’t have mattered given the way things turned out.

This section is shorter than some of the others because Kyle was Kyle. All he did was get guys out, he did it the way you’d expect him to and there weren’t a lot of noticeable differences between his previous years and this year. You can see that from these charts - while 2018 Kyle looks more like 2017 than 2016, I think we’d all take that season of pitching again:

Kyle Hendricks pitch type and velocity by year
Brooks Baseball
Kyle Hendricks velocity 3/30/2018
Brooks Baseball

Kyle threw six innings of four-hit, one-run baseball. He struck out five. I guess if there is something to quibble about, he did walk three which is higher than he normally would, it’s something to keep an eye on, but I’m not worried about it just yet.

I mean, can we clone Kyle Hendricks and have him throw all the time? This is an A- start, but that’s mostly on Joe for pulling him too early.

Yu Darvish: Location, location, location

If you read about the game instead of watching it, the stuff looked like vintage Darvish. When you go to the Brooks Baseball landing page for a pitcher this is what you see for Yu Darvish:

In 2017, he relied primarily on his Fourseam Fastball (95mph) and Slider (83mph), also mixing in a Sinker (94mph), Cutter (89mph) and Curve (73mph). He also rarely threw a Change (88mph) and Splitter (88mph).

This is what Yu did velocity and pitch make up wise in his first start for the Cubs:

Yu Darvish velocity and pitches 3/31/2018
Brooks Baseball

It is exactly what I expected from a Yu Darvish start. So why did he give up five runs in 4⅓ innings?

While the velocity and pitch selection were there, the location was not. To put this in perspective, Yu Darvish is one of the greatest active strikeout pitchers. He didn’t strikeout a batter until he got Odrisamer Despaigne (the pitcher) to chase in the third inning. He wound up striking out four over 4⅓ innings, but his command just seemed off. He was struggling through with a rising pitch count through the fourth inning and then the wheels came off and Joe pulled the plug.

This start was all about location:

Yu Darvish pitch location 3/31/2018
Brooks Baseball

Even if we were to forget about the pitch that was so high it is literally off the charts, it’s pretty clear that Darvish was missing his spots. He was also missing by a lot. However, I wanted something to compare it to, so I went back and found a game from last year where Darvish threw over 100 pitches, but had a substantially more effective result.

I settled on this game from July 21, 2017 where he threw 101 pitches in eight innings. He had 12 strikeouts and gave up three earned runs that day. The visual difference is pretty striking. You don’t have to count up every dot outside the zone or look closely to see what the ranges are to realize one of these things is not like the other.

Yu Darvish pitch location 7/21/2017
Brooks Baseball

It’s far too early to know if Darvish is going to struggle with control for the year. It’s also worth noting that he’s mentioned struggling in his first start throughout his career. So this may be a fluke, but it does seem like the difference for Darvish over the weekend was primarily a location issue.

I’m not worried about Yu, but five runs is bad. We’ll call it a C+ and hope this is the grade that gets dropped at the midterm.

Jose Quintana: The dirty dozen

Quintana is the other guy looking to drop a grade.

Can we mulligan a dozen pitches in the fifth inning? How about just the last third of the fifth inning? While I’ll be the first to admit this wasn’t the Quintana we saw in his inaugural Cubs’ start against the Orioles, with the exception of about 12 pitches, it wasn’t remotely bad. Granted, even if you got rid of the fifth inning, Q would have lost. You can’t afford to give up even a single run if the offense doesn’t score. But that feels like a post for later this week.

Let’s take a look at the pitch selection and velocity:

Jose Quintana pitch selection and velocity 4/1/2018
Brooks Baseball

Hmmmm. Yet another Cubs starter whose velocity is down. Quintana has been a workhorse over his career and he only threw 188.2 regular season innings in 2017 (down from 208.0 innings with the White Sox in 2016). This is the best piece of evidence I’ve seen to date that the Cubs staff might strategically hold back a bit on velocity early in the season, particularly since Quintana hasn’t really ever thrown outside of a 92 mph band on his four seam fastball to start (or end) the season. You can see that below:

Jose Quintana pitch type and velocity by year
Brooks Baseball

I’m not worried about Q. He had a bad third of an inning and the rest of the game was pretty solid. I’ll be watching him closely next outing. He gets a C+ for five earned runs, but I wouldn’t be shocked if this was his worst outing between here and June.

Tyler Chatwood: It’s sort of like a Monet

There is a great line in the movie Clueless comparing a person’s looks to a Monet: “It’s a painting, see. From far away it’s okay but up close it’s a big ‘ol mess.”

Tyler Chatwood was as advertised. The walks were really bad, the ground ball rate was absurdly good, the results were excellent.

It’s a Monet.

Why, oh why were both of the best starts losses? Because: baseball.

I feel like I should warn you all now, this section is heavy on movie references and light on charts (I promise, there will be at least one chart). But honestly, there isn’t a lot to look at here for now, I mean, his velocity is slightly down from last year, in line with his monthly averages. Basically, this is the “wait, what, how did he only allow one run?” section of this post.

In all seriousness, though, you can’t walk both guys in front of Joey Votto like that on a regular basis. He did it twice and both times I had this sense of total and utter impending doom. It felt a bit like I was watching this classic scene (starting at 26 seconds in, although those are some highly amusing 26 seconds and I’d watch them too if I were you):

Anyway. Things worked out better for Chatwood than they did for Ricky Vaughn. I’m being a little hyperbolic, but really, if I can live the rest of my life without seeing a Cubs pitcher issue two walks before striking out the Prince of Process, I’ll be good.

I mean, this wasn’t uncommon on Monday:

One of six Chatwood walks in his Cubs debut
MLB Gameday

And yet, from a results perspective, this was the second best start the Cubs have had all year. Chatwood’s line: six innings, four hits, one earned run, six walks, four strikeouts. If you ignore the walks, it looks good.

Because: baseball.

I give Chatwood a B-. I have no idea how he got this result with 6 walks, 4 of them teasing Joey Votto, but he did, and he deserves credit for it.

For what it’s worth, I’ll post a chart. I promise to dive more into the velocity and pitch make up side of Chatwood as the season goes on:

Tyler Chatwood month by month velocity by pitch type
Brooks Baseball

What did you see in the Cubs’ first five starts? Share your take aways in the comments.