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Grading the Cubs starters at the one-quarter mark

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Hendricks, Lester and Chatwood are leading the way.

Kyle Hendricks is at the top of the class
Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

The Cubs are just over a quarter through their season so it seemed like a good time to look at quarter grades for the starting rotation. Rather than look at specific games or pitch maps in detail I tried to take a step back, as a result, this post will include some statistics at the quarter mark, plus batting average by pitch type for each Cubs starter.

Overall

First, some notes on the rotation as a whole. This was where the Cubs spent most of their resources in the offseason and there was a lot of excitement about the strength of the rotation when the season started. It is fair to say that this is not the rotation most Cubs fans were anticipating. It seems like every starter has struggled with something early in 2018. To get an idea of how the team’s starting rotation compared to others across the league I looked at the total Wins Above Replacement on Fangraphs (fWAR) for each team’s starting rotation. As of May 21st the Cubs ranked 23rd in MLB with 1.5 total fWAR for their starting rotation. That is squarely between the Padres and the Giants for those of you keeping track at home, and a far cry from the “greatest rotation ever” talk at the start of the season.

The starters combined ERA of 3.76 looks quite a bit better and ranks 11th overall between the Yankees and Diamondbacks. But a note of caution is in order here, as that ERA is noticeably lower than the starters combined FIP of 4.49. That FIP is good for 21st in MLB between the Padres and the Tigers. Let’s take a closer look and see if there are reasons to believe this rotation will improve.

Jon Lester

Lester’s K/9 rate is at 7.92 which is below his 8.40 career average and well below his 2016 season when he last competed for a Cy Young Award. However, Lester has been fighting back in the first quarter and while it hasn’t always been pretty, he is grinding his way towards a another solid year. His 2.52 ERA leads the team’s starters. I’m skeptical he can maintain this because that is a substantial over performance on his FIP of 4.38, but there are also reasons to be optimistic. For example, batters aren’t hitting any of his pitches particularly well right now, which is contributing to an 82.7 percent strand rate:

Lester Batting Average Against by Pitch Type
Brooks Baseball

After two early outings that were less than stellar, he’s really settled in and provided mostly five to seven complete innings per start while giving up fewer than three runs each time. This is exactly what the Cubs need from Jon Lester going forward.

Lester Game Scores

Date Opponent Home/Away Game Score
Date Opponent Home/Away Game Score
Mar 29 Miami Away 31
Apr 5 Milwaukee Away 71
Apr 11 Pittsburgh 37
Apr 19 St. Louis 72
Apr 25 Cleveland Away 59
Apr 30 Colorado 57
May 6 St. Louis Away 48
May 12 Chicago AL 59
May 18 Cincinnati Away 71
Lester Game Scores by Start Baseball Reference compiled by Sara Sanchez

Quarter Grade: B+ and very close to an A-. The Cubs need Lester to go a bit deeper into his starts and there were a couple of really bad outings in the first quarter, but he seems to be on the uptick and a 2.52 ERA and 82.7% strand rate will definitely go a long way towards anchoring the Cubs rotation.

Kyle Hendricks

In 2015 it was rare for Kyle to face a lineup the third time through the order. Now he does it regularly and has saved the bullpen on more than one occasion in 2018. In fact, I’m tempted to add to his tagline: All he does is get guys out. And save the bullpen by going seven or eight complete innings. And give up a few too many home runs.

I’ve spent more time looking at Hendricks’ peripherals than any other pitcher for the Cubs. The numbers all look like they are in career average range, except the HR/FB ratio, which is a lot higher at 18.8 percent. It’s strange. The soft/medium/hard contact rates are in range. The ground ball/line drive/fly ball rates are in range. The fly balls are just becoming home runs more frequently.

So he’s still getting guys out, but with an asterisk.

Batting Average by Pitch Type
Brooks Baseball

Kyle doesn’t throw a curve ball often (about 5% of the time in 2018) but it’s definitely not fooling anyone. Batters are getting a lot of hits off that pitch. Everything else looks like it’s in line with career averages.

Hendricks’ game scores have been more consistent than any other Cubs pitcher, and while he hasn’t gotten the same high scores some of his teammates have, the consistency really matters more for this rotation that has struggled to settle in.

Hendricks Game Scores

Date Opponent Home/Away Game Score
Date Opponent Home/Away Game Score
Mar 30 Miami Away 62
Apr 6 Milwaukee Away 33
Apr 12 Pittsburgh 58
Apr 20 Colorado Away 51
Apr 26 Milwaukee 74
May 1 Colorado 62
May 7 Miami 65
May 13 Chicago AL 52
May 19 Cincinnati Away 45
Kyle Hendricks game scores by game Baseball Reference compiled by Sara Sanchez

Grade: A- and borderline A. Kyle’s consistency has been one of the saving graces of a rotation that has struggled a lot to start 2018. If the HR/FB ratio returns to career averages this will be an A by the All Star Break.

Yu Darvish

For a brief moment in Cincinnati as the bases were loaded and Darvish struggled to find the plate I had a sinking feeling in my stomach that it was happening again. Another Darvish melt down. However, after a 39 pitch first inning Darvish settled in and delivered five more pretty uneventful innings with a lot of Ks. In fact, nine of Darvish’s last 10 innings have been exactly what the Cubs were hoping for from Yu.

A couple of reasons to be optimistic: Darvish is the only Cubs pitcher who currently has an ERA that is higher than his FIP, and the walk rate is more than double his career average. If he can bring the walks in line with what he’s done his entire career, things will likely improve dramatically. His BB/9 for 2018 is 4.73 which is almost a walk and a half higher than his 3.38 career average. His May ERA of 4.40 is substantially better than his Mar/Apr ERA of 5.26. And then there is this:

Opponent Batting Average by Pitch Type
Brooks Baseball

The line with the incredible increase in opponent batting average is Yu’s splitter, which he doesn’t throw all that often (less than 2 percent of all of his pitches). The results on most of his other pitches are neutral or slightly higher. Batters are making more contact against his slider (which he throws 23.5 percent of the time), sinker (17.8 percent of the time) and fourseam (37.8 percent of the time). That’s a bit troubling and worth keeping an eye on as the season progresses.

The game score table is a lot of what Cubs fans already knew: Yu has been all over the place, and some of these starts have been disastrous:

Darvish Game Scores

Date Opponent Home/Away Game Score
Date Opponent Home/Away Game Score
Mar 31 Miami Away 35
Apr 7 Milwaukee Away 72
Apr 13 Atlanta 30
Apr 21 Colorado Away 34
Apr 27 Milwaukee 70
May 2 Colorado 32
May 15 Atlanta Away 55
May 20 Cincinnati Away 68
Yu Darvish game scores Baseball Reference compiled by Sara Sanchez

Grade: D. Half of Darvish’s starts have been really bad at this point in time. His last two starts are encouraging, particularly if they are part of a trend, but the Cubs need Yu to be better more consistently.

Jose Quintana

Jose Quintana is a man of extremes. He had both the best start the Cubs have seen so far (on April 28th against the Brewers) and the worst start the Cubs have seen so far (on April 14th against Atlanta). You can see that from his game scores:

Quintana Game Scores

Date Opponent Home/Away Game Score
Date Opponent Home/Away Game Score
Apr 1 Miami Away 34
Apr 8 Milwaukee Away 70
Apr 14 Atlanta 12
Apr 22 Colorado Away 42
Apr 28 Milwaukee 79
May 4 St. Louis Away 46
May 9 Miami 61
May 14 Atlanta 25
May 19 Cincinnati Away 78
Jose Quintana game scores Baseball Reference compiled by Sara Sanchez

There are some reasons to be concerned about his peripherals as well. His 4.47 ERA is actually lower than his 4.97 FIP indicates it should be for the start of 2018. His walk rate is two full walks higher per nine innings than his career numbers (4.66 BB/9 v. 2.50 BB/9). And then there is this:

Opponent Batting Average by Pitch Type
Brooks Baseball

Most of Q’s pitches are getting better results in 2018, but the fourseam fastball he throws most frequently (49 percent of the time) is an outlier. That is a problem and something the Cubs are going to need to look at going forward. It is worth noting that most of the damage done against Quintana was in two starts against the red hot Braves, and these numbers might normalize now that he’s done facing those bats in the regular season.

Grade: D+ Quintana has managed to turn in some outstanding starts and he’s certainly avoided the melt downs that Darvish has had this year, but the results aren’t that much better. About half of his starts have been awful and the Cubs need more from him than that.

Tyler Chatwood

I’m not going to lie. I don’t understand how Tyler Chatwood gets out of the jams he creates. He’s walking 7.12 batters per nine innings, his FIP is at 4.09, and yet he’s riding a career high K rate and a pretty good ground ball rate to the second-best ERA on the team: 3.14.

I mean, the game scores look pretty good, too. With the exception of one terrible outing against the Pirates, Chatwood has managed to get the job done even with the walks:

Chatwood Game Scores

Date Opponent Home/Away Game Score
Date Opponent Home/Away Game Score
Apr 2 Cincinnati Away 58
Apr 10 Pittsburgh 35
Apr 17 St. Louis 54
Apr 24 Cleveland Away 60
Apr 29 Milwaukee 74
May 5 St. Louis Away 42
May 11 Chicago AL 54
May 16 Atlanta Away 56
Tyler Chatwood game scores Baseball Reference compiled by Sara Sanchez

His ground ball rate is actually underperforming his career average right now by about 3.5 percent (51.4 vss. 54.6 percent) and he’s still getting results. Part of that has to be that opponents are doing worse against every pitch in Chatwood’s arsenal this year:

Opponents batting average by pitch type
Brooks Baseball

Grade: B- and honestly, based on results alone it should probably be a B, but I can’t get over more than seven walks per nine innings. For all of his struggles finding the plate, though, it’s hard to argue that Chatwood has been effective this year.

Takeaways

The rotation the Cubs thought they signed in the offseason hasn’t really shown up yet. Darvish and Quintana in particular have struggled. Chatwood has exceeded expectations given the walks, but it really feels like he’s walking a tight rope every time he takes the mound. Hendricks and Lester have really been the backstops against a protracted down turn.

However, I would be shocked if every pitcher on the Cubs continuess to underperform his career numbers. Hopefully the walks will decrease across the board and the starters will bounce back in the warmer weather.