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Grading the Cubs starters: With or without Yu

Jon Lester has been dominant and Mike Montgomery really wants a spot in the rotation.

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MLB: Pittsburgh Pirates at Chicago Cubs
Jon Lester pitches against the Pirates at Wrigley
Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

Since the last time I checked in on the starters Yu Darvish has been on the disabled list, so this set of grades includes the first grades for Mike Montgomery, who has really stepped up in his time as a starter. Jon Lester has continued his dominance, although the numbers indicate he may be over-performing a bit. All of the other starters have had some ups and some downs.

Before I look at each pitcher in more detail, let’s take a look at some overall starting rotation stats. This covers the last four starts for every pitcher in the rotation with Montgomery taking the place of Darvish for this set of starts:

Cubs starters selected stats

Lester 27.0 7.3 3.7 .177 .208 1.67 3.32
Hendricks 22.0 7.0 3.3 .210 .217 3.68 5.00
Quintana 22.0 10.2 3.3 .192 .240 3.27 3.69
Chatwood 17.2 8.7 9.2 .271 .346 5.09 5.13
Montgomery 23.2 5.3 1.1 .157 .164 1.14 3.52
Selected stats for Cubs starters since May 23 Fangraphs

A few notes on the overall stats. Lester and Montgomery have both sported microscopic ERAs during this stretch (1.67 and 1.14, respectively). Both of them have held opponents to absurdly low batting averages (.177 and .157). Those numbers look like they may be due for a regression. They are both built on extremely low BABIPs and they are outperforming their FIP substantially.

Quintana had a really good run of starts that indicates he may be correcting some of his early season adventures. His 10.2 K/9 is over two strikeouts higher than his career average of 7.87. I should note that it looks like the .197 opposing hitters are batting against him is due for some regression, his BABIP split isn’t as extreme as Montgomery or Lester, but it is at .240 as opposed to his average of .300 with the Cubs last year (career average .302).

There are a few red flags in these numbers for both Kyle Hendricks and Tyler Chatwood. First of all, both are sporting FIPs over 5. In Hendricks’ case that number is inflated because of an unusually high HR rate in 2018 (he’s given up 1.51 HR/9). FIP puts a lot of emphasis on HRs. Additionally, Hendricks has been getting a bit lucky, his .217 BABIP is substantially better than his .270 career average BABIP.

In Chatwood’s case, that FIP aligns almost exactly with his 5.09 ERA during the last four starts. The good news for Chatwood is that his .346 BABIP suggests he’s getting a bit unlucky.

Let’s take a closer look at each starter and since I used a U2 song in the title, I’m going to assign a U2 song for each starter this time around.

Jon Lester: It’s A Beautiful Day

Jon Lester was signed to be the Cubs’ ace and he has delivered in 2018. It’s a beautiful day when Lester takes the mound. As I’ve mentioned before, his peripherals suggest some reasons to be concerned, but he’s managed to push through those concerns to just keep racking up exceptional outings. Specifically, even though he’s striking out fewer guys than his career average (7.71/8.39) and giving up substantially more hard contact than his career average (34.6 v. 26.7 percent), start after start he gets excellent results.

Jon Lester game by game line

Date Opponent Home/Away IP H R ER BB K Game Score
Date Opponent Home/Away IP H R ER BB K Game Score
May 23 Cleveland Home 7 6 1 1 1 4 64
May 29 Pittsburgh Away 6 8 4 4 0 6 46
June 3 NY Mets Away 7 2 0 0 3 7 77
June 9 Pittsburgh Home 7 1 0 0 2 5 78
Jon Lester stats by game Baseball-Reference

There are a couple of possibilities here, one is that he’s getting lucky. The stats would certainly support that. The other is that he’s adjusting to slightly slower stuff by becoming a craftier pitcher and getting outs by pitching to contact more. The answer is probably a bit of both, and hopefully it will continue for Lester during his next start against the Cardinals.

Grade: A. It’s hard to ask for more than what Lester has given the Cubs over his last four outings. He’s even managed to overcome his problems throwing to first by successfully bouncing the ball to Anthony Rizzo. I still don’t understand exactly why that works, but it’s hard to argue with a 100% success rate.

Kyle Hendricks: Elevation

Kyle Hendricks usually just gets guys out, but he‘s had a couple of starts recently where that has seemed to be more difficult than usual. Additionally, as I mentioned earlier, his increased tendency to give up the long ball in 2018 has contributed to some outings where he has struggled a bit.

One thing to note on the brevity of some of these outings, Hendricks probably could have gone an extra inning in every single start (pitch counts by game: 88, 71, 87, 87) but the Cubs bats went AWOL early in each of these games and Joe Maddon wound up pulling Kyle early in the hopes of generating offense in three of these games. Hendricks‘ only truly challenging start was the start against the Phillies where he gave up five runs.

Kyle Hendricks game by game line

Date Opponent Home/Away IP H R ER BB K Game Score
Date Opponent Home/Away IP H R ER BB K Game Score
May 25 San Francisco Home 7 2 1 1 2 7 74
May 30 Pittsburgh Away 5 7 2 2 1 1 45
June 5 Philadelphia Home 5 5 5 5 3 5 39
June 10 Pittsburgh Home 5 3 1 1 2 4 59
Kyle Hendricks stats by game Baseball-Reference

I took a closer look at pitch usage and outcomes to see where that HR spike might have originated and found a few interesting things. First, Hendricks has started throwing his curveball and four-seamer less often:

Hendricks pitch usage by year
Brooks Baseball

That is probably a good thing as you’ll see from the next two charts. The curveball is being hit at rates that are substantially higher than his career average and both pitches are being hit for a lot more power. The first chart shows batting average by pitch type, the second slugging by pitch type:

Opponent batting average by pitch type
Brooks Baseball
Opponent slugging by pitch type
Brooks Baseball

Grade: B. There are reasons to be a bit concerned about Kyle this year, but the results are still generally good. The bats taking a vacation every time he pitches is hardly under his control and only one of these starts was truly bad.

Jose Quintana: Mysterious Ways

Jose Quintana is a quixotic pitcher. I never know what to expect when he takes the mound. Will this be the Q who strikes out 10 in five innings or the Q who throws 38 pitches in the first inning? Will he maybe be both at the same time? It’s hard to tell and harder to predict.

That said, this set of starts includes three very good outings by Quintana and while he has struggled at moments in each of them, he’s also managed to channel his inner Lester at some point during each of these and pull it together. I like that about Q, but I’d like it a lot more if he had more of a steady state.

Jose Quintana game by game line

Date Opponent Home/Away IP H R ER BB K Game Score
Date Opponent Home/Away IP H R ER BB K Game Score
May 26 San Francisco Home 4.1 5 4 4 2 6 41
May 31 NY Mets Away 6 3 0 0 2 6 70
June 6 Philadelphia Home 5.2 3 2 2 2 10 63
June 11 Milwuakee Away 6 4 2 2 2 3 57
Jose Quintana stats by game Baseball-Reference

The most interesting outing Q had during this set was the 10Q outing against the Phillies on June 6. So for this set of charts I did something a little bit different and took a look at the game-by-game pitch usage plus vertical and horizontal movement to see if his pitches were any different on that date. You can see a pretty clear difference in the movement of his changeup below. First up, Quintana’s pitch velocity by each game:

Quintana game by game velocity by pitch
Brooks Baseball

Next his pitch movement for each game, first horizontal and second vertical:

Horizontal movement by pitch and game
Brooks Baseball
Vertical movement by pitch type and game
Brooks Baseball

Grade: B. I’d rather see more of three-hit Quintana, and I’d be really interested in the return of the guy who totally baffled the Phillies, but his results during this stretch were pretty similar to Kyle’s even though he looked like he struggled a bit more to get them on occasion.

Tyler Chatwood: Vertigo

So, first I want to recognize that Chatwood’s last start had one of his better lines of the year, despite resulting in a loss. It is the only start in this four-game set where he struck out more guys than he walked (2BB/5K) and frankly, if he can do more of that and give up fewer runs he’s a perfectly passable fifth starter. What he cannot continue to do is issue more than a walk per inning. He did that during this stretch by pitching 17.2 innings and walking 18 batters. Yikes.

Joe Maddon has said that he thinks the last couple of outings from Chatwood have been encouraging, that they are seeing improvements even in the seven-walk affair he had against the Phillies. I hope he’s right. Chatwood seems like a prime candidate to go on a bit of a hot streak and return to career norms in the run-up to the All-Star break, which I’m sure we all would welcome.

Tyler Chatwood game by game line

Date Opponent Home/Away IP H R ER BB K Game Score
Date Opponent Home/Away IP H R ER BB K Game Score
May 27 San Francisco Home 2.2 6 3 3 5 3 32
June 1 NY Mets Away 5.1 4 2 2 4 3 51
June 7 Philadelphia Home 4.2 4 1 1 7 6 51
June 12 Milwuakee Away 5 5 4 4 2 5 44
Tyler Chatwood stats by game Baseball-Reference

There are definitely some mechanical issues to delve into with Chatwood. A few weeks ago I asked The Athletic’s pitching guru Eno Sarris what he thought was going on with Chatwood and he pointed to release point issues.

A new release point has to be screwing with the movement, and it is. His curve suddenly has three inches more drop — which might be because he’s not pitching in Coors anymore, but still — and his other pitches have seen some changes, too.

So, take bad inherent command and throw some quirks in, and this is what you get, I guess. Looks like he’s more a back-end depth signing than a tweak away from genius.

So I looked at Chatwood’s vertical release point over his career, and you can see that it’s lower this year, but good news, Cubs fans! It started to creep up over the last two starts:

Tyler Chatwood vertical release point over time
Brooks Baseball

Next, I just looked at this season’s game by game data to get an idea of how much variance there was, and you can see a drop-off early in the season, followed by a brief uptick recently:

Chatwood season long vertical release point by game
Brooks Baseball

I also wanted to be sure this variance really did look more pronounced than other pitchers, so for comparison purposes here is the same chart for Jon Lester:

Lester season long vertical release point by game
Brooks Baseball

You can see Lester tracks much more closely and hovers around a mid-point, Chatwood on the other hand has been up and down with a wider range. Here’s hoping he’s going to creep back up and normalize to return to something closer to his career averages.

Grade: D-. Only the last start is keeping this from being a failing grade. I’ll trust Maddon that things look like they are improving the last couple of starts. It could be a long three years of Chatwood if his walk rate stays at 8.24 BB/9.

Mike Montgomery: All I Want Is You

In spring training Mike Montgomery made it very clear he wanted a chance to start. When the Cubs inked deals with Chatwood, Drew Smyly and Darvish it didn’t look like that opportunity would be forthcoming and there were rumblings about whether he would be traded. I think it’s pretty unlikely that the Cubs are going to trade Montgomery, he’s a reliable arm with a first-round pedigree and he’s under team control until 2021.

However, with Yu Darvish on the DL he’s gotten a chance to start and frankly, he’s making a pretty good case for a spot in the rotation. Take a look at what Montgomery has done with his four starts so far:

Mike Montgomery game by game line

Date Opponent Home/Away IP H R ER BB K Game Score
Date Opponent Home/Away IP H R ER BB K Game Score
May 28 Pittsburgh Away 5.2 2 0 0 0 5 70
June 2 NY Mets Away 6 2 1 1 1 4 67
June 8 Pittsburgh Home 6 7 1 1 1 1 54
June 13 Milwuakee Away 6 2 1 1 1 4 67
Mike Montgomery stats by game Baseball-Reference

Since he just joined the rotation I thought it would be worth taking a look at Montgomery’s pitch make up followed by some of his game by game charts. First, pitch make up and usage

Mike Montgomery pitch make-up and usage
Brooks Baseball

His curve ball is his best pitch (it’s also the pitch that got the last out of the 2016 World Series). Back in January 2017 Beyond the Box Score hypothesized that he could be a fifth starter if he used that pitch consistently.

Since he’s joined the rotation only the Pirates have been able to do much with any of his stuff, and that was when they saw him for the second time in the span of a little over a week. He’s pretty much shut down everyone else:

Montgomery opponent batting average by pitch type
Brooks Baseball

Grade: A-. The only thing that differentiates Montgomery’s starts from Lester’s right now is length. It will be interesting to see if this performance by Montgomery is sustainable or if he’ll get the chance to prove that. As I mentioned earlier, the underlying peripherals look like Montgomery is getting a bit lucky right now. Either way, he’s taken full advantage of his opportunity to start and the Cubs front office will have a hard decision to make when Darvish comes off the DL.