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Grading the Cubs starters: Midterms

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A look at Cubs’ starting pitching from the first half of 2018.

MLB: Chicago Cubs at Los Angeles Dodgers
Jon Lester is at the head of the class.
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

It’s the halfway point of the 2018 season so now’s a pretty good time to check in again on Cubs starting pitching. A few notes, the starting pitchers are still over performing their peripherals. While the team starting ERA of 3.80 ranks fifth in the National League, the team starting FIP of 4.60 ranks thirteenth. That is a pretty large difference and while part of it may be due to the Cubs outstanding defense in the first half, it may also signal that a regression is on the way.

With that in mind, let’s check in on particular starters and their performance so far in 2018.

Jon Lester

The Cubs signed Lester before the 2015 season to be an ace and Lester has delivered. His K/9 is still down over his career average this year (7.11 v. 8.35) and his BB/9 is up slightly (3.15 v. 2.91). And if you feel like he’s been hit hard lately, your eye test is correct. His hard contact percent this season is 35.1 percent which is quite a bit higher than his career average of 26.8 percent.

Lester has still figured out a way to get it done, however. His ERA is 2.25 and he’s stranded an incredible 85.1 percent of base runners. As for his recent games, Lester has been outstanding in June. Opposing batters hit .154 against Jon in June, which he rode to a 1.13 ERA.

Below you can see each of Lester’s first half starts with inning’s pitched and game scores. Here’s hoping he can keep it up in the second half.

Lester game by game first half

Date Opponent Home/Away IP Pitches Game Score
Date Opponent Home/Away IP Pitches Game Score
Mar 29 Miami Away 3.1 71 31
Apr 5 Milwaukee Away 6 89 71
Apr 11 Pittsburgh 5 96 37
Apr 19 St. Louis 6 96 72
Apr 25 Cleveland Away 7 107 59
Apr 30 Colorado 5.2 106 57
May 6 St. Louis Away 5.1 87 48
May 12 Chicago AL 5.2 92 59
May 18 Cincinnati Away 6 99 71
May 23 Cleveland 7 104 64
May 29 Pittsburgh Away 6 90 46
June 3 NYM Away 7 107 77
June 9 Pittsburgh 7 104 78
June 15 St. Louis Away 6 102 56
June 20 Los Angeles 7 119 65
June 26 Los Angeles Away 5 82 54
Lester’s game by game innings, pitches and game scores Baseball-Reference

Grade: A. The Cubs ace has aced the first half of the season. They’ll need him to maintain it in the second half.

Kyle Hendricks

Kyle has had some struggles this year, specifically, he’s giving up a lot more home runs than Cubs fans are used to seeing. His career HR/9 rate is 0.91, in 2018 so far that has skyrocketed to 1.57. Put simply, Kyle Hendricks used to just get guys out and that hasn’t been happening lately. I shared this chart last time, but it’s worth looking at one more time. Some of Kyle’s pitches are just getting murdered by opposing batters.

Hendricks slugging by pitch in 2018
Brooks Baseball

While it may be tempting to be encouraged by the downward trend in June for the fourseam and curveball, opposing players are still hitting those pitches well (.438 and .667, respectively). Additionally, now the sinker is getting hit hard too, with opposing batters slugging .744 against the sinker in June. While Kyle’s change is still stifling batters he can’t throw it all of the time for it to be effective.

You can see these struggles develop in Kyle’s game by game:

Kyle Hendricks game by game first half

Date Opponent Home/Away IP Pitches Game Score
Date Opponent Home/Away IP Pitches Game Score
Mar 30 Miami Away 6 88 62
Apr 6 Milwaukee Away 5 84 33
Apr 12 Pittsburgh 6 91 58
Apr 20 Colorado Away 5 95 51
Apr 26 Milwaukee 7 94 74
May 1 Colorado 7.2 104 62
May 7 Miami 8 98 65
May 13 Chicago AL 6 97 52
May 19 Cincinnati Away 5 71 45
May 25 San Francisco 7 88 74
May 30 Pittsburgh Away 5 71 45
Jun 5 Philadelphia 5 87 39
Jun 10 Pittsburgh 5 87 59
Jun 16 St. Louis Away 6 95 45
Jun 21 Cincinnati Away 5.2 89 48
Jun 27 Los Angeles Away 2.2 72 17
Hendricks innings, pitches and game scores Baseball-Reference

Grade: C+ Kyle started 2018 strong with some solid outings. Make no mistake, some of his early innings eating was crucial to where this team currently is in the standings. However, in June he has three pitches that opposing batters are slugging better than .430 against, and that can’t continue in the second half if the Cubs are going to chase down the Brewers.

Jose Quintana

Every time Quintana starts I wonder which Quintana is showing up that day. As I wrote last time, he just hasn’t been that consistent. That hasn’t changed in June, he had a 10 Q outing against the Phillies on the sixth that got me all excited but hasn’t come close to replicating that. His June involved a lot of five-inning starts and while he seems to give up two to three runs most of the time, he mixes that up with a nine-hit, four earned run line against the Reds and I just get kind of frustrated.You can see it in his outings and game scores below:

Quintana game by game first half

Date Opponent Home/Away IP Pitches Game Score
Date Opponent Home/Away IP Pitches Game Score
Apr 1 Miami Away 6 104 34
Apr 8 Milwaukee Away 6 87 70
Apr 14 Atlanta 2.1 70 12
Apr 22 Colorado Away 5.1 83 42
Apr 28 Milwaukee 7 103 79
May 4 St. Louis Away 4 88 46
May 9 Miami 6 108 61
May 14 Atlanta 4.2 99 25
May 19 Cincinnati Away 7 101 78
May 26 San Francisco 4.1 83 41
May 31 NYM Away 6 97 70
June 6 Philadelphia 5.2 91 63
June 11 Milwaukee Away 6 97 57
June 17 St. Louis Away 5 86 52
June 22 Cincinnati Away 5 92 34
June 28 Los Angeles Away 5.1 80 43
Quintana innings, pitch counts and game scores Baseball-Reference

Grade: C. Quintana has been average by almost every measure you can look at, game scores, ERA, FIP. I guess I could have given him a plus for the 0.6 fWAR he’s put up in the first half, but that’s hard to do when every fourth or fifth start (or fourth or fifth inning, for that matter) kind of blows up.

I will say I think there is a lot of room for improvement here and there is a really good chance we see a different Quintana in the second half.

Tyler Chatwood

I am almost scared to put these words in print, but some times you have to go big or go home. The walks are improving, it’s true! In May Chatwood’s BB/9 was 10.53 in June it is 7.56. Don’t get me wrong, that isn’t a good number, but it’s an improvement and a substantial one. I am just so glad there is anything remotely good to report here that I was really quite excited about it.

Chatwood’s ground ball percentage is still bailing him out of a lot of situations where he would otherwise get in trouble, it’s up to 54.4 percent. I’d love to see him couple that with a bit more control.

Tyler Chatwood game by game stats first half

Date Opponent Home/Away IP Pitches BB Game Score
Date Opponent Home/Away IP Pitches BB Game Score
Apr 2 Cincinnati Away 6 92 6 58
Apr 10 Pittsburgh 5 100 1 35
Apr 17 St. Louis 4.2 97 7 54
Apr 24 Cleveland Away 6 92 5 60
Apr 29 Milwaukee 7 90 3 74
May 5 St. Louis Away 4 89 5 42
May 11 Chicago AL 5 92 5 54
May 16 Atlanta Away 5.1 79 2 56
May 22 Cleveland 2.2 74 6 29
May 27 San Francisco 2.2 88 5 32
June 1 NYM Away 5.1 96 4 51
June 7 Philadelphia 4.2 107 7 51
June 12 Milwaukee Away 5 97 2 44
June 19 Los Angeles 5 101 5 60
June 30 Minnesota 5 103 3 28
Chatwood innings, pitches and game scores Baseball-Reference

Grade: D. Chatwood doesn’t fail the first half because the walk rate is improving and despite all odds he manages to get out of some crazy (self-created) jams. However, at this point you have to imagine the that Cubs front office has a hard decision to make when (if?) Yu Darvish comes off the disabled list.

Mike Montgomery

Mike Montgomery is a pretty good dancer but he clearly doesn’t want to go back to the bullpen and with the results he’s put up since joining the rotation, I can’t say I blame him. He’s been the second most reliable Cubs pitcher since he joined the rotation. I feel better with Montgomery starting a game than I do with anyone other than Lester. The numbers back this up. Mike Montgomery’s 3.87 FIP as a starter is the best starting FIP on the team. His 2.43 ERA is second only to Lester and in 40⅔ innings as a starter he’s already been worth 0.5 fWAR (in other words, he’s been about as valuable as Quintana, in half the number of innings).

You can see how steady and solid he’s been in his game by game:

Mike Montgomery game by game first half

Date Opponent Home/Away IP Pitches Game Score
Date Opponent Home/Away IP Pitches Game Score
May 28 Pittsburgh Away 5.2 76 70
June 2 NYM Away 6 76 67
June 8 Pittsburgh 6 95 54
June 13 Milwaukee Away 6 79 67
June 19 Los Angeles 6 100 59
June 24 Cincinatti Away 6 81 48
June 29 Minnesota 5 98 39
Montgomery innings, pitch count and game scores Baseball-Reference

Grade: A. I don’t know what else Montgomery is supposed to do to get a shot at the rotation. He’s been as solid as any starter the Cubs have had this year. I guess you could justify a minus here since he doesn’t throw as many innings as Lester, but considering the circumstances I’m having a hard time dinging Monty on much.

Takeaways

The Cubs are 82 games into the season and what many considered one of their greatest rotations of all time has significantly under performed with two notable exceptions in Lester and Montgomery. If Darvish can come back from the DL and be the pitcher they thought they were signing, Chatwood can continue to improve his walk rate and Kyle can return to being the guy who just gets guys out in the second half, the Cubs are going to be a much better team as we head into the fall.

If the current performances continue, it may be a bit of a struggle to maintain that .573 winning percentage.