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Grading the Cubs starters at the three-quarters mark of the 2018 season

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A look at the Cubs starting pitching as they enter the last quarter of the season

Cole Hamels pitches against the Nationals at Wrigley
Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

The Cubs are in first place heading into the last thirty or so games of the season despite their starting pitching. The rotation has been up and down this season, although lately there have been some flashes of brilliance. Consider all of the following:

  • Yu Darvish hasn’t pitched since May 20. He was pulled after a brief rehab start and a stress reaction in his elbow has sidelined him for the rest of 2018.
  • The Cubs other big offseason pitching acquisition, Tyler Chatwood, has been moved to the bullpen. He’s made one start since then, in place of Mike Montgomery on Saturday, August 18.
  • Even with his recent solid starts against the against the Pirates, Tigers and Mets, Jon Lester has an 6.69 ERA since the All Star Break
  • Cole Hamels, who was acquired for Eddie Butler and minor leaguers Rollie Lacy and Alexander Ovalles, had a 4.72 ERA when he left the Rangers. In six starts with the Cubs he’s put up a 0.69 ERA.

Overall, the Cubs starting pitching this year shapes up as follows:

Cubs starter stats

Name G IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP LOB% GB% HR/FB ERA FIP xFIP WAR
Name G IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP LOB% GB% HR/FB ERA FIP xFIP WAR
Jon Lester 27 152 7.05 3.32 1.36 .280 79.0% 36.7% 13.5% 3.67 4.78 4.66 0.7
Jose Quintana 25 135 7.73 4.00 1.33 .279 75.2% 36.7% 14.9% 4.33 4.74 4.46 0.7
Mike Montgomery 13 73 5.55 2.59 0.62 .295 78.3% 48.9% 7.8% 3.08 3.85 4.40 1.1
Kyle Hendricks 27 158.2 7.43 2.16 1.13 .290 74.7% 46.2% 13.6% 3.86 4.00 3.89 2.2
Yu Darvish 8 40 11.03 4.73 1.58 .293 72.3% 37.6% 17.5% 4.95 4.81 4.17 0.2
Tyler Chatwood 20 96 7.69 8.25 0.84 .284 73.8% 54.2% 12.3% 5.16 5.61 5.64 -0.4
Cole Hamels - Rangers 20 114.1 8.97 3.31 1.81 .296 72.4% 43.4% 20.7% 4.72 5.20 4.18 0.2
Cole Hamels - Cubs 6 39 8.77 2.54 0.00 .292 90.5% 55.9% 0.0% 0.69 2.29 3.05 1.4
Select stats for Cubs starters with 30+ IP Fangraphs

And those are just a few things that jump off the page. Let’s take a closer look at each of the Cubs starters and how they shape up as we head into the last quarter of the season

Cole Hamels

Let’s start with the good outstanding news. Hamels has been everything the Cubs hoped he would be and more since joining the team. In just six starts with the Cubs he’s accumulated 1.4 WAR. To put that in perspective, in six starts he’s added more value than any pitcher other than Kyle Hendricks. That is unbelievable. While he’s getting a little lucky, his FIP of 2.29 would be great, it’s just that his ERA is a minuscule 0.69. Also of note, his BABIP is up to .292, so yes he’s getting a little luck, but not that much.

I joked that there was an outside chance Hamels would channel his inner Justin Verlander with the Cubs. Well, here’s the wild thing, in a lot of ways Hamels with the Cubs has been better than Verlander was with the Astros after being traded, as you can see below:

Verlander and Hamels post trade stats

Name G IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP LOB% GB% HR/FB ERA FIP xFIP Avg
Name G IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP LOB% GB% HR/FB ERA FIP xFIP Avg
Cole Hamels - 2018 - Cubs 6 39 8.77 2.54 0.00 .292 90.5% 55.9% 0.0% 0.69 2.29 3.05 .207
Justin Verlander - 2017 - Astros 5 34 11.40 1.30 1.10 .194 100.0% 32.4% 11.8% 1.06 2.69 2.94 .149
Hamels Verlander post trade stats Fangraphs

Obviously Verlander was also a huge part of the Astros postseason run and we don’t know if Hamels will sustain this performance through October. However, the underlying numbers look sustainable, and that is exactly what the Cubs needed after their free agent signings didn’t work out at all.

Grade: A+ Hamels has been better than my wildest expectations. As Al would say, the complaint department is closed.

Jon Lester

In the run up to the All Star Break Jon Lester did exactly what the Cubs needed from their ace, putting together a masterful first half before stumbling a bit in July and August. Let’s be honest, that’s a bit of an understatement. Lester would probably like to forget four of his starts after the break. He certainly wasn’t amused by the questions he got from reporters about analytics.

Well, Lester might not concern himself with analytics but the good news is he seems to be on the other side of an ugly regression. Check out these game logs from July and August:

Jon Lester Game Logs July and August
Baseball Reference

As the Cubs enter September the other thing to remember about Lester is that he has historically shown up when it’s mattered. In eleven seasons in the majors he’s got a lifetime 3.00 ERA in Sept/Oct and he’s only had two seasons worse than that baseline (last year with the Cubs his Sept/Oct his ERA climbed to 4.17 and in the disastrous 2011 September with Boston his ERA was a very uncharacteristic 5.40).

Whatever the analytics say, Lester is a grinder. If he has his traditional sub 3.00 ERA September for the Cubs in 2018 that should put them in a good position for the playoff run.

Grade: C Late July/August Lester was a D-/F, late August Lester is a solid B. I’m happy he’s on an upward swing and hope that continues.

Kyle Hendricks

Luckily for the Cubs, as Lester has had a bit of an up and down stretch, Kyle Hendricks seems to have quietly settled back into his mode of just getting guys out. Take a look for yourself, here are Kyle’s game logs for July and August:

Hendricks game logs July and August
Baseball Reference

I’m particularly happy that Hendricks’ anomalous HR spike from the early part of the season seems to have calmed down. He gave up 17 long balls in the first three months of the season and has only given up three in the last two months.

Grade: B+ Kyle seems to be settling into a good rhythm for the stretch run. If he can keep this string of quality starts and stay away from the long ball the Cubs should be in good shape for September and October.

Jose Quintana

Q is a mystery to me. Sometimes he’s very good, sometimes he’s very bad. Often he’s both in the same game. It seems like a lot of his starts include one inning where everything threatens to fall apart. Sometimes it’s more than a threat, and things fall apart.

Eh, maybe it’s not that much of a mystery. Jose Quintana has really struggled the third time through the order. Take a look at how batters are slugging against Q by times through the order below:

Slugging against Quintana
Brooks Baseball

This goes a long way towards explaining why Q has struggled to get out of the fifth and sixth inning. Joe Maddon is trying to set up the club for success, but it does mean that the bullpen has been a bit overworked in Quintana starts:

Quintana game logs July and August
Baseball Reference.

Quintana has been a serviceable bottom of the rotation starter the last two months and there is really only one bad outing in this group along with two outings that weren’t pretty. However, let’s be honest, that’s not what the Cubs wanted when they traded for him. They were looking for a number two or three, not a four or five.

Grade: C- Quintana has eaten some innings and had moments where he’s looked really good. It would be awesome if he could find a way to have more of those moments heading into the stretch run, because right now I’m pretty nervous with him in the post-season rotation.

Mike Montgomery

Montgomery stepped in as a quality fifth starter and earned himself a spot in the rotation, before landing on the 10 day disabled list with shoulder inflammation. After a string of better than expected results, regression came for him a bit in July and August as his peripherals caught up to him. His ERA jumped from 2.83 in June to 5.87 in July. He seemed back to his outstanding self in August with two starts where he only gave up one earned run in 11⅓ innings pitched. You can see his game logs below:

Montgomery July and August Starts
Baseball Reference

While his 3.08 ERA as a starter is still outperforming his 3.84 FIP by almost a run, his BABIP data has normalized to .295. The bottom line is that Montgomery is performing more than adequately for a number five starter, and is having a pretty great season when you consider he started the season in the bullpen.

Grade B- Montgomery continues to exceed expectations in the rotation and he’ll be a welcome addition to the Cubs when he makes his return from the DL tonight in Atlanta.

Tyler Chatwood

Chatwood’s wildness cost him a spot in the rotation, although he made one start in this time period with Montgomery’s trip to the DL. It was not pretty and he left the game after two innings pitched with the following line:

2.0 IP 2H 3R 3ER 3BB 0K

Those numbers are unacceptable and that ultimately became a bullpen game which the Cubs lost 3-1.

Grade: I/F This is hopefully Chatwood’s last time starting in 2018 and the Cubs will work with him in the offseason to correct whatever has gone awry in his mechanics.

Takeaways

There have been a lot of ups and downs with this Cubs rotation so far this season, but things started to come together rather nicely in August for most of the starters. So far in August Cubs starters have thrown 148 13 innings with a team ERA of 3.34 compared to 716⅓ innings of 4.00 ERA ball for the whole season. They’ve accumulated 3.0 of their total 5.9 fWAR during that period.

The Cole Hamels Era has been exactly what the Cubs rotation needed. Here’s hoping they can sustain it into September and October.