In 2019 it felt like the Cubs’ starting rotation was injured more than it had been in recent year. After all, Jon Lester went down in the Cubs home opener and Cole Hamels missed the entire month of July. But as I dug into the numbers a bit, I realized that despite not having a single starter pitch 200+ innings the Cubs had one of the more resilient rotations in baseball. So today, on the ninth day of Cubsmas, I’m looking at the nine pitchers who made starts for the Cubs in 2019.
It turns out only starting nine pitchers in 2019 put the Cubs on the lowest end of starting pitchers per team last season. Only the Cardinals started fewer pitchers (seven) with the Reds and Mets both also starting nine different pitchers across the season. 27 other teams started at least 10 different pitchers with the Blue Jays starting a whopping 21 pitchers in 2019. (Many teams, including the Jays, were using “openers.” New Cub Ryan Tepera was one of those.)
There doesn’t seem to be a clear correlation between the number of pitchers used and the quality of the rotation, but it was interesting to take a look at which teams seemed more comfortable using an opener (the Cubs were NOT that team) and which teams were forced to be creative with their rotations due to injury.
In fact, since 2016 nine is the lowest number of starting pitchers the Cubs have used in a single season. They also used nine in 2017 while they used 11 in 2016 and 12 in 2018.
Let’s start with the best news from this group of pitchers, Yu Darvish had an incredible bouncebackseason in 2019. He threw 178⅔ innings, up from 40 in 2018, and pretty much everything was better. He struck out more batters (11.54 K/9 in 2019 v. 11.03 in 2018), walked fewer batters (2.82 BB/9 in 2019 v. 4.73 in 2018) and even taught himself Kimbrel’s knuckle change in a week, because apparently seven pitches weren’t enough.
Craig Kimbrel, on Yu Darvish learning his knucklecurve in less than a week and taking it into games already as a wipeout pitch: “He’s amazing. He can do anything he wants.” pic.twitter.com/gFkkfAWIk6— Jordan Bastian (@MLBastian) August 28, 2019
That pitch is filthy and I can’t wait to see more of those in 2020.
All he still does is get guys out, and while I wish the Cubs had had more success signing some of their young core to extensions I am very glad they locked up Hendricks in 2018. While he threw fewer innings in 2019 (177 v. 199 in 2018) he looked sharper across the board. His K/9 was slightly better than 2018 (7.63 v. 7.28), his BB/9 was better (1.63 v. 1.99) and despite the rocket ball he actually gave up fewer home runs per nine innings than he did in 2018 (0.99 v. 0.97). Oh, and who can forget this absolute masterpiece against St. Louis [VIDEO]:
Lester’s 2019 was just slightly better than average. He threw 171⅔, innings (down from 181⅔ in 2018). His ERA- (a pitching stat that is similar to wRC+ in that 100 is basically a league average pitcher) was 102. Despite an injury in April his first half of the season was better than his second half with an ERA of 3.72 in the former and 5.35 in the latter, although his FIP indicates that he got a little lucky in the first half (4.17) and a little unlucky in the second half (4.36). Lester clearly still knows how to show up for big games and how to grind through when he’s struggling. He’s also continued to step up his charity work in Chicago and was the Cubs nominee for the Roberto Clemente Award for the second year in a row [VIDEO].
Quintana’s starts can be a bit maddening sometimes because when he is good he is very, very good and when he is bad... well, you all know how the rhyme goes. He actually had a much better season in 2019 than 2018. He was worth 3.5 fWAR in 2019 v. 1.7 in 2018 and his BB/9 was substantially lower (2.42 v. 3.51). At $11.5 million he’s still relatively cheap for a player who starts 30+ games like clockwork although I’m well aware it feels like he costs more any time you watch Eloy Jiménez or Dylan Cease on the South Side. Q’s best start of the season was surely this seven-inning scoreless gem from April where he struck out 11 Pirates [VIDEO].
Lester wasn’t the only Cubs starting pitcher who had remarkable splits in 2019. It seems pretty clear looking at Hamels’ numbers that he came back from the oblique injury too early. In the first half he had an ERA of 2.98 off a FIP of 3.59, in the second half both of those ballooned with the ERA hitting 5.79 and his FIP rising to 5.29. Yikes.
There are still a lot of things to like about Hamels’ 2019, including that he managed to keep the ball in the ballpark at a lower rate than his career average (HR/9 of 1.08 v. 1.21 for his career). His best start was this brilliant game against the Cardinals where he threw eight innings and struck out 10 [VIDEO].
I considered forgetting Tyler Chatwood again today just to see how long it would take some of you to notice, but I thought better of it. Chatwood started five games for the Cubs due mainly to injuries to Lester and Hamels. He was substantially better out of the bullpen than as a starter and although I know he’s being paid like a starter it seems like the Cubs would be wise to just let him be a long man out of the pen. I already wrote about his best start in 2019 on day six of Cubsmas because it also happened to be a walkoff win, but I imagine you all would like to see that one again [VIDEO].
Mills got his own whole day this Cubsmas, so you can head back to day four if you want. I’ll cut paste my conclusion there for the purpose of today, though:
Mills isn’t a power arm, but he has good stuff and his K/9 of 10.5 was second only to Yu Darvish among Cubs starters last year and given the lack of moves the Cubs have made this offseason I imagine we’ll see him every fifth day at the start of the 2020 season.
This nine strikeout game against the Cardinals was probably his best start [VIDEO].
The most fun I had at Wrigley Field in 2019 was Adbert Alzolay’s debut. At the time I couldn’t remember another player I’d been so excited to see play his first game at Wrigley Field. Nico’s surprise callup in September was close, but there was still something so magical about seeing Alzolay, the first Cubs’ top tier starting pitching prospect in God knows how long deliver on all of that promise. I mean just look at these highlights from his June 20 debut [VIDEO].
And while that wasn’t a start, it earned him a start five days later before he was sent back to Iowa after a bit of a shellacking in the next two starts. I’m intrigued by Alzolay. The kid who showed up on June 20 and 25 could be a huge help to the Cubs in a spot start or out of the pen in 2020. His innings for the past two seasons have been very limited so I don’t expect him to be part of the everyday rotation until at least 2021.
With the Cubs out of contention on the final day of the season Joe Maddon had an unconventional line up for the season finale against the Cardinals, including Derek Holland on the mound. It was the only start Holland made as a Cub, which makes sense considering he was really only there as a LOOGY. This start went about as poorly as you would imagine with Holland throwing two innings giving up seven earned runs and walking four. There are no Holland highlight clips from this game, but it is the game that gave us Ben Zobrist pitching in the eighth inning and I KNOW you want to see that again [VIDEO].
On the ninth day of Cubsmas my true love gave to me: nine different starting pitchers, eight saves from non-closers, seven epic bat flips, six walk off wins, five games out of the playoffs, four Alec Mills starts, three Nico homers, two fWAR from Castellanos and a David Ross for manager.