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Grading the Cubs starters a quarter of the way through the season

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The Cubs starting pitching has been an unexpected strength in 2020

Jon Lester on the mound during Summer Camp
Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

Prior to the start of the season I was invited to be a guest on a couple of different fantasy baseball podcasts. I tend to have a pretty Cubs heavy knowledge base and also tend to be an optimist, so I am always a bit wary of doing fantasy analysis of the Cubs. I got more questions about the starting rotation than anything else.

My answer was always the same - I knew the projections hatee the Cubs rotation. Projections consistently underestimate Kyle Hendricks, Jon Lester is on the wrong side of 35, and almost no one has heard of Alec Mills —but, I saw a lot of potential from this group of starters over a short season, and if they all clicked at once the Cubs rotation could be sneaky dangerous.

I want to be really clear, this staring rotation has exceeded my wildest hopes and expectations. I’m going to look at each starter below, but as Al likes to say in game recaps, the complaint department is closed for this post.

Cubs Starters Select Stats 2020

Name W L G IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP LOB% GB% HR/FB ERA FIP xFIP WAR
Name W L G IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP LOB% GB% HR/FB ERA FIP xFIP WAR
Yu Darvish 2 1 3 17 8.47 1.06 0.00 .283 75.0% 40.0% 0.0% 2.12 1.68 3.10 0.8
Kyle Hendricks 2 1 3 20.1 6.64 0.89 0.44 .267 62.5% 49.2% 6.7% 3.54 2.49 3.22 0.7
Tyler Chatwood 2 1 3 15 13.80 2.40 1.20 .417 65.9% 39.5% 14.3% 5.40 2.50 2.50 0.5
Jon Lester 2 0 3 17 4.76 2.12 0.53 .120 94.8% 41.2% 4.3% 1.06 3.80 5.54 0.3
Alec Mills 2 0 2 13 4.85 3.46 0.69 .114 93.0% 54.3% 9.1% 1.38 4.11 4.68 0.2
Select stats for Cubs starters Fangraphs

Kyle Hendricks A-

Hendricks absolutely dazzled with a complete-game shutout on Opening Day marked by an uncharacteristic nine strikeout performance. He got those strikeouts with a lot of swing and miss, which generally isn’t his MO. Those numbers have calmed down slightly but he’s still been highly effective. Below is a look at Kyle’s first three starts:

Kyle Hendricks Game Logs

Name W L IP H R ER HR BB K
Name W L IP H R ER HR BB K
7/24 1 0 9 7 0 0 0 0 9
7/29 0 1 4.1 7 6 6 1 2 3
8/4 1 0 7 3 2 2 0 0 3
Game by game data Fangraphs

As I already mentioned, Hendricks got a lot more swing and miss during his first start than his next two. He’s thrown two outstanding games and one that he’d probably like back. Interestingly, he changed his pitch approach for that second start and went back to what was working for game three as you can see from this pitch make-up below:

Hendricks pitch selection by game
Statcast

Even with one less than great start, Kyle Hendricks has been very effective in 2020. He’s in the 90th percentile of limiting hard contact and exit velocity. He still has one of the slowest fastballs in the league, but it just doesn’t matter:

Hendricks MLB percentile rankings
Statcast

Yu Darvish: A-

Darvish has had two great starts and one start that was less than ideal. He has really limited the walks in 2020 and has yet to give up a HR. Seven innings still seems like the upper limit of a Darvish start since he tends to run longer counts than Hendricks. Let’s start with the game by game logs:

Yu Darvish Game Logs

Name W L IP H R ER HR BB K
Name W L IP H R ER HR BB K
7/25 0 1 4 6 3 3 0 0 5
7/31 1 1 6 2 0 0 0 1 7
8/5 1 0 7 5 1 1 0 1 4
Game by game data Fangraphs

Darvish’s game plan for 2020 has remained fairly consistent, it just happened to be more effective in his second and third starts than his first one. I think this chart missed a couple of Darvish’s pitches, but it is a good proxy for how he’s been mixing it up.

Darvish pitch selection by game
Statcast

Darvish gives up some hard contact but he also just baffles a lot of hitters. His whiff percentage is particularly effective. I think we can all agree that it’s fine for him to give up a few hits while he’s striking out eight batters for every walk he gives up.

Yu Darvish MLB percentiles
Statcast

Tyler Chatwood: A-

This was so close to an A+, if it was just based off of Chatwood’s first two starts it would have been an A+. But, that third start happened, and we can’t ignore it. The start against the Royals looks bad from the line, but it was a lot of bad BABIP luck so I cannot hold it against Chatwood too much. As a result he also gets an A-.

If I told you Tyler Chatwood would throw a quarter of the season at an A- in 2018 you all would have laughed me off this blog.

Tyler Chatwood Game Logs

Name W L IP H R ER HR BB K
Name W L IP H R ER HR BB K
7/26 1 0 6 3 1 1 0 2 8
8/1 1 1 6.2 3 0 0 0 0 11
8/6 0 1 2.1 11 8 8 2 0 4
Select game by game stats Fangraphs

Chatwood has managed to fix his control issues and the Cubs are finally seeing the pitcher they thought they signed two years ago. His strikeout rate is third in the league just slightly behind Trevor Bauer and Shane Bieber. He only has two walks (yes, two) in three starts. And while his ERA took a bit of a beating after that start against the Royals, his FIP and xFIP are both 2.50. If Tyler Chatwood finishes the year anywhere close to an ERA of 2.50 we will all be dancing for joy.

I mean, just look at his Whiff and K percentage relative to the rest of the league:

Tyler Chatwood MLB percentile rankings
Statcast

The pitch makeup has been pretty consistent across all of his starts, with the exception of using his sinker more than his cutter against the Pirates. I hope he doesn’t change a thing before his next start Friday against the Brewers.

Chatwood pitches by game
Statcast

Jon Lester: A

Lester is 36 years old and I wasn’t sure what to expect from him in a shortened season, but lately watching him pitch I find myself thinking of a coffee mug I used to have that said “Old age and treachery will beat youth and skill.”

Lester’s velocity is down. He doesn’t strike out guys as much any more. And he’s probably not going to maintain a 1.06 ERA for the entire season. But he still knows how to get guys out and few people know how to grind out a win as well as Jon Lester:

Jon Lester Game Logs

Name W L IP H R ER HR BB K
Name W L IP H R ER HR BB K
7/27 1 0 6 0 0 0 0 1 1
8/2 0 0 6 4 1 1 1 1 4
8/11 1 0 5 3 1 1 0 2 4
Select stats game by game Fangraphs

Lester has had to adapt as his velocity has declined and in 2020 the biggest adjustment he’s made is that he’s throwing his change up a lot more. It probably also helps that Willson Contreras has improved his framing considerably, because it allows Lester to work the corners more:

Lester pitches by game
Statcast

Looking at Lester’s MLB percentile ranks I found myself wondering if he was taking tips from Hendricks. This has a lot less swing and miss and a lot more weaker contact than we’re accustomed to seeing from Lester, but as long as he’s getting guys out I cannot complain about it even a little bit.

Jon Lester MLB percentile ranks
Statcast

Alec Mills: B+

Mills isn’t even supposed to be here, but Jose Quintana hurt his throwing hand washing dishes and honestly Mills has risen to the occasion. Every team in baseball would take this performance from their sixth starter in a heartbeat and I’m not going to lie, I’d be fine with Quintana starting as the long man in the bullpen. You know, just until he gets used to throwing regularly again:

Alec Mills Game Logs

Name W L IP H R ER HR BB K
Name W L IP H R ER HR BB K
7/28 1 0 6 2 2 2 1 2 3
8/3 0 0 7 3 0 0 0 3 4
Select stats game by game Fangraphs

Speaking of guys who look a lot like Kyle Hendricks, I’ve heard more than a few people refer to Mills as the adjunct professor since the similarities between him and Hendricks are hard to ignore.

Alec Mills MLB percentile ranks
Statcast

Will the real Kyle Hendricks please stand up?

In all seriousness, Mills teaches his command classes with a slightly different pitch mix than Hendricks. Hendricks relies heavily on a plus change up to deceive batters while Mills generates the same type of deception with more offspeed offerings. He uses his change up about half as often as Hendricks. Like Lester, however, as long as it’s effective I hope he doesn’t change much.

Mills pitch selection by game
Statcast

The Cubs used their four-day weekend to reset the rotation, so we won’t see Mills on the mound again until Saturday, nearly two weeks since his last start.

Takeaways

The Cubs starting five are excelling and let’s be honest, they are exceeding expectations at the moment. It is reasonable to expect a few more bad starts as the season progresses. That said, a quick start matters a lot in a 60-game season and at the first quarter mark the Cubs have the third best rotation in the league by fWAR. A note of caution is in order here, since the first and second best rotations by fWAR are the Reds and the Indians, two teams the Cubs will see a lot of this season, including tonight in Cleveland.