2018 Rundown: Starting Rotation

Going into the year the Cubs’ starting rotation was expected to be a major strength. Favorable comparisons were made with both the 2016 and 2004 starting rotations as the idea floated around that this group could be one of the best Cubs rotations ever. At various points throughout the season, those predictions fell flat. Yu Darvish struggled with injury and ineffectiveness, Kyle Hendricks and Jose Quintana both struggled with the command that pitchers of their kind need, and Jon Lester posted some alarming peripherals despite acceptable results. Tyler Chatwood struggled to look like he belonged on a major league roster much less in the starting rotation of a playoff team. The hyperbole of preseason optimism was replaced by the perception of mid season catastrophe.

As these things often do, the rotation leveled out. As a group, the starting rotation pitched 888.0 innings to the tune of a 3.84 ERA. In a very different way than was expected, the rotation ended up being a major strength.

Excluding occasional spot starters like Alec Mills and Jen-Ho Tseng, here’s a look at how the Cubs rotation performed.

Kyle Hendricks (33 GS, 199.0 IP, 3.44 ERA, 1.146 WHIP, 125 ERA+, 3.78 FIP)

After a rocky first half in which Hendricks gave up more home runs than anyone was comfortable with, he ended up putting together another typical Kyle Hendricks season. I’d argue that this was his best season other than the 2016 campaign in which he finished 3rd in Cy Young voting.

Hendricks has quite consistently demonstrated himself to be the kind of pitcher who can outpitch his FIP. For this reason, projection systems are often down on him in preseason and those projection systems are often wrong.

Hendricks came on in a big way during the second half, posting a 2.84 ERA in 14 GS bolstered by an amazing 1.79 September ERA in 6 starts. Hendricks also allowed only 5 home runs after the All Star Break after allowing 17 before the break (albeit in 5 more starts).

Hendricks also regained the level of command that is so critical to his success improving his K/BB rate from 2.68 in the first half to 6.0 in the second. That uptick in strikeouts coupled with an increase in ground balls made all the difference for Hendricks, as he pitches to significantly better results even with a higher BABIP allowed in the second half.

The Cubs know what to expect with Kyle Hendricks at this point. He has been a fairly consistent presence in the Cubs rotation ever since his first season as a Cub in 2014. The 2016 season does stand out as somewhat of an outlier in his year-by-year performances, but Hendricks shouldn’t be judged in comparison only to that year. Projection systems will almost certainly be down on Hendricks again coming into 2019 and it’s a fair bet they’ll be wrong, again.

Despite difference in handedness, Hendricks has consistently reminded me of former White Sox pitcher Mark Buehrle – he even has the sneaky pickoff move to go with that comparison. His body of work as a Cub is remarkable and we can only hope he’ll get to be an All Star one of these days. He definitely deserves more recognition than he gets.

Jon Lester (32 GS, 181.2 IP, 3.32 ERA, 1.310 WHIP, 129 ERA+, 4.39 FIP)

Jon Lester continued to solidify his place as one of the best free agent signings in the history of the Chicago Cubs. By the results, this was probably Lester’s second best season as a Cub behind only his 2016 campaign. Winning 18 games and posting an ERA of 3.32, Lester had all the results based numbers that would suggest nothing but a stellar season.

However, Lester outpitched his FIP for a significant margin throughout much of the year, finishing with a significantly lower ERA than 2017 (3.32 compared to 4.33) despite finishing with a higher FIP (4.39 compared to 4.10). There were only 2 months where this really caught up to Lester, July and August, in which he posted ERAs of 6.46 and 5.81 respectively. An excellent September saved his second half and a lockdown performance in the NL Wild Card game solidified his reputation as a clutch performer.

Despite the FIP disparity , I wouldn’t argue that Lester had anything but an outstanding season. Lester will be entering his age 35 season in 2019. His age coupled with the discrepancy in FIP and 2017’s not so great results are at least cause for mild concern for me about the level of confidence we can have in Lester going forward.

Whether Lester repeats his excellent 2018, reverts back to a poor showing in 2017, or lands somewhere in between he has already cemented his place as a Cubs legend and one of relatively few big money free agent pitchers who has actually earned is contract.

José Quintana (32 GS, 174.1 IP, 4.03 ERA, 1.319 WHIP, 106 ERA+, 4.43 FIP)

Eloy Jimenez and Dylan Cease will not be mentioned in this run down because they’re no longer Cubs and this is a site about the Cubs!

Quintana’s 2018 season was an odd one. It’s hard to put it any other way. At times he looked okay or even solid but at other times the Cubs just didn’t know what they were going to get from Quintana on any given day. Quintana posted a career worst 3.5 BB/9 and 2.32 K/BB ratio. Quintana has never relied on velocity, but that too was down a tick at times through the year.

Quintana, like Hendricks, relies on precise control and command so the loss of both command and velocity this year were costly as he posted a career worst 4.43 FIP and a 4.03 ERA that is better than only his total ERA of 4.15 last year between the White Sox and Cubs. He also allowed a career worst 25 home runs. Unsurprisingly, Quintana allowed the most medium to hard contact in his career at 51% and 33.1% respectively along with a 22.4% line drive percentage.

That’s a lot of yikes and a lot of career worst or almost career worst numbers. Even with all that, Quintana was certainly serviceable. At times he looked like the guy the Cubs hoped they were trading for, and most of those times were the first 4 innings of the game. His 5th inning ERA ballooned to 5.46 as Quintana frequently had a hard time getting out of the 5th or 6th inning.

Ultimately, that failure to pitch deep into games is probably the story of Quintana’s season. He would look good and then fall apart too often. Of course, that’s better than never looking good at all and given Quintana’s long track record of success one can imagine a world where Quintana bounces back and posts a season that is more up to his usual standards next year.

All in all, José Quintana is a fine part of the rotation even if he’s not been quite the pitcher the Cubs hoped to acquire.

Tyler Chatwood (20 GS, 103.2 IP, 5.30 ERA, 1.804 (!!!) WHIP, 81 ERA+, 5.60 FIP)

Many people, myself included, were thrilled about the Tyler Chatwood signing and saw in Chatwood someone who could experience a Jake Arrieta-like resurgence in the supportive Cubs clubhouse and out of the harsh pitching environment of Coors Field. Needless to say, that did not happen and Chatwood is unlikely to be in the starting rotation next year and is no sure thing to even be on the roster despite a substantial amount of money still being owed to him.

Chatwood was quite simply awful as a Cub. Amazingly, his FIP was even worse than his ERA as he spent the first month of the season skirting through innings where he put 2 or 3 baserunners on unscathed with some regularity. That had to end eventually, and end it did.

Chatwood’s stuff is visibly very good and it’s not hard to see what the Cubs saw in him. However, he walked over 8 per 9 innings and routinely was noncompetitive by the time opponents realized there was no need for them to swing at all because they just had to wait for ball 4. Chatwood walked a league leading 95 batters despite being yanked from the rotation far before the end of the season.

There’s no need to dive deeper into Chatwood’s season. It was an unmitigated disaster and I’d bet it’s his only season with the Cubs.

Cole Hamels (overall: 32 GS, 190.2 IP, 3.78 ERA, 1.264 WHIP, 122 ERA+, 4.49 FIP; Cubs: 12 GS, 76.1 IP, 2.36 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 182 ERA+, 3.42 FIP)

Cole Hamels was a breath of fresh air into a Cubs rotation that badly needed it after injury ended the season of Yu Darvish and ineffectiveness necessitated an alternative to Tyler Chatwood.

Hamels was hit fairly hard as a Ranger, but that quickly turned around since he joined the Cubs. As a Cub, Hamels improved significantly in both hits/9 and BB/9 while more or less maintaining a K/9 rate around 9. Hamels benefited from a better defense and some luck but he also just pitched better, which is something that his “stuff” suggests he’s capable of as. Hamels was still able to touch the mid 90’s with consistency and demonstrated an ability to use his changeup effectively.

Hamels has a $20m team option which I strongly suspect the Cubs will pick up based on his results and on Theo’s comments about Hamels during his end of season press conference. Hamels is not likely to repeat his results as a Cub in 2018 nor is he likely to revert to what he was with Philadelphia, but he can still be a reliable innings eater who will mostly keep his team in the game.

It remains pretty puzzling that no teams ahead of the Cubs in the waiver process decided Hamels was worth a flyer. I think the Brewers would be clearly favorites for the NL pennant with Hamels, if they’re not already.

Mike Montgomery (19 GS, 124.0 IP, 3.99 ERA, 1.371 WHIP, 107 ERA+, 3.94 FIP)

When the Cubs acquired Mike Montgomery, it was in part because there was a thought that he could project as a competent starter. Left handed pitchers that can touch the mid 90’s with good off speed pitches are not laying around everywhere, and Montgomery offered that hope that he could turn into what he was supposed to be as a first round draft pick.

Montgomery has never been given that chance to start by design, but he did quite a bit of it this year anyway. Given the situation, it’s hard to be anything but pleased with the results. As a starter Montgomery pitches 97.2 innings to a 3.69 ERA – a significant improvement on the work he posted as a reliever (5.13 ERA). Given the holes in the Cubs rotation that Montgomery was filling in for, he deserves a lot of praise for his performance.

Montgomery walked only 2.8 per 9 innings which was excellent, but he did see a fairly significant decline in his strikeouts compared to last year and had a difficult time preventing hard contact. He allowed a 21.7 line drive percentage and 32.8 hard contact percentage. The hard contact led to 9.5 hits/9 IP which is the worst number he’s posted since joining the Cubs.

Still, Montgomery’s results were strong overall and his .309 BABIP (compared to .280 in his career) suggest he may have actually gotten a bit unlucky. His FIP, too, was better than his ERA.

It’s difficult to say where Montgomery projects going forward. He’s pitched like someone that deserves a chance to be in a starting rotation from spring training forward, but the Cubs will not have room for him if they pick up the option of Cole Hamels and Yu Darvish is healthy.

Montgomery is incredibly valuable for his ability to be a swing man shifting in and out of the bullpen and rotation but he’s also made it clear that’s a role he’d prefer not to be in, and with Drew Smyly also in the fold it’s difficult to say what Montgomery’s role will be in 2019. I’d suspect he’ll still be with the team and will start the season as the long man out of the bullpen. He probably deserves better, but that’s how the cookie crumbles sometimes for cost controlled players.

Yu Darvish (8 GS, 40.0 IP, 4.95 ERA, 1.425 WHIP, 87 ERA+, 4.86 FIP)

There isn’t that much you can write about Darvish’s first season with the Cubs. When he did pitch he wasn’t effective and injuries more or less wiped out the season.

It’s hard to tell from the outside looking in, but the Cubs medical staff never seemed to have a firm handle on what to do about Darvish’s injury. Even while the Cubs were stating that they expected him to return, Darvish complained of pain while throwing off the mound which is always cause for significant doubt that a player will be able to return. Ultimately, Darvish wasn’t.

The Cubs expect Darvish to return by the start spring training in 2019 and are hopeful he can be the pitcher they wanted him to be. Darvish has experience returning from seasons derailed by injury as he came back strong in 2016 after missing the entire season in 2015 due to Tommy John surgery.

Darvish has been a consistently excellent pitcher in his career, and it’s hard to overstate much more likely it would’ve been that the Cubs won the division in 2018 had Darvish been healthy. Here’s to hoping for the best for Yu in 2019.

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