“Pitching wins championships”: that’s the phrase that weak hitting teams use to validate their fringy playoff chances. You can’t have it all, these GMs seem to say, so might as well focus on what gives us the best shot at having it all. But as seen from Nick Doran’s post this morning, the Cubs have hitting, and plenty of it.
So why even bring up the age-old mantra? There’s a reason the Cubs are projected to hold the best record in the league, and there’s a reason why no one will be surprised if they blow past the projection too. The Cubs may have one of the best young hitting cores, but the team also has a stable of arms unequaled in its talent and depth.
In USA Today’s For The Win ranking, the Cubs quintet of Jake Arrieta, Jon Lester, John Lackey, Jason Hammel, and Kyle Hendricks as the most fearsome in the league. In the piece, Ted Berg claims, “Only the Cardinals have Nos. 4 and 5 starters that stack up to Jason Hammel and Kyle Hendricks, but St. Louis can’t match the Cubs in the front end of the rotation.”
More recently (as in this week), Fangraphs ranked each team’s starting rotation based on the summation of each starter’s projected WAR. Unlike the For The Win ranking, Fangraphs summed all potential starting pitchers, leaving the Cubs as having the third best rotation behind the deeper Mets and Dodgers, with a total projected WAR of 18.5. Nearly at a loss, writer Jeff Sullivan said: “At all five rotation slots, individually, the Cubs rank better than average. That’s…that’s really good. That’s a good thing to be able to say about a rotation.”
What’s readily apparent looking at each starter’s projection is that this Cubs’ rotation is built for one-shot and one-shot only. Only one of the five starters is under 30 years old, and unfortunately for Chicago, it’s their number five. While Kyle Hendricks has been a promising pitcher and more likely a three than a five, he’s no arm to build the next few years of this team around. With Lackey, Hammel, and Lester playing against the rigors of time, the Cubs truly need to go for bust this year if they want to break the curse.
The reigning NL Cy Young winner looks to put together another dominating season as he moves out of his twenties. Aided largely by an improbably sustained .246 BABIP, Arrieta led the league in wins and finished second to Zack Greinke in both WAR and ERA. Arrieta relied on his sinker last season, throwing it 35.7 percent of the time. As the pitch sits around 94 mph, it’s a dynamic weapon in an arsenal also featuring a 90 mph slider and 80 mph change. Obviously, some regression is expected as Arrieta’s BABIP likely normalizes, but Arrieta should still be the ace on a staff full of them.
The long-time Red Sox ace, Lester signed with the Cubs after being traded to the A’s during the 2014 season. In his first summer in the Windy City, Lester lacked in the win department but nearly had a career year as evidenced by his peripherals. Lester is the only one of the Cubs’ starting five not projected to regress in the upcoming year: a conclusion likely drawn from his 2.92 FIP and 9.09 K/9 last season. His fastball has lost a tick or two over the years but is still his most used pitch. However, his curve lays claim to the most effective, causing swinging strikes on 18.8 percent of instances last season. Lester’s projection is the one that I feel is far too optimistic, given that his last two season’s have been his best, but he’s moving the wrong way on the aging curve.
A Cardinals defector along with outfielder Jason Heyward, John Lackey is looking for his third World Series after one each with the Angels and Red Sox. Fangraphs expects Lackey to regress fairly severely from his impressive 2015 campaign, but 176 innings of 3.51 ERA baseball is nothing to complain about from your number three. In the twilight of his lengthy career, Lackey has begun to ween himself off his curveball and started throwing more sliders and fastballs to compensate. Playing in Wrigley’s friendly confines should lead to an increase in home runs, but this Cubs defense will likely be able to bail him out a bit more than others could.
Like Lester, Jason Hammel is also starting his second year with the Cubs and looking to build off of a successful 2015 campaign. Hammel was a savvy recall by Theo Epstein after the righty was traded by the club to the A’s at the 2014 trade deadline. Like Lackey, Fangraphs expects Hammel to regress significantly, pitching far fewer innings and dropping nearly a full point in WAR. Personally, I see Hammel having a better year than the projections give him credit for, simply because I see him throwing more than 130 innings.
Quietly, Kyle Hendricks has had a fantastic spring, leading the Cubs’ rotation in ERA prior to his final outing against the Angels. Granted, he did get hit around a bit in that game, but the young righty should be the helium in an otherwise age-deflated corp. Fangraphs also doesn’t see Hendricks having quite the year he did last year, but he should be able to translate an outstanding sophomore campaign into something more substantial than 140 innings and 2.3 WAR.
Gone are the days of Carlos Marmol playing Russian roulette in the back of the Cubs’ pen. Now, Hector Rondon patrols those later innings, buoyed by strong righties Justin Grimm and Pedro Strop, as well as dominant southpaw Clayton Richard. That doesn’t even mention former Red Travis Wood or Diamondback Trevor Cahill, both of whom should be serviceable (re: not dumpster fire-esque) from the pen.
All five members of the Cubs’ rotation have projected ERAs below 4.00, cementing this group as the most complete in the league. The Mets have more youth and the Dodgers have more depth, but the Cubs have what every other teams covets. I don’t know whether pitching does or doesn’t win championships, but this Cubs rotation is poised to make the run from wire-to-wire.