Season Preview: The Starting Pitchers

For as many mashers as the Cubs had last season, their starting pitching was more impressive. Led by their ‘Big 3′ in Jon Lester, Jake Arrieta and Kyle Hendricks, the staff led baseball in ERA and placed among the top five in a multitude of other categories. Only Jason Hammel doesn’t return, and Brett Anderson will be called upon to take his place. A bit of a concern lies in the future of the rotation, as the only guaranteed returning players after this season will be Lester and Hendricks. However, 2017 should be another great season for Cubs’ starting pitching, and barring injury, they should again be among the league’s very best.

Speaking of injury, the staff was remarkably healthy throughout the season, with only John Lackey missing extended amount of time. Nonetheless, the starting staff logged 989 innings last season, 2nd most in the majors. Couple that with their pitching well into October and the wear and tear could rear its ugly head, though Joe Maddon has stated he may use a six man rotation at some points in the season to give the main starters some rest, which should bode well for the inevitable playoff push, especially to the older pitchers.

Speaking of old, Lackey has been remarkably consistent as he continues into the twilight of his career. The 38-year-old has averaged 12 wins, a 3.94 ERA and a 1.28 WHIP since turning 30, and has been a reliable middle-of-the-rotation starter for the Cubs. He enjoyed a good season last year, but the numbers indicate he wasn’t as dominant as his numbers suggest. Lackey benefited from the team’s historically great defense, and, courtesy of Fangraphs, his contact rate showed it:

Screen Shot 2017-04-17 at 3.02.25 PM.png

While Lackey did induce softer contact at a higher rate than his career average, he also gave up the hardest contact of his career at 34.4%, which was 11th in the league among qualified pitchers. When Lackey wasn’t fooling hitters they were squaring up the ball more, and that could pose a problem considering hitters are swinging at his pitches 48.6 percent of the time, 12th in the league among qualifying pitchers. If the Cubs’ defense isn’t incredibly efficient once again in 2017, regression is inevitable for Lackey.

The other established veteran on the staff, Jon Lester, has been even more consistent than Lackey. Starting over 30 games every year since 2008, the southpaw has been worth every penny of his six-year, $155 million deal he signed two winters ago. He gave up the least amount of hits in his career, and part of the reason is because his cutter is so effective. Lester’s cutter ranked No.1 in baseball according to Fangraphs in wCT, which measures how many runs better his cutter is than the average cutter. His curveball also ranks among the top wCB in the league as well, and with those two pitches he’s baffled hitters to a tune of a .211 BA and a hard contact percent of only 26.8, 6th in the majors. Though he did walk more and strikeout less hitters per 9 IP it wasn’t by much, so expect another brilliant year from Lester, even if the ERA goes up a little.

Jake Arrieta started off 2016 incredibly the same way he ended 2015. In his first 15 starts he had a sub-2.00 ERA with three HR given up and a 11-2 record. However, Arrieta came crashing down after that, posting a 4.36 ERA with 13 HR given up and a 7-6 record. The righthander at stretches lost command, throwing at least three walks in six of those 16 final games. In fact, Arrieta’s walk total rose 37 percent to the tune of 3.5 per nine innings. His pitches have a lot of movement so it’s not surprising for him to walk a few batters, but too many times last year he just couldn’t find the strikezone. Hitter’s still swung and missed at his pitches 10.5 percent of the time, only down .06 from his historic 2015, so the stuff is still there. Although it’s looking more and more like his 2015 second half surge was a clear outlier, Arrieta is still a nasty pitcher with ace stuff. If he can cut down on his walks than he should have another excellent season.

Kyle Hendricks finally had his breakout season. The then-26-year-old posted career highs across the board and led the league in ERA and ERA+, finishing 3rd in the Cy Young for his efforts. Always a finesse pitcher, Hendricks baffled hitters with pinpoint control, giving up soft contact at the highest rate of anybody in the league while limiting hard contact at the 4th lowest rate in the majors. When you have that kind of combination you’re not going to give up many runs, and Hendricks did just that, allowing only 45 ER, tops in the majors and the only pitcher in the 40s. A big reason for his success has been his changeup, which has become one of the best individual pitches in the league.Screen Shot 2017-04-17 at 3.03.54 PM.png

Above are his pitch percent and AVG/P charts for his changeup, courtesy of Fangraphs. The righthander is effectively throwing his changeup at the bottom of the zone while yielding only six total hits on the season, good for a miniscule 0.018 BA. His changeup easily ranked No.1 in the league in wCH with over 21 runs above average. Hendricks is a good bet to maintain his control given that his walk rate is trending downwards, and even if his BABIP makes the almost-inevitable leap from his 4th-best .250 last season, he should once again induce soft contact at a high rate and avoid extra-base hits.

Brett Anderson is coming off an injury-riddled season and is penciled in as the Cubs’ No.4 starter to begin the season. An extreme groundball pitcher, Anderson ranked No.1 in the league in groundball percent in 2015, his last full season. He also was lowest in the league in flyball percent, though when hitters did get the ball in the air it went out for a home run 17 percent of the time, 3rd in the league. Anderson really couldn’t have landed in a better position, as the Cubs’ infield defense is among the very best and should allow him to settle into games. His 2015 BABIP of .310 is almost assured to go down as a result meaning that, health permitting, he should have a good chance to replicate Jason Hammel’s 2016 production this year. Given the circumstances, the Cubs’ couldn’t ask for more.

The starting staff is once again poised to be one of the best in the league. While they did enjoy one of the greatest defenses of all time last year, this year’s squad might be even better, meaning health is really the only concern Cubs’ fans should have surrounding this year’s starting pitching.

Our 2017 season predictions (combined): 72-45, 3.40 ERA, 890 K

 

*Image via Arturo Pardavila III

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