Every World Series champion has their fair share of luck. The 2017 Astros found themselves at the brink against the Yankees, but won the toss-up ALCS Game Seven last October. The 2016 Cubs were no different, looking as close to defeat as one can get, before a rainstorm gave the team time to regroup and snatch victory in their own winner-take-all Game Seven.
Going into 2016, on paper, the Cubs had a solid, although not stellar rotation. With no true ‘number one’ akin to a Clayton Kershaw, Madison Bumgarner, or Max Scherzer, the Cubs were a step behind their National League competitors from at least one perspective. Having four of their five starting pitchers on the ‘wrong side of thirty’, including a 37-year-old John Lackey, didn’t help much either.
Ultimately, we know how the story ends, but looking at the journey of their starting rotation, we see the foundation of a strong team that brought consistency and durability that complemented an impressive lineup. In total, the Cubs used only six starters for multiple games in 2016: the five players listed below go the lion’s share of starts, with Mike Montgomery being the only other multiple start pitcher; even Montgomery only started five games. In total, only 10 games were not started by the Cubs five-man rotation, which is a testament to consistency and player health.
Most, if not all, would agree that John Lester and Jake Arrieta were passed the primes of their career entering that season (if only slightly), yet both were effective, posting 4.4 and 3.8 wins above replacement, respectively. Lester led the team in RA9 and pitched over 200 strong innings. Arrieta was as reliable and the two pitchers combined into a nice tandem throughout the year.
The biggest surprise for the Cubs was Kyle Hendricks, who exceeded expectations in only his second full year in the big leagues. John Lackey managed to post a 3.1 fWAR despite relying mostly on one pitch, rounding out a productive five-man rotation.
Looking towards 2018, we can identify some similarities in these two groups who lack a true number one starter, but have decent depth and potential. Inserting Yu Darvish into the rotation is a huge upgrade for a team that previously had both Tyler Chatwood and Mike Montgomery penciled in at the back-end of the rotation. Montgomery is a fine backup, but Darvish’s presence allows much more flexibility and gives the team considerably more upside. Darvish replacing him in the rotation is a huge improvement.
Looking at the Steamer projects for 2018, this group is projected for about 90 fewer innings than the 2016 squad accumulated, despite the 2016 rotation having an average age 18 months older this year’s rotation. Overall value is fairly close, considering the 2016 group put up a combined 20.76 wins, compared to a projected 19.44. All in all, it’s pretty close.
2018 Steamer Projections
Jose Quintana has turned into a special player, and entering his age-29 season, Steamer expects him to improve from last year’s performance, but is conservatively not projecting the 4.7-5.1 yearly upside he demonstrated from 2014 to 2016. Looking at Quintana’s 2017, we see a player whose strand-rate reduced nearly eight percentage points, and who suffered from a considerable increase in his home run / fly ball rate (career average 9.4 percent, 2017 13.2 percent).
2016 was a roller-coaster ride for the Cubs, but the rotation was reliable and prevented long losing streaks (they only had one such streak, when they lost five consecutive games in mid-July). The consistency in both durability and performance from the rotation kept the team moving forward and winning.
Entering this season, Lester is of course, two years older and Darvish is not-too-far removed from Tommy John surgery, raising the risk profile for the entire rotation, however, if the top four pitchers for the Cubs can stay healthy, this team has another shot at the World Series, even without a true ‘ace’.