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Can the Cubs win with a soft tossing rotation?

At the de facto end of their World Series window, the Chicago Cubs are deploying a rotation that relies less on velocity and more on command. Can it work in the grand scheme of things?

MLB: San Francisco Giants at Chicago Cubs Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Baseball fans love and appreciate velocity. Whether the ball is coming out of a pitcher’s hand, off of a bat, or from the arm of an outfielder tossing a seed to nail a runner at home, we crave velocity almost to a fault. It’s become something of a general narrative that you have to have velocity, whether on the bump or in the box, in order to be successful. So it is perhaps an unfortunate thing that the Chicago Cubs’ 2021 rotation doesn’t promise to offer much in the way of velocity.

The Cubs enter the 2021 season in the twilight of their contention window. Three of their most prominent players—Anthony Rizzo, Javier Báez, and Kris Bryant—will hit free agency after the season. Willson Contreras will follow a year later. Rumors of extension talks have been pretty mild. As such, it’s something of a surprise that the team has elected to roll with the starting five that they will to start the year, given the rapid closing of said window.

That’s not to say that Kyle Hendricks, Jake Arrieta, Zach Davies, Trevor Williams, and Adbert Alzolay are a bad group. Or that Alec Mills isn’t a suitable swingman who will get the occasional piggyback appearance. But in terms of excitement or intrigue, there isn’t a whole lot to go around. Not after trading Cy Young runner-up in a move purely motivated by payroll, anyway. Outside of Hendricks, who does it in a very different way, there isn’t a genuine gamebreaker who can take over a game up on the bump. The overarching question here, as a result, is can the Cubs win with their rotation in its current state?

The following represents the Cubs’ starting rotation (including Mills) and their average fastball velocity in 2019 and 2020, according to FanGraphs:

  • Kyle Hendricks: 87.2
  • Jake Arrieta: 92.3
  • Zach Davies: 88.6
  • Trevor Williams: 91.3
  • Adbert Alzolay: 94.6
  • Alec Mills: 89.9

Now obviously looking purely at velocity doesn’t provide you with the entire picture. None of these guys rely on strict fastball usage, but rather movement and location. So let’s lend a little context.

And we can start with Kyle Hendricks, who is likely the most underappreciated starter in Major League Baseball. He only throws a four-seam fastball 20 percent of the time, instead choosing to focus on a sinker (34.4 percent) and changeup (28.9 percent), with the occasional curve (16.6 percent). That curveball usage was actually a fairly significant increase from his career norm, but proved to be a mighty effective addition. As unexciting as it can be to watch a soft-tossing pitcher, Hendricks takes the form and raises it into genuine art.

In four of the last five years, Hendricks has ranked in the top 10 percent of the league in average exit velocity against. He generated whiffs on the change at a 29.7 percent and the curve at a 30.3 percent clip in 2020. His career groundball rate is 47.5 percent. He’s posted a BB/9 under two in each of the last three seasons and in four of his seven seasons overall. In short, there isn’t anything to worry about with the way Hendricks throws. He’s been regularly dubbed as Greg Maddux-esque, and while I’m generally against attaching a current player to a Hall of Fame level player, there’s plenty of support for this one. Hendricks is an ace, no matter your definition. He just goes about it a little differently.

If Kyle Hendricks is a disciple of Maddux, then Davies is the next generation descended. A middling starter for most of his time in Milwaukee, Davies has seen his changeup usage leap exponentially (41.3 percent in 2020), deploying it with a sinker (42.2 percent) for a combination that led him to great success last year. Now, Davies doesn’t induce the groundballs or have the command that Hendricks has, but he does manage to evade hard contact. He’s sort of a Dr. Thunder to Hendricks’ Dr. Pepper. A similar skill set is there, though, even if it’s not as nuanced as The Professor.

And then you get to Alec Mills. Sinker heavy (33.2 percent), with four additional pitches that he mixes in there. Similar story to the former two. Avoids hard contact, though to a lesser extent than Hendricks or Davies, doesn’t walk a ton, and gets the groundball contact. He’s the third tier in the soft-tossers-that-can-get-you-through-a-ballgame.

That’s three extremely similar makeups, with one who has managed to harness every single thing you need to do with that skill set and spin it into frontline startership. When you get to the other names in the pecking order, Jake Arrieta and Trevor Williams, you’re not looking at the same thing, even if you are looking at the thematic low velocity.

Arrieta’s case is entirely different. Formerly a power arm, age has taken its toll. While he still posts high spin rates with the curve, virtually everything Arrieta was able to do from, like 2014 to 2016 is now but a distant memory. His strikeout rate ranks in the 13th percentile and his Whiff% is in the sixth. And while he doesn’t prevent hard contact to an astounding extent (38th percentile), he does get the ball on the ground a ton, with the highest rate of the Cubs’ starters over the past three seasons (average of 51.6 percent). Being cognizant of the need to change the way he pitches will certainly help, but he’s yet another that will have to rely on command and defense in order to be successful. So we’re 4-for-4 in that regard.

Trevor Williams is perhaps the biggest wild card of the bunch, but many similar overarching trends remain. Low strikeout numbers (25th percentile; career K/9 of 7.00) and decent at avoiding hard contact (70th percentile in exit velocity). One main issue with Williams is that while he isn’t missing a lot of bats, he also isn’t getting a ton of movement on his pitches. High contact and low whiffs, along with a groundball rate of just 40.9 percent over the last two seasons, culminated in an ERA over six last year and five the year before. His HR/FB ratio sat at 19.4 percent. He may be the one arm the Cubs’ defense can’t save. Maybe his usage changes and he relies less on a fastball that creeps up in the zone in favor of more secondary stuff.

In terms of “stuff,” Adbert Alzolay is likely the only one in this rotation that has it. Alzolay brings much more strikeout potential, especially since the addition of a slider, but also doesn’t have the command that the other names here bring to the mix. While Statcast data is relatively limited given his brief big league experience, Alzolay had a .184 xBA against, which put him in the top 10 percent of the league in 2020. He brings much more upside, much more velocity, and potentially much more overall success and intrigue than 80 percent of the other five arms. However, there’s also the potential for him to be more limited, get a quick hook and a piggyback, or spend some time in the bullpen, given his lack of overall experience. Regardless, his upside makes him the clear outlier here.

So there’s the context. Long story short: low velo, low exit velocity, mixed bag on groundballs. It’s a rotation that can work with the right pieces behind them, because logic says that if you’re going to roll out a rotation like that, you have to have the defensive infrastructure to support them. Which goes back to our original question as to whether or not the Cubs can be successful with this group.

The simple answer is yes. While they haven’t been able to replicate their historically good defensive season of 2016, the Cubs have consistently been a very good team in the field over the past few seasons. FanGraphs’ Def rating has them as the sixth-best team in the league over the past three seasons, with a mark of 54.1. Their 145 Defensive Runs Saved are the fourth most over that time, while their team UZR (46.1) ranks sixth. Individual accolades have gone to Rizzo, Báez, and Jason Heyward in recent years. Kris Bryant is adequate at third. Ian Happ has made strides in center. Questions remain about Joc Pederson and David Bote on the defensive side, but ultimately the numbers show that the Cubs regularly have the defensive chops to support this rotation.

It’s also important to note the importance of a competent defensive catcher within the context of a rotation relying on location and movement, rather than velocity. As of 2020, the Cubs also have that in the form of Willson Contreras. He made massive leaps in his defensive skill heading into last year. His Catcher Defensive Adjustment, at 2.9, ranked ninth in the league. He ranked 17th in Called Strikes Above Average (.008). His dedication to his craft will prove even more important, but given that he already possessed the arm and awareness to control the run game, the importance of developing his ability to effectively frame pitches cannot be overstated.

Of course, there are also questions as to whether the Cubs have enough consistency at the plate to support their soft-tossing staff on their bad days. But when you look at this type of staff in a vacuum, you want an effective framer behind the plate and a defense behind them that they can rely on, rather than trying to rely on punchouts. So while there isn’t anything remotely exciting about the way this staff will go about their 2021 (other than the art of Kyle Hendricks and the development of Adbert Alzolay), there isn’t any question as to whether or not the Cubs can win with this rotation as is.

***Percentile numbers via Baseball Savant

Randy Holt is a contributing writer for Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter @RandallPnkFloyd.