The Cubs started the season carrying 13 pitchers and flirting with the idea of using super utility pitchers who had the ability to bridge the gap between starters and high leverage relievers. The plan was supposed to aid in the team’s management of its prized rotation arms.
Yet Cubs starting pitchers haven’t exactly played into that original vision, which is not an altogether bad thing. Indeed, the Cubs’ starting rotation is on pace to do something it hasn’t done since 2004, and has only happened twice since the turn of the century.
Cubs starters are on pace to throw more than 1,000 innings in 2016.
To be sure, whatever the plan for the bullpen and easing up on the starters, getting to 1,000 innings was always a perfect-world goal set by manager Joe Maddon prior to the season.
No Cubs rotation has pulled off such a feat since the 2003 and 2004 teams did it in consecutive years. Prior to that, no group of Cubs starters had thrown at least 1,000 innings since 1998. In fact, it has happened only five times in the last 30 years. As a point of comparison, the Cardinals have had starting rotations surpass 1,000 innings 1o times in the same span of years.
So far, the Cubs are tracking toward that 1,000-inning goal. Chris Bosio’s group finished April with the ninth most innings pitched in baseball (142.2), despite a pair of rainouts in the month’s final week.
Cubs starters have done a little bit of everything en route to a strong start. They have missed bats with a 24.5 percent strikeout rate, which ranked as the fourth best in April, while simultaneously keeping runners off the basepaths with a 6.6 percent walk rate, which ranked eighth.
Further, Cubs starters have found themselves quite fortunate by churning out an 81.1 percent strand rate, which trails only the Rangers (85.3 LOB%) as the best in baseball. Opposing hitters have also had the least amount of luck against the Cubs when they do put the ball in play, evidenced by a .258 BABIP.
Of course, that’s not entirely the product of luck because opposing hitters aren’t hitting the ball too hard.
Baseball’s most efficient pitch in 2015 was the slider, and that seems to have carried over to start the 2016 season. But who would have guessed that PITCHf/x’s pitch value would have graded out Jason Hammel’s slider as the best among starting pitchers in April?
Hammel’s slider was worth 5.8 runs. And on a per 100-pitch basis, Hammel’s slider ranks fifth (5.50) behind the Phillies’ tandem of Vincent Velasquez (9.78) and Jerad Eickhoff (7.02), Mets ace Noah Syndergaard (5.78) and injured Indians front-line starter Carlos Carrasco (5.71).
While Jon Lester pitched to his best April ever and Jake Arrieta grabbed headlines with a no-hitter and continued regular season dominance, it will take a group effort for the Cubs to reach their goal of throwing 1,000 innings. Hammel has looked sharp early and Kyle Hendricks has pitched solidly as the fifth starter. John Lackey owns a 4.32 ERA in five starts, but has pitched to a 3.29 FIP and 3.37 xFIP that suggests he could be in for a slight progression toward the mean (then again: he sports a robust 40.6 percent hard-hit rate right now).
It will be interesting to see how this group follows April’s performance in May, and how Joe Maddon continues to manage his pitching staff.