About 10 days ago, we checked in on how the Cubs starting rotation had been – up to that point – historically good. Not only did they have the best ERA in the league, they had the best ERA- (a normalized version of ERA that incorporates different years/hitting environments/etc) since 1900.
In order to determine how the Cubs’ staff was outperforming everyone’s expectations, we looked to Sahadev Sharma (The Athletic) and August Fagerstrom (FanGraphs) for answers. Their research indicated that the Cubs had found success in limiting baserunners, by limiting their opponents batting average (which was in turned caused by an unusually low BABIP). Although some of that BABIP was simply luck-based, the goof fortune was due – at least, in part – to the Cubs ability to induce weak contact.
Using FanGraphs batted ball data, we found that the Cubs were actually quite good at limiting hard contact. Now, by another measure, there’s even more support for that idea. And check out who’s number one:
Updated hard-hit rate leaderboard for pitchers. Find out where your favorites rank. Kyle Hendricks once again No. 1 pic.twitter.com/bW9V6xyirK
— Mark Simon (@msimonespn) June 27, 2016
As you can see, Mark Simon calculated the hard-hit rate leaderboard for the best pitchers in the category using a visual/discretion-based model. Although you might lean towards an objective measure of such a stat, I think that a scout’s touch could be particularly useful in this case, especially when that data is compared against the concrete numbers.
Anyhow, the approach may be different, but the results showed many similarities. Most notably, the Cubs have two of the top five pitchers in terms of hard hit balls allowed – Kyle Hendricks (1st) and Jake Arrieta (5th) – but also four of the top 18 with Jon Lester (8th) and John Lackey (18th) according to Simon. At FanGraphs, Arrieta (1st) leads the pack, with Kyle Hendricks (7th) and Jon Lester (22nd) not too far off from where they show up on Simon’s list.
The big difference between the data comes from Jason Hammel and John Lackey. At FanGraphs, it’s Hammel (26th) who follows Lester, and Lackey (62nd) who appears to be allowing more solid contact this season. Perhaps one dataset is off, or perhaps this means that all five of the Cubs starters are pretty good at limiting hard contact. We don’t really know for sure. But the one thing we do know is that the Cubs trio of Arrieta, Lester and Hendricks are among the very best in the baseball at preventing hard hit balls in play.
Given that two independent and very different tools point to the same conclusion about Cubs starting pitchers, the low BABIP figures (and thus batting averages, and thus baserunners and thus runs allowed) for the Cubs seems to be further justified. We’ll see if this is a trend that continues throughout the season, but so far, it looks like the Cubs starting pitching is legitimately and sustainably good.