At around this time every year, the various pre-season projections are released for every player and team in MLB.
Among the most anticipated, you’ll find the recently released Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA projections.
Already, Brett’s taken a look at the Cubs’ relative position (according to PECOTA) throughout the league, and I dove into the outlook of the eleven key positional contributors in 2017.
So for today, let’s examine how well a handful of the most prominent Cubs pitchers (including starters and relievers) project to perform in 2017. The full PECOTA projections offer quite a bit more on each player, so you’ll want to subscribe to BP for the whole kit and caboodle.
But before we get started, I want to remind everyone of the two important lessons from our first discussion. One, projections are inherently conservative and that goes double for PECOTA. If your favorite player is projected to do worse than last year for seemingly no reason, it’s likely because the most likely projected outcome in 2017 isn’t necessarily going to match reality. Players over and under-achieve yearly. Projecting for that is not the goal.
And second, the relative positioning of players (vis a vis their projections) is often a better way to measure how well someone will perform. Willson Contreras’ 2.2 WARP may not look too impressive at first, but when you consider that Anthony Rizzo is projected for just 4.1 WARP, that number looks a bit stronger.
With that re-stated, let’s move onto the PECOTA projections for Cubs pitchers, beginning with the starters.
- Jon Lester (203 IP): 3.53 ERA; 209 Ks, 60 BBs; 3.2 WARP
- Jake Arrieta (201 IP): 3.59 ERA; 204 Ks, 73 BBs, 3.0 WARP
- Kyle Hendricks (171 IP): 3.76 ERA; 152 Ks, 50 BBs; 2.2 WARP
- John Lackey (194 IP): 4.03 ERA; 179 Ks, 62 BBs; 1.8 WARP
- Mike Montgomery (118 IP): 4.18 ERA; 96 Ks, 46 BBs; 0.9 WARP
- Brett Anderson (58 IP): 4.40 ERA; 42 Ks, 19 BBs; 0.3 WARP
I think it’s safe to assume that the projections for Jon Lester, Jake Arrieta, and Kyle Hendricks are going to be received as “light” by most Cubs fans, and I don’t think I can blame anyone. Indeed, the most discouraging projection above, in my opinion, is the 171 innings pitched for Hendricks.
His ability to reach or exceed the arbitrary 200 inning threshold has come into question in recent years, but he tossed 180 innings in his first full professional season and another 190 innings last year, en route to finishing in the top three of NL Cy Young award voting. His ERA notwithstanding, you should hope (and dare I say expect) to get much more out of Hendricks next year.
Similarly, I expect each of Jon Lester and Jake Arrieta to get (at least) slightly better results than those listed above. In fact, given the potential for the Cubs’ positional crew to be even better than their historically good defense last year, each of the ERAs listed above have the potential to improve during the season.
And a final note on the starters: while PECOTA is projecting Arrieta to strike out more batters in 2017 (204 Ks) than he did in 2016 (190), it isn’t projecting much improvement in the walk department (76 walks last year, 73 walks projected for 2017).
Let’s move on to the relievers.
The Cubs bullpen has more than a few new faces in 2017, so be sure to check out Baseball Prospectus for the full slate of relief projections. For today, I’m going to stick with the player that figure to contribute the most.
- Wade Davis (53 IP): 3.06 ERA; 65 Ks, 20 BBs; 0.9 WARP
- Koji Uehara (40 IP): 3.34 ERA; 47 Ks, 12 BBs, 0.5 WARP
- Hector Rondon (53 IP): 3.87 ERA; 54 Ks, 16 BBs; 0.4 WARP
- Pedro Strop (44 IP): 3.42 ERA; 52 Ks, 18 BBs; 0.6 WARP
- Justin Grimm (49 IP): 3.38 ERA; 53 Ks, 21 BBs; 0.6 WARP
- Carl Edwards Jr. (49 IP): 3.48 ERA; 53 Ks, 23 BBs; 0.6 WARP
Wade Davis is expected to be the best of the Cubs’ relievers, which is what you’d want to see from the team’s closer (whom the Cubs paid a steep price to acquire). His 3.06 ERA leads the Cubs, but would also represent a 1.19 ERA jump over his previous high (since becoming a full-time reliever in 2014) of … 1.87 ERA. So again, I think you can expect much more from him than that. Even still, if the Cubs manage to get 53 healthy and productive innings out of Davis this year, they’re going to be thrilled with the trade.
Similarly, the Cubs other, new back-end reliever, Koji Uehera, is projected to be dominant once again (relatively), but will make it to just 40 innings before the season is over. Even still, given all of their options in the bullpen and his two disabled list stints last season, the Cubs will probably be happy to pay $6 million for that type of performance (so long as he’s ready to go in the postseason).
Other than that, the projections seem to think each of Carl Edwards and Justin Grimm are basically the same pitcher (in a good way), while Hector Rondon and Pedro Strop – the Cubs former 1-2 punch at the back of the bullpen – are projected to have solid seasons overall, but far from their most dominant.
Both dealt with injuries and ineffectiveness at the end of last season, so some questions are reasonable. Rondon will be next pitching in the World Baseball Classic.
In the end, the Cubs pitching staff as a whole figures to be a strength in 2017, as it was from 2014-2016. The Cubs’ group of position players may get the majority of the publicity, but Chicago has quietly fielded an A+ rotation for three years running.