If games were played only from inning two on, the Chicago Cubs would be just about unstoppable these days.
But, you know, the first inning counts.
And that’s the inning in which the Cubs have allowed a whopping 20 runs in their last 10 games, a stretch in which they’ve allowed 51 runs overall. Giving up 5.1 runs per game is bad enough, but when 40% of those runs came right out of the gate? I know these Cubs can comeback, but what a tall task to ask of the bats and the bullpen every single time out.
The issue, of course, has been the starting pitching.
I don’t want to totally ignore the isolated flukey stuff you could point to in a still relatively small sample (look at last night: Hanley Ramirez hits a nothing squibber that easily could have been an out to stem the bleeding long before it got out of hand, Jackie Bradley Jr.’s grounder after that was a perfectly-placed inning-ending double play that got through the shift).
But I also think it would be crazy to ignore, through nearly a month of action, the woeful overall performance by a starting pitching unit that was expected to be among the best in baseball.
The Cubs’ starter ERA (4.26) is 7th worst in the NL. Their FIP (4.26) is right in the middle of the pack, at 8th. Their xFIP (3.80) is actually 5th best, which would normally comfort you into saying “eh, they should get better results soon,” but given that xFIP does its magic by normalizing HR/FB rate, and given how much hard, fly ball contact the starters are giving up … I am not as ready to chalk it up to something that’ll straighten out on its own.
Of course, it’s weird to talk about a group of five individual pitchers, each dealing with his own issues, as a singular unit.
One, Brett Anderson, wasn’t on the Cubs last year, and essentially didn’t pitch in the big leagues after back surgery, so he was always going to be a lottery ticket. So far, his peripherals are not great, but his 3.54 ERA is actually best among the starting rotation. Go figure.
The other four, however, were among the best pitchers in the league for the Cubs last year. In the early going here, some things I notice at a casual glance, much of which point to a whole lot bad luck. I’m not ready to say that’s all we’re dealing with here – because we’ve all seen the command troubles and velocity issues – but it did take me aback a bit this morning to really consider some of these numbers.
- As for Jake Arrieta, his strikeout rate is up, his walk rate is way down, and, outside of a handful of poorly-located pitches early in his last two starts, has actually looked pretty good this year if you’re watching. It’s interesting that his HR/FB ratio is a whopping 21.4%, double his career mark. He’s also sporting a BABIP that’s 83 points higher than last year. Some of both of those things is that his hard contact rate is up this year. He’s also getting far, far fewer grounders so far this year (42.5%) than last year (52.6%) or the year before (56.2%). Anecdotally? I think Arrieta’s had trouble keeping the ball down, especially early in his starts.
- We dug into Jon Lester a couple days ago, after his latest rough start (which he felt was the best he’s thrown all year). There are definitely questions right now about his command and how many bats he’s missing, but, like Arrieta, he’s dealing with a BABIP that is 93(!) points higher than last year so far.
- John Lackey is another one that I could easily make the argument for bad luck in a small sample: his BABIP is up 22 points, his HR/FB ratio is over 20%, his LOB rate is a ridiculously low 62.5% (i.e., bad luck in sequence of hits), his groundball rate is up, and his strikeout rate and walk rate are nearly identical to last year. If you went just by the numbers, you’d say Lackey’s 4.88 ERA so far has been a total mirage. Do our eyes agree? I’m not sure. I feel like – much like with the other starters – he’s looked extremely hittable in the first inning or two of his starts (which is why he’s given up runs in every single first inning he’s pitched this year). Or has he just been unlucky? Remember those three first inning runs he gave up against the Cardinals in his debut? Remember how they followed a botched routine double play? Cut out the two not-really-earned runs from that one and his ERA drops all the way to 4.13. I have to keep reminding myself (and you) that the samples here are so small.
- Then there’s Kyle Hendricks, who feels like a unique animal, insofar as he really did have legit struggles in his first few starts, and the numbers aren’t going to tell you much that you don’t already know: he was simply getting hit too hard because he had no command and no velocity. But things started to “click” last time out, according to Hendricks. His numbers, overall, read like a pitcher who has not pitched all that well (4.50 ERA) and who has pretty much deserved those results (4.49 xFIP). On Hendricks, though, I’m just interested to see how the mechanical clicking improves his performance over the next couple months.
- It’s way too early to intelligently comment on overall team defense, but we know how intimately its performance is intertwined with BABIP, and thus pitcher results. In the aggregate, I could make an argument that these early numbers suggest the Cubs’ previously historic defense has been much less than that so far this year, but I’m reticent to go too far on that, because we need to see a whole lot more before we can get there.