Although the Cubs’ recent – until the last two days – stretch of offensive-less baseball may have helped flip a season-long narrative, the majority of our stress this year has certainly been rooted in the starting rotation.
From the beginning of the season up until the trade deadline (July 31st), the Chicago Cubs starting rotation was in the middle of the pack in ERA (4.17, 16th) and among the bottom ten in wOBA allowed (.324, 22nd) and FIP (4.75, 25th). They were also routinely exiting the game very early, leaning heavily a bullpen that has been great all year, but is also now sometimes looking gassed. For a team with playoff aspirations, that was not going to cut it. So, the front office went out and added Cole Hamels from the Rangers, and he’s obviously made an immediate and direct impact ever since.
Specifically, since joining the Cubs rotation, Cole Hamels has made nine starts and they’ve pretty much all been good: 1.57 ERA, 3.12 FIP; 2.89 K/BB. But the impact of his addition doesn’t end with the box score of each start – it can be much broader than that, even if it’s slightly indirect. Joe Maddon put it this way (Cubs.com): “We were just five [innings] or less with a lot of guys. Of course, Cole getting here has kind of righted the ship. What he’s done has kind of inspired the rest of the group.”
Is that correct to say? Maddon’s thoughts certainly feel true, but there’s always the risk of bias, recency or otherwise, when you make a claim like that. So I decided to a little investigating. And I have to say, I’m relatively pleased by what I found – so long as you take this only for what’s worth.
For the purposes of today, I’m going to limit the “rotation” to Hamels, Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks, and Jose Quintana. Tyler Chatwood and Mike Montgomery, among several others, both snuck starts in here or there, of course, but the former four guys are the rotation mainstays and have a full set of data both before and after the cutoff of Hamels’ arrival (August 1).
Before Hamels joined the team, Jon Lester made 22 starts for the Cubs, managed roughly 5.2 IP/start, lasted 6.0 innings or more 54.55% of the time, and averaged a game score of 51. After Hamels, Lester continued to average 5.2 IP/start, but lasted 6.0 innings or more 50% of the time and has had a slightly worse overall average game score (49). So technically, we’re off to a bad start.
Lester didn’t see much of an improvement by the mere presence of Hamels, and you can almost say he got worse.
… of course, that’s entirely misleading.
Lester’s second start after Hamels arrived (August 11th) was his worst of the year. In fact, it was one of those egregiously bad starts that, in a small sample like this, can completely screw up the numbers. In case you forgot just how bad it was, Lester allowed 8 earned runs in 3.2 IP against the Brewers for a game score of negative 2! I’m not saying you should just throw that game out, you can’t, but with just average (or even slightly below average) results in this one, Lester would’ve improved across the board after Cole Hamels arrived. And, of course, no one who’s been watching hasn’t realized that Lester is undoubtedly better right now than he was during a down midseason stretch – and, in my opinion, he is also pitching better than the start of the season that earned him a trip to his fifth all-star game. [Brett: very much agreed.]
But maybe Lester wasn’t the best example anyway. He comes with too many considerations (he’s a veteran, he’s a 2018 All-Star, he had that bad start right after Hamels arrived) to land anywhere too concrete.
Kyle Hendricks, on the other hand, presents a very different case. Before Hamels joined the Cubs, Hendricks made 22 starts, 10 of which lasted 6.0 innings or more (45.5%). He averaged 5.2 IP and a game score of 50 per start before August 1st. After Hamels, however, Hendricks has made 9 starts, 6 of which have been 6.0 innings or longer (66.7%). He’s also now averaging nearly 6.1 innings per start and a game score of 59! That’s improvement across the board, and he isn’t alone.
Jose Quintana, who may have actually been his usual self for a while now, lasted 6.0 innings or more in 10 of the 20 starts (50%) he made before Hamels’ arrival and was lasting an average of 5.1 IP per start with a 47 game score average in each. Since August 1st, however, Quintana has lasted at least 6.0 innings in 5 of his 9 starts (55.6%), while averaging roughly 5.2 IP per start with a 54 game score.
So that means Hendricks and Quintana each improved across the board, while Lester, who comes with some important distinctions stayed more or less consistent (and that’s including the terrible start against Milwaukee):
Now don’t get me wrong: this isn’t all on Cole Hamels. The Cubs starters might not be lasting longer and pitching better solely – or even largely – because of him. They might be lasting longer, because they’re pitching better. Or perhaps Maddon has simply given them each a longer leash after they all failed to extend their starts in the first half. Or maybe the periodic issues in the bullpen have forced the manager’s hand. Or maybe these are just really good pitchers who were probably going to right the ship at some point anyway. Or maybe, or maybe, or maybe.
There are hundred different ways we can explain this seemingly sudden change, but all that really matters *right now* is that it appears to be very real. So credit Hamels for setting the tone or not, but this is a version of the Cubs starting staff I can get behind. And hopefully one the team can ride through the playoffs and deep into October.
Oh, and hopefully Hamels, himself, keeps on dominating, including tonight against the Diamondbacks, as the Cubs go for the sweep.