The Cubs Playoff Rotation: Who Goes When?

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The Cubs Playoff Rotation: Who Goes When?

Chicago Cubs

I believe I can make a legitimate argument for all four of the Chicago Cubs’ presumed postseason starters – Jake Arrieta, Kyle Hendricks, Jon Lester, Jose Quintana – to go in any order in the National League Division Series against the Washington Nationals.

Indeed, at the highest level, there’s an interesting angle for each: Jon Lester and Jake Arrieta have the most experience and are the classically-considered “aces” of the staff. At the same time, both have dealt with injury and/or ineffectiveness over the past month.

Kyle Hendricks and Jose Quintana, on the other hand, lack the experience (either career (Hendricks) or playoff Quintana)) and narrative stuff of the first two starters, but have inarguably been pitching the best in this most recent stretch of the season.

There’s almost no formulation of the Cubs’ playoff rotation that would shock me at this point.

I’m going to try my best to land somewhere concrete-ish, though. And to get there, I’m going to take a closer look at a variety of factors that could play into the decision on how to line up the Cubs’ starters in the NLDS.

Let’s begin by considering player splits, as well as some of the most crucial match-ups in the series, using the Nationals’ most impactful four offensive players.

The Nationals’ top four hitters (minimum 400 PAs) are:

  1. Bryce Harper: .324/.418/.608 (.422 wOBA)
  2. Anthony Rendon: .299/.400/.529 (.391 wOBA)
  3. Daniel Murphy: .316/.380/.543 (.382 wOBA)
  4. Ryan Zimmerman: .296/.350/.553 (.377 wOBA)

Things are already a little tricky. Two of Nationals top four hitters are lefties and two are righties. Similarly, two of the Cubs top four starters are lefties and two are righties. To make things as uncomfortable (and annoying) as possible, none of those eight players have reverse splits this season:

Jose Quintana and Jon Lester are both better against lefties than they are righties (with a huge right-handed advantage to Quintana). On the flip side, Jake Arrieta and Kyle Hendricks are both better against righties than they are lefties, with a huge left-handed advantage to Hendricks.

Then there are the Nationals:

Well, geez.

The lowest wOBA on the board for any hitter is Harper’s .340 mark against lefties. That’s … sigh. That’s still really strong. But, still, Rendon and Zimmerman both struggle more against righties than they do lefties, while Harper and Murphy are both worse against southpaws.

Had literally any of the above players shown a reverse split, we could at least say that there’s an advantage to be gained (or a  disadvantage to be avoided) by front-loading the lefties/righties and/or one of the Cubs starters. Instead, we’re basically still at square one.

So, how about previous match-ups:

These are obviously far from significant sample sizes, but in the past … Kyle Hendricks has been Rendon’s worst match-up, Arrieta has been the toughest against Harper, Lester and Arrieta have both kept Murphy in check, and Arrieta and Hendricks have been the toughest on Zimmerman.

Jose Quintana has not faced any of these batters (which is probably a good thing), and given his splits, you have to imagine that he’d be plenty tough on Harper and Murphy. So this is how you could frame the toughest two matches for the Nationals hitters:

Anthony Rendon: Lester/Hendricks
Bryce Harper: Quintana/Arrieta
Daniel Murphy: Arrieta/Quintana
Ryan Zimmermann: Arrieta/Hendricks

When you consider both the pitcher/hitter splits and the past history of all eight players, a few trends emerge. First, Arrieta seems to be the best bet against two of the four and could be the Cubs’ second best chance against Harper, after Quintana.

After that, Hendricks and Quintana probably offer the best overall matchups based on splits and history, followed by Lester who is not looking like the strongest starter of the bunch, though he flashed positive signs last time out. If you were so inclined to 1) switch between your lefties and righties (so the Nationals don’t get comfortable from one side or the other) and 2) stop right here, you might consider the following rotational order sufficient for the five-game NLDS:

  1. Game 1: Jake Arrieta (RHP)
  2. Game 2: Jose Quintana (LHP)
  3. Game 3: Kyle Hendricks (RHP)
  4. Game 4: Jon Lester (LHP)
  5. Game 5: Jake Arrieta (RHP)

But before we make a decision, let’s consider one final thing: recent performance.

(Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images)

Here are the Cubs starters’ stats in the month of September:

By this measure, your top two pitchers are Jose Quintana and Kyle Hendricks, though we already knew they’d been pitching the best lately. However, there’s a lot more context to this. For one, Arrieta was the National League Pitcher of the Month in August and his stats above are from just three starts: 1) the one he left because of his injury, 2) his first start back, which was solid, and 3) his most recent start, which was less solid and a bit concerning.

Similarly, Jon Lester’s numbers look awful, but his last start was quite good: 6.0 IP, 5H, 1ER, 2BB, 4Ks.

Let’s look at the Nationals hitters’ performances in September:

Like the recent pitching performances, we can’t take too much away from 1) such a small sample, and 2) just these stats, but a few interesting things do emerge. For one, Zimmerman has been striking out a lot more lately and has been walking very little.

Given that he struggles more so against righties and has had his issues with Hendricks and Arrieta in the past, that’s good news. Similarly, Harper has only played in two games since he’s been back from the knee injury, and I genuinely don’t know what we should expect from a guy returning from a knee injury (even one as good as Harper). Rendon has not been striking out and he has been walking, but his wOBA is a bit more manageable. And finally, Murphy has been somewhat of a beast lately.

So, where does that leave us?

Well, let’s briefly recap how the rotation would shake out based on some of our criteria:

  1. Righty/Lefty splits: Neutral
  2. Previous Matchups: Arrieta, Quintana, Hendricks, Lester
  3. Recent Performance: Quintana, Hendricks, Arrieta, Lester

Since I believe the Cubs will want to alternate between lefties and righties in the series (pending reasonability, of course), here are my two guesses at how the Cubs’ NLDS rotation shakes out (in order):

  1. Jake Arrieta, Jose Quintana, Kyle Hendricks, Jon Lester
  2. Jose Quintana, Jake Arrieta, Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks

I think the relative positions of Arrieta and Lester both could depend A GREAT DEAL on their final starts of the year at this point. Unfortunately, absent an absolute gem from Lester, I’m not sure he should be starting before Game 3. Similarly, if Arrieta bounces back and throws a nice, long outing, good money says he’ll be your game one starter (especially because it would come on normal rest).

If either of those two are less convincing than pretty darn convincing in their final start, however, I can see the Cubs handing the ball to Quintana in Game One. Moreover, if Arrieta’s hamstring requires a few extra days of rest, it could be Kyle Hendricks getting that Game Two start.

What do you think?

[Brett: I think this all basically aligns with how I’d be thinking about these issues, too. The only part that I’d want to add is the possibility that, because he’s been so hot, and because he was very trustworthy for them in the playoffs last year, there’s a legitimate chance that Hendricks gets the Game One nod. I wouldn’t *guess* that as I sit here today, but if Arrieta needs the extra days, and if Lester is still working things out, I could see the Cubs going Hendricks-Quintana. In that situation, I’d still probably give it to Quintana, myself, but I’m just saying. I could see it. That’s how close all of this is.]

Author: Michael Cerami

Michael Cerami covers the Chicago Cubs, Bears, and Bulls at Bleacher Nation. You can find him on Twitter @Michael_Cerami