“It’s a very talented group,” Joe Maddon told the Sun-Times about the projected five starting pitchers in his rotation this year. “We’ve had good ones, and I think this 1-through-5 has a chance to exceed what’s happened over the last three years.”
In other words, Joe Maddon believes that Yu Darvish, Jose Quintana, Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks, and Tyler Chatwood (in whatever order) have a chance to be his best rotation with the Cubs yet … and I think he’s probably right.
Of course, I don’t say that lightly. After all, those three rotations (2015-2017) feature three playoff-caliber staffs, one Cy Young winner (Jake Arrieta, 2015), two Cy Young finalists (Jon Lester and Kyle Hendricks, 2016) and an ERA leader (Hendricks, 2016). That’s not easy to beat.
But we don’t have to talk about it theoretically. Instead, let’s actually dig in to see where this group stands.
To start, let’s see how each rotation stacks up before the season started, by comparing the ZiPS projections for each year. Obviously, some players (especially Jake Arrieta) wind up outperforming their projections in certain years and others will feature different starters as the season goes on, but this will be at least one way to measure how things looked for the rotation at this point in those seasons.
Total Projected WAR: 12.4
- Jon Lester: 81 ERA-*, 4.6 WAR
- Kyle Hendricks: 93 ERA-, 2.7 WAR
- Jake Arrieta: 96 ERA-, 2.3 WAR
- Jason Hammel: 102 ERA-, 1.7 WAR
- Travis Wood: 113 ERA-, 1.1 WAR
*(ERA- is a stat that normalizes ERA to 100, and then each point above (bad) or below (good) is a percent better or worse than average. So an ERA- of 81 would be 19% better than average.)
Total Projected WAR: 17.5
- Jake Arrieta: 65 ERA-, 5.4 WAR
- Jon Lester: 76 ERA-, 4.6 WAR
- John Lackey: 85 ERA-, 3.4 WAR
- Kyle Hendricks: 92 ERA-, 2.5 WAR
- Jason Hammel: 100 ERA-, 1.6 WAR
Total Projected WAR: 16.8
- Jon Lester: 75 ERA-, 4.4 WAR
- Jake Arrieta: 73 ERA-, 4.4 WAR
- Kyle Hendricks: 78 ERA-, 3.8 WAR
- John Lackey: 85 ERA-, 3.1 WAR
- Mike Montgomery: 96 ERA-, 1.1 WAR
Total Projected WAR: 17.3
- Jose Quintana: 73 ERA-, 4.9 WAR
- Yu Darvish: 78 ERA-, 4.0 WAR
- Jon Lester: 81 ERA-, 3.5 WAR
- Kyle Hendricks: 80 ERA-, 3.2 WAR
- Tyler Chatwood: 97 ERA-, 1.7 WAR
So based on projections alone, it looks like the Cubs 2018 starting rotation figures to be about as good as the 2016 group, and better than the 2015 and 2017 iterations. Now, of course, the big, notable caveats are that in 2015, Jake Arrieta well outperformed his projections, and the same goes for Kyle Hendricks in 2016. Meanwhile, the Cubs’ 2017 rotation featured an equal number of starts from Mike Montgomery and Jose Quintana, as well as 11 other starts from Eddie Butler.
So to look at this another way, let’s just compare the total WAR contribution from the five starting pitchers who threw the most innings in each season (the “1-through-5”):
Combined Rotation WAR
2015: 18.4 WAR
2016: 17.3 WAR
2017: 10.1 WAR
Looking at it this way, the Cubs’ current rotation projects to be better than the 2017 version (by a lot), exactly as good as the 2016 version, and slightly worse than the 2015 version, which was anchored by huge performances out of Jake Arrieta (7.3 WAR) and Jon Lester (5.0 WAR). And given that projections are inherently conservative, I’d say that, based on these two looks, Joe Maddon was not wrong to suggest that his current group could certainly be better than any other starting five he’s had since his time with the Cubs.
Less statistically … it sure feels that way, doesn’t it?
Yu Darvish feels like an improvement over the 2016 and 2017 versions of Jake Arrieta (as well as the potential 2018 version). Jon Lester (performance) and Kyle Hendricks (health) both had off years on the mound last season and could be in store for a bounce back. Jose Quintana is a *clear* upgrade from any of the Cubs “fourth” starters over the years. And Tyler Chatwood not only projects to be about as good as a #5 as anyone else the Cubs have had their in recent years, but we also have plenty of reason to believe that he’s being undersold in his projections.
So, yeah, if you ask me, the Cubs’ current rotation looks as good before Opening Day as any in the last three years, and has a good chance to outperform each of those seasons, too.
Given that they’ve had one of the best staffs year-in-and-year-out during this run – in which they’ve reached the NLCS each year – that’s very good news.