Recently, we took a look at the biggest projects new Cubs hitting coach Chili Davis has on his plate for 2018, and determined that keeping Kyle Schwarber on track with his second half bounce-back and returning Jason Heyward to form must be at the top of his list. Even then, you could probably find several other critical areas where there are clear paths for improvement.
Well, the new Cubs pitching coach, Jim Hickey, probably has a list of things to work on this Spring, too, but … he might have a little less trouble.
“I think one through five, it may be as deep as any staff that I’ve had,” Hickey told Vinnie Duber of NBC Sports Chicago. “Really tough to say. I’ll give you a better idea after the season’s over, but one through five, it’s really, really good.”
Obviously, I’m joking a little bit – maintaining (let alone improving) a Major League pitching staff is no easy task, no matter how good they are – but I found it interesting that Hickey would make such a claim. It’s not that I don’t think the Cubs 1-5 could stand up against whatever Hickey’s had in the past (and is right up there with any rotation the Cubs have had in the last 14 years), it’s just that I know, at a minimum, he’s led staffs with David Price, James Shields, Chris Archer, and other extremely talented pitchers in their prime.
So, setting aside the fun of it … let’s see if Hickey could be right.
First, it’s fair to point out, as Hickey mentions, that we won’t really know how good this Cubs rotation is until the end of the year, but we do already know that it’s arguably the best Joe Maddon has had since his time in Chicago.
Cubs Rotation WAR
2015: 18.4 WAR
2016: 17.3 WAR
2017: 10.1 WAR
2018: Projected 17.3 WAR
The current staff is projected to be as good as the 2016 rotation was and is projected to be better than the 2015 was projected to be at the beginning of the year (i.e. before Jake Arrieta posted *literally* the best half-season of pitching in the history of the game), so there’s at least an argument to be made that’s clearly very, very good. But is it better than anything Hickey’s ever had? Well …
In 2004, Hickey took over as the Astros pitching coach mid-season for a staff led by Roy Oswalt (6.5 WAR) and Roger Clemens (5.7 WAR), but despite that terrifying 1-2 punch, no one else in the rest of the rotation made over 20 starts that year.
In 2005, the front-end of Hickey’s rotation was EVEN SCARIER than it was in 2004, with Oswalt (6.1 WAR) and Clemens (6.0 WAR) both topping six wins above replacement, and Andy Pettitte (5.8 WAR) having the second best season of his career. But again, despite the front-end strength, the fourth and fifth starter (Brandon Backe and Wandy Rodriguez) combined for just 1.5 WAR that season. [Brett: My word, I’d forgotten how dominant those rotations were.]
Overall, that rotation might be better than what the Cubs seem to have right now (especially given the strength at the front), but the back-end of the Cubs rotation is clearly superior, and the front end has at least a chance to match that three-headed monster out of Houston.
In the offseason before 2006, Hickey became the Rays’ pitching coach, and he was there for 12 seasons (before coming to Chicago this winter). During those 12 years, his 2012 rotation stood out above the rest:
James Shields: 33 starts, 4.2 WAR
David Price: 31 starts, 5.0 WAR
Matt Moore: 31 starts, 2.7 WAR
Jeremy Hellickson: 31 starts, 1.2 WAR
Alex Cobb: 23 starts, 2.2 WAR
That still probably doesn’t stack up against the 2005 Astros group, even if there was clearly tons of promise lurking near the back end with Alex Cobb, and some over-performance by Hellickson. And in case you’re wondering, Chris Archer did make his debut that season and did fairly well (3.40 FIP), but just didn’t have enough starts (4) to tip the scales (0.5 WAR). Had he debuted a season earlier, or Shields stuck around for another year, the rotation might’ve had a chance to rival any of Hickey’s at the time, but as it stands, it looks like everything he had in Tampa Bay comes up just short of expectations for the Cubs this season.
So in the end … yeah. It’s possible that a pitching coach with nearly 15 years of experience, and time with some of the greatest pitchers of this generation, is in store for his best 1-5 yet. And, as you can imagine, that gets him very excited: “[I’ve] had some very, very good staffs, obviously, in years past. But these five guys … I think they will be a championship-caliber club.”
If you’d like to read much more from Hickey, including his thoughts on the bullpen and his goal to finish the season with the fewest walks in the league, head over to NBC Sports Chicago.