Forgive me being overwrought, but it’s impossible not to think this way when I start talking about baseball: We’re teetering on the edge of a cliff. In the cavern below us, the threat of another 40+ week hiatus from meaningful big league baseball and the ever-present threat of COVID-19. On safe ground behind us, the start of this ridiculous, unfamiliar, 60-game, 2020 championship season with new rules, digital fans, and an entirely new postseason structure. I have no idea which way this vehicle will tip, but through the first five games of the season, it’s been nothing short of exhilarating – especially for Cubs fans.
On offense, the Cubs have hit a combined 10 home runs so far, leading the National League and tied for the most in MLB. In the bullpen, there’s been almost *nothing* but heart pumping innings, dangling holds, saves, and wins by a thread. And in the rotation, the Cubs have roundly dominated, from Kyle Hendricks’ complete game shutout, to Jon Lester leaving his first start with a no-hitter, to Tyler Chatwood flashing what has always made him special, to Alec Mills’ impressive and meaningful debut. With the exception of Yu Darvish, for whom I am FAR from worried, the Cubs first trip through the rotation was wildly successful.
In fact, it was historic:
Per Cubs, via historian Ed Hartig, the 14 hits allowed by the Cubs' rotation is the fewest in the first five games of a season for the franchise since at least 1901.
— Jordan Bastian (@MLBastian) July 29, 2020
Altogether, the Cubs starting pitchers have thrown 30 innings through their first trip through the rotation, with 14 hits, 6 runs, 5 walks, 26 strikeouts and just one home run surrendered. That’s good for an average of 6.0 innings per start, a 1.80 ERA, and a .133 batting average against. And we’re talking about a group of guys who’ve had an extraordinarily atypical ramp up, and are facing batters in July (when the weather’s warm), in a league where the ball might still be juiced, AND all 15 NL teams now have the benefit of the designated hitter.
Truly impressive stuff.
In terms of some general league rankings … here’s some stuff you can Tweet out to make your friends think you’re smart. So far, Chicago Cubs starters …
• Have thrown 30.0 innings, leading any other team in the NL by 4.1 IP.
• Have accrued 1.1 WAR, leading the NL and tied for the most in MLB.
• Have a 4.4% walk rate, third best in MLB.
• Lead MLB with a .131 batting average against
• Lead MLB with a 0.63 WHIP (only one other team is under 1.00)
• Have a 22.2% soft-hit rate (4th best in MLB)
• Have a 32.1% hart-hit rate (4th best in MLB)
But I think some of my favorite early stats have to do with plate discipline. Through the first five games of the season, opposing hitters are swinging at 34.5% of pitches thrown OUT of the zone by Cubs starters, which is the sixth best mark in MLB. Meanwhile, batters are offering at only 64.0% of pitches IN the zone, which is the 8th lowest mark. Basically, they’re fooling the heck out of hitters, which obviously helps to earn strikeouts, but also to induce a lot of weak contact.
And considering they’re relying on softer throwers like Kyle Hendricks, Jon Lester, and Alec Mills for 60% of their rotation, that’s a really good sign that things are working.
While the rotation’s 22.8% strikeout rate is just middle of the pack overall, Cubs starters are starting 64.9% of all plate appearances with a first-pitch strike (7th best in MLB), which sets them up for success throughout the rest of the at-bat.
With Jose Quintana still out (and a free agent at the end of the season), Tyler Chatwood’s impending free agency, and Alec Mills’ uncertain outlook, there are still a ton of questions surrounding the future of the Chicago Cubs rotation. But for right now, for their first trip through the order, it has gone extremely well. Better than we probably ever would’ve bet.