When the offseason began, the Chicago Cubs set out to revamp their starting rotation, purportedly planning to stock it with power pitchers who could miss bats, ideally with velocity. Instead, they claimed Wade Miley (90.1 MPH fastball, 18.1 K%) and signed Marcus Stroman (92.9 MPH fastball, 21.6 K%) to go along with Kyle Hendricks (87.5 MPH, 16.7 K% in 2021) for the first three spots of the rotation.
So … uh, mission not entirely accomplished on the velocity/strikeout front. But that’s not necessarily the end of their offseason additions (Carlos Rodon, anybody?) and it’s certainly not a *problem.*
Yes, the Cubs still need to diversify their rotation — especially because only one of their back-end/depth arms (Alec Mills, Adbert Alzolay, Keegan Thompson, Justin Steele) throws a fastball averaging over 94 MPH (Alzolay). But that doesn’t mean that they didn’t already add, and now have, some very useful skills at the front of their rotation. Here are some things I like about the Cubs top-3 starting pitchers.
Health & Dependability
For his entire career, Kyle Hendricks has been one of the most dependable and healthy starting pitchers in baseball. Since 2015 (his first full season), Hendricks has made 193 starts (5th most in MLB) while throwing 1148.0 innings (4th most in MLB). He’s made at least 32 starts in a single season three times in six possible years (and all 12 starts in the COVID season), while making 30+ starts in two others. The results have come and gone (2.88 ERA in 2020, 4.77 ERA in 2021), but when you need him, he’s out there.
Marcus Stroman is fairly similar. Although he suffered a torn ACL in his left knee back in the spring of 2015, causing him to miss most of the year and opted out of the shortened 2020 season, Stroman has generally been a workhorse. His 116 starts from 2016-2019 ranks 23rd in MLB, while his 691.2 IP ranks 19th. He opted out of the 2020 season, but came back to make 33 starts in 2021. All told, he has four seasons with at least 32 starts.
Wade Miley’s story is a little longer (and he is a bit older), but he made 28 starts in 2021 and 33 starts in 2019. All told, he has five seasons with at least 32 starts, including three seasons of at least 33. At his age, he’s not as safe of a bet as the other two to make every start next year, but he certainly has a track record of managing his way through an entire season.
Why it Matters: Last season, Chicago Cubs starting pitchers accounted for just 781.2 innings pitched (23rd in MLB), a far cry from where they’ve been historically over the past few years, especially relative to the rest of the league.
2015: 946.2 IP (12th in MLB)
2016: 989.0 IP (2nd)
2017: 888.1 IP (15th)
2018: 888.0IP (14th)
2019: 888.0 IP (7th)
2020: 325.0 IP (2nd)
2021: 781.2 IP (23rd)
And that matters because for every inning your rotation is not handling, your bullpen is. Now, the Cubs bullpen has been pretty good over the years – and playing matchups is often advantageous – but the more innings your starters cover, the less worn down (and the more effective) your bullpen will be. I don’t think I’m reinventing the wheel, here; every team wants their rotation to cover as many innings (effectively) as possible.
There’s also a chance the new CBA makes starting pitchers even more important (perhaps the DH comes out when the starter comes out or maybe they create roster limits on pitchers, etc.).
Keeping the Ball Down
Here’s where these three really shine. Among all starting pitchers with at least 1,000 innings pitched from 2014-2021, here’s where our Cubs trio ranks in terms of groundball rate:
Stroman: 57.4% (2nd in MLB)
Miley: 49.6% (8th)
Hendricks: 46.8% (14th)
Stroman (50.8%, 7th) and Hendricks (43.1%, 19th) dropped relative to themselves in 2021, but Miley (49.4%, 9th) remained consistent and all three were still among the top-20 starters in terms of groundball rate last season.
Another way to look at this in more modern terms (with a slightly wider lens) is launch angle. Once again, our trio of Cubs starters is among the most elite and keeping the ball down since 2015, when Statcast began (min. 850 IP).
Stroman: 2.6 degrees (1st in MLB)
Miley: 8.1 degrees (8th)
Hendricks: 10.3 (16th)
In 2021, each of Stroman (6.3, 6th), Miley (8.0, 9th), and Hendricks (11.1, 18th) remained among the top-20.
Why It Matters: In an era when nearly every batter/offense is trying to elevate the ball, the Cubs have a trio of starters who are among the best at preventing it. There are a lot of ways to succeed as a starter – and every rotation requires different looks – but if you’re going to pick one skill to master, keeping the ball on the ground isn’t a bad one.
So we know all three are pretty good at keeping the ball down/on the ground, but what about managing the impact of the contact that is made? Well, it’s close to elite for two of them, with an interesting wrinkle on the third. Here’s a look at the average exit velocity allowed for this trio of starting pitchers since 2015.
Hendricks: 86.5 MPH (1st)
Miley: 87.3 MPH (8th)
Stroman: 89.1 MPH (34th)
So as you can see, Stroman isn’t particularly good at limiting exit velocity, but that 34th ranked number comes with the leagues BEST and LOWEST average launch angle. In other words, if you’re going to allow that much hard contact, you better be keeping it low … and no one keeps it low as well as Stroman.
And the opposite is true for Hendricks. Although Hendricks can keep it on the ground well enough, he isn’t quite as good as Miley or Stroman in that respect. However, he has historically been one of the best exit velocity managers in baseball.
Even as his results waned this season, Hendricks managed to allow just an 86.3 MPH average exit velocity, good for 6th best in MLB. Miley, meanwhile, was down at 85.7 MPH, third best in the game! Even Stroman saw his number drop to 89.1 MPH.
Why it matters: This goes right along with launch angle. The harder you hit the ball, the better chance you have to succeed. So deploying a trio of starters that are good at inducing weak contact is not nothing, even if they have shortcomings elsewhere.
Now Don’t Forget …
The Cubs still need to diversify their rotation. Not only is the margin of error much smaller for guys with less-than-premium velocity, they’re at greater risk of being exploited by any one type of rule change/offensive approach/hitter, when everyone’s skillset is so similar. So, no, this is not an excuse for the Cubs to NOT go out and add some velocity before the season starts. They should.
Moreover, when they’re at their best, this sort of pitching staff can actually be a bit of a PROBLEM for a team without quality infield defense … which the Cubs do not have at the moment. So this *is* a reason for the Cubs to make sure they add a high-quality defender at shortstop, which would improve the defense there *and* allow Nico Hoerner to move around the infield, especially second base, where he’s already been nominated for a Gold Glove.
But if you take care of those two issues (add some velo, grab a good shortstop) before the season begins, the Cubs front-three starters should be able to (1) cover a lot of innings, (2) keep the ball down/on the ground, and (3) manage the contact as well as any rotation out there. And that’s a recipe for success.