If any Cubs fan takes a step back and objectively looks at the team with a big-picture perspective, it is abundantly clear that the starting rotation is its biggest strength. While this may have not been obvious during Yu Darvish’s first-half struggles or after the Cole Hamels injury in late June, it should be now due to the resurgence of Darvish and Hamels picking up where he left off after returning from the injured list. Darvish and Hamels pitching like their vintage selves make this rotation as good as any four-man rotation in baseball when you include Kyle Hendricks and Jon Lester in that mix.
According to baseball-reference.com, the Cubs starting staff gives up the third-fewest runs per game in the National League at 4.28, behind only the Dodgers and the Reds. This is also sixth-best in baseball, cementing their rotation as a force to be reckoned with. On top of that, this stat even includes Yu Darvish’s first-half struggles and, to be candid, he simply is not the same pitcher anymore. Yes, Yu’s season ERA of 4.36 is not particularly impressive, but his last nine starts have been a massive improvement from that number. And to make matters even better, he has pitched as well as anyone in baseball in his last five starts. I published an article about him returning to his vintage self last week, which can be seen here. Darvish pitching up to his potential completely changes the legitimacy of this rotation. He has figured out his command and has walked only two batters in his last five starts. Without him pitching the way he has the past nine starts, the title of this article is false. That is how crucial he is to this starting rotation. He continues to display some of the nastiest put-away pitches in baseball, and there is no reason to believe he will regress if he continues to be on top of his command.
In addition to Darvish’s resurgence, Cole Hamels quietly continues to flat out dominate the opposition in his starts. Why does it feel like he continues to fly under the radar this year? He has been an ace-caliber pitcher ever since he was traded to the Cubs and there is not a solitary metric to prove otherwise. In addition to his 2.36 ERA as a Cub last year, he has a 2.84 ERA this year, which leads the starting rotation (source: baseball-reference.com). I realize he was on the IL for a month, but it's puzzling to me why the Cubs fanbase seems to not give him the recognition he deserves. If the playoffs started tomorrow, there is a compelling argument to be made that he should start game one over Hendricks.
Speaking of Kyle Hendricks, he has been flat out brilliant this year and continues to show his consistency. He has a season ERA of 3.06 and has looked as sharp as he ever has in his last five starts, in which he has accumulated a 1.72 ERA. While his season ERA may not seem ace-worthy, the average ERA in the MLB this year is around 4.50 due to the juiced baseballs and increase in home runs, so any ERA around 3.00 is dominant. Hendricks reminds me a lot of Greg Maddux due to him relentlessly pounding the strike zone and refusing to walk opposing batters. He is as valuable as any player on the Cubs roster.
Lastly, Jon Lester has been very good this season with a 3.86 ERA, which is better than league average. Right now, he is the staff’s fourth-best starter, which shows how deep this rotation is. Personally, I would slot him fourth in the rotation if the playoffs started tomorrow. A lot of Cubs fans may disagree with me on that, and rightfully so given his track record in the postseason and how mentally tough he is out there on the mound. In 154 innings pitched in the postseason, he has racked up a 2.51 ERA (source: baseball-reference.com). That is absurd. He is easily one of the most accomplished postseason pitchers in the history of the game. Having said this, the Cubs should be well past the days of blindly giving him the ball game one of the playoffs. He hasn't been bad at all this year, but with how dominant Hendricks and Hamels have been, he should not be ahead of either of them. And when watching all four of them pitch in games, it is clear that Lester does not have the movement or velocity on his pitches to the extent the other four do. I understand the argument that it’s easier to trust Lester more in the playoffs than Darvish, but if Yu continues to pitch the way he has so far after the All-Star break, his caliber of stuff is simply too good to be behind Lester.
I realize I’ve penciled the Cubs in as a playoff lock throughout this article for ease of writing, but I am very aware that it is not a foregone conclusion. The Cubs still have a considerable amount of work to do if they want to win the NL Central or make a Wild Card appearance. However, it should not go unnoticed how dominant this rotation is shaping up to be. The fact of the matter is that if you told me before the season that Jon Lester is the fourth-best pitcher in the rotation leading up to the postseason, I would have said the Cubs are World Series-good. You can talk all day about the inconsistency of the lineup and the bullpen problems, but the starting rotation is and always has been the most important facet of postseason baseball. If the Cubs remain healthy, the rotation is just as good as the Dodgers and it needs to be if the organization has any intention of winning the NL Pennant.
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