Small Ways the Cubs Can Improve in 2018: Pitching

Any discussion of the Cubs getting better must always begin with the caveat that they are already very good. This is a supremely talented baseball team, and one that collectively has played in more postseason games in the last three years than anyone else; in fact, they are the only team in baseball to make it at least to the championship series for the past three seasons.

Yesterday I speculated that the front office was approaching the offseason conservatively so far because they are mapping out moves that will come six months or a year from now, so assuming the roster changes little between now and the start of spring training, it is worth examining where the Cubs have some room for improvement.

Like an individual player, progress and growth are never linear, but the Cubs took some steps back in 2017 that need to be reversed in order for them to have a better season in 2018. They commanded the zone less effectively as a pitching staff, they showed lesser plate discipline as an offense, and they slipped rather significantly on defense. Again, we are still talking about a very good baseball team, one that still won 92 games and locked up the division rather handily, so this will admittedly be a delve into some minutiae.

For today, let’s focus on the decline in pitching performance.

In 2016, the Cubs were the third-best team in baseball, behind the Dodgers and Nationals, in K%. This year, they slipped down to tenth in K%. This doesn’t represent a dramatic change in their own numbers — it’s a 23.6 percent after 24.3 in 2016 — but the difference is that other teams in the league got so much better. From 2016 to 2017, the highest K% has jumped by over two percent, and along with that, a cluster of teams have made significant jumps in this category, which pushed the Cubs down in the rankings. This is a relatively small thing, yes, but it makes a difference in the day-to-day in terms of a handful of wins or losses. They also suffered a worse walk rate, going up by nearly a percentage point from what it was in 2016. This might not seem like much, but it’s a difference of about 60 more total walks in 12 fewer innings.

So where does the improvement in 2018 come from? On the starting staff, a lot of this rests on Kyle Hendricks.

A workhorse in 2016, Hendricks pitched 188 innings across 30 starts, and he had the highest fWAR on the staff, at 4.5. This year, when an injury to his pitching hand cut him to 139 innings and 24 starts, the difference was two wins off of his fWAR, still good enough for second-best on the staff, but they declined across the board, largely because they gave up more homeruns, walked more batters, and the defense allowed much higher BABIPs for the entire rotation.

By himself, a healthy Kyle Hendricks holds a great deal of influence over how the rotation performs as a whole. We should no longer need to be convinced of how good he is. Even in a season when he lost two full ticks on his fastball thanks to a sluggish start, Hendricks still turned in a strong season. If he is healthy, he can by himself impact the rotation for the good.

Letting Jake Arrieta go is the right decision given what it sounds like his asking price is, but the Cubs have not added an arm in Tyler Chatwood or Drew Smyly that is remotely capable of taking his place. Even as his skills have declined, Arrieta is a significantly better than Chatwood has been, road splits taken into consideration and all. There’s the dazzling potential in the new guy, but Arrieta has been a superior pitcher.

In the bullpen, the Cubs benefited mightily in 2016 from Aroldis Chapman’s second-half presence — for as good as Wade Davis was last season, he and Chapman are simply at different levels — but they suffered greatly in 2017 for Justin Wilson’s presence. Whatever role he fills in the next season, Wilson might hold the key to a more stable bullpen.

After coming over from Detroit, he walked batters at a near-21 percent clip, and when he did find the zone, opposing hitters put he ball in play for a hit almost 40 percent of the time. His stuff is electric, but Wilson just could not control it after the trade last year. The Cubs badly need him to return to his pre-trade form, before his walk rate doubled, and his strikeout rate lost almost eight points.

Quite simply, the key to the Cubs bullpen in 2018 might just be Justin Wilson returning to form. If he can pitch like he did while he was still wearing a Tigers uniform, the bullpen concerns we have right now might seem silly in hindsight. So much of what plagued him in Chicago still seems inexplicable, but if he can get it right in 2018, that’s the difference between a good bullpen and a great one.

Both in the rotation and in the bullpen, the Cubs have pitchers who underperformed — though for different reasons — and Kyle Hendricks and Justin Wilson regaining some of their old form will make a monumental difference in 2018.



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  • Some good stuff there Jared. I certainly think that Wilson will be better and I like this bullpen even without any more significant additions. As I said yesterday I do think they land Davis in the end , unless St. Louis swoops in and steals him which is possible. There aren't a ton of other teams left looking for a closer that could even afford a three year deal. Maybe the Angels or Diamonbacks but I doubt it. I don't think Holland is getting that fourth year in Colorado, which is holding up their deal, and I don't think Davis is getting the fourth year from anyone.

    As far an Hendricks goes, I completely agree. Health alone probably makes him a 3-3.5 WAR pitcher and a little of the defensive help he got in 2016 could put him beyond that. I'm also certain that Quintana can put up his usual numbers now that he's settled in one place. My concerns right now are Lester and Chatwood. Am I the only worried that Lester could be declining quickly? Nobody ever seems to talk about that possibility. He's going into his age 34 season and it wouldn't be unheard of for him to fall off the map. I hope not because he's been one of my favorite pitchers long before he was a Cubs player, but you have to be realistic. Chatwood is, of course, a "if". The home away splits are promising but right now he'd be our 4th starter with Monty at 5. All that said I think Theo knows and understands all of this and that another pitcher is coming. To me Salazar is the guy I'm, umm salivating over (sorry) with Archer appearing to be an impossibility but I'd be OK with Cobb for now and thrilled with Darvish. I have to believe something will get done. Right now I'd have to say that we're neck and neck with St. Louis as it stands today and with the offensive talent we have that shouldn't be.

  • Adding Morrow to the BP should help, but there's opportunity for Hickey and Benedict to have a HUGE influence on both the starting rotation and the BP. I'd love to see Carl Jr. figure it out, Wilson get his mojo back, and the whole BP become one of the best in the business.

  • I think the concerns about Lester are legit. Theo even said that when they signed him that the end of the contract may not be so pretty, but they had to go 6 years to get him while he was still a TOR guy.

    I am getting concerned about Cobb. It was such a no brainer that he was coming to the Cubs that the fact they haven’t signed him yet might mean he isn’t going to come here. I think he would really stabilize the rotation.

    In terms of K%, I wonder if the Cubs are going to be ahead of the curve on the next change in baseball. Maybe the focus goes less on K’s, but have your pitchers throw strikes, have hitters put ball in play, have a great defense behind you and get your SP’s going 6-7 innings again.

  • In reply to IrwinFletcher:

    I get the feeling this is what the FO is thinking but it concerns me. More balls in play means more chances to make mistakes. I think every contending staff needs at least one, preferably two, high K guys for the playoffs. In other words more balls in play increases the margin for error.

  • In reply to TC154:

    More balls in play means less pitches by starting pitcher and thus they can stay out there longer than 5 innings.

    Also, the hope is that contact is weak contact that will make the plays easier. That, married with the fact that you have a top level defense, diminishes the chances for mistakes to happen.

  • In reply to IrwinFletcher:

    Yes, but our defense is not top level or at least it wasn't in 2017. It's just one metric but if you look at Fangraphs Def the team was at 69.0 in 2016 and 21.8 in 2017. There is no way you can't look at 2016 as an aberration and the top fielding team in 2017 was the Red Sox at 37.9 Def but clearly the Cubs need to improve there and I'm not sure I see a path for that dramatic improvement. Basically all of our starting pitchers in 2016 had dramatically lower ERA than FIP because of that defensive outlier. That's not something you can count on. I don't think you need 5 high K pitchers but you have to 1 and you better have 2 if you want to count on a deep playoff run. Doesn't mean you won't have a deep playoff run if your pitching isn't aligned along those principals but don't you always want to have the better odds?

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    In reply to IrwinFletcher:

    Lester would be the last SP I'd worry about. Even at the end of hos contract he'll be a MOR or BOR giving the Cubs 180+ inning. Unless some freak injury happens, Lester will be Lester.

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    If Hendricks is healthy, that's another 40+ innings of quality pitching. That alone will help the bullpen.

  • In reply to Glen Krisch:

    Agreed. One of the strengths not specifically mentioned in Jared's article (unless I just missed it) was that in 2016 the Cubs were getting regular quality starts from Lester, Arietta, and Hendricks - AND that the Cubs had a guy in Hammell that gave them 15 Wins as a SP AND wasn't 'good enough' to make the playoff roster.

    That was a generally well-rested and ready-to-roll BP even before they added Chapman. If the combo of Lester, Hendricks, Quintana and Chatwood can consistently go deep into games in 2018, then I think this team is hard to beat for another division title.

  • Quintana replaced Arrieta. Chatwood replaced Lackey. And Jennie Finch at 37 could replace Anderson, although Montgomery has the inside track until the Cubs sign or trade for a #5 (or better). An Arrieta level replacement is a luxury, not a necessity at the moment.

  • In reply to charactercounts:

    Think they will get Davis or his equivalent, slot Montgomery into the #5 slot and see how it goes. Then might make a trade for a starter at the trade deadline.

  • In reply to charactercounts:

    Jenny Finch ! Now that's funny !

  • In reply to charactercounts:

    Quintana is more like Lester when he was at his best, which he isn't any more. You can't simply say Q replaced Arrieta because it's not fair to expect 2016 Lester.

    That said I'm not worried about Lester. Yes he is on the decline but he is far from over. I hope that Jonny follows a Pettitte trajectory. They are similar pitchers. Lester is smart and knows how to pitch, he'll figure out how to get guys out as his pure power stuff wanes.

    Q looks like the ace of the staff right now. Then Hendricks, then Lester. Quintana is as good as Arrieta. He hasn't been the super Ace that Boras is making him out to be, for longer than a year. 2015 into the beginning of '16 was such an amazing run that it has skewed our perception. The team that hands him 6 or more years is going to be sorry.

  • You mention an Arrietta replacement - I think it is needed
    Quintana was added to upgrade the rotation - not an Arrieta replacement which as you mention is still needed

  • Great points Jared, especially driving home the point that this team IS good......I am very weak in the minutea but all I do know is this is the best run of my lifetime with no foreseeable future of that changing. Try to imagine this 40 years from now when people talk about the Cubs in the teen years, when Ricketts transformed Wrigleyville, the park and the team.
    We are spoiled.......

  • The Cubs aren't going to have another Torres or Jiminez to trade mid-season. I think they need to do their accusation this off season and we'll see another legit starter and relief pitcher added.

    Another boost to the pitching could come with just the fact that they didn't go so deep into the post season this year. Last year, velocity was down with Hendricks, Lester and Arrieta. It will be nice to see them get their velocity back to where it was in 2016.

  • Since we are talking improvement, what about that line-up and their Inability to do situational hitting? Unless Cilli is a miracle workers the Cubs will leaving beaucoup runners in scoring position with less two outs again. I fear that fans might implode if the front office does not figure out a way to lengthen the bottom half of that order.

  • In reply to 44slug:

    With the needs in the pitching staff, I don't see any acquisitions on the position-player side beyond a veteran back-up catcher. The upgrades in this area will have to come from improvements from the young hitters on our roster, and I think they will.

    That lack of situational hitting has frustrated me to no end. I'm a pitching, defense, and fundamentals fan. But I do think Chili Davis can have a big impact, and at the right time of this group's overall ascension. Mallee was good for the young guys breaking into MLB, and followed much of the current philosophy of elevation and pitch selection as it pertains to waiting for your pitch to drive and do damage with. I think this young group, as a whole, are progressing into being more established major-leaguers, and will benefit from Davis's approach of using their natural abilities to drive what they can but focusing on using all fields and better count management.

    I do want to say I think Davis has an especially productive relationship with Javy, because I believe that, and I just have to believe this to be true.

  • In reply to BarleyPop:

    I could see a position player acquired that can bet leadoff.

    I don't see the hitting coach making a big change in the current group of players.

  • In reply to BarleyPop:

    Sounds like a little bit of wishful thinking on your part. Too many similar approaches, and similar skill types to expect Davis to pull that off, I fear. I would not be surprised if Jed and Theo have a surprise in store. They don't miss much and the fact that group does not mesh over the length of the order is obvious.

  • In reply to 44slug:

    I would love to have a traditional leadoff hitter with a .370 OBP and 40 SB's, wreaking havoc on the base paths in front of Brizzo. That's my kind of baseball.

    But we have to be realistic with our resources. Theo and Jed have both said that looking at the players available and the multiple holes in next season's roster, a true leadoff hitter is a luxury. We scored over 800 runs last season without one.

    I want to repeat we will not go over the luxury-tax threshold in 2018. I fully expect us to in 2019, 2020, and probably beyond.

    For this offseason, I think the pitching needs outweigh the offensive wishes. I don't see how we would fit a leadoff guy onto this roster at this point. Sure, we could trade one of the outfielders, but that deal would surely be for pitching rather than another outfielder. I don't see us spending our ever-dwindling payroll dollars for a positional leadoff man.

    That being said, nothing this FO does to improve this team would surprise me, and there are certainly deals that may come out of left field (sorry) that none of us anticipated. Everyone assumes a possible trade has to be a couple young bats for a TOR arm. There are many other possibilities, and I trust this FO to find the best deal, if one (or more) is to be had.

  • In reply to BarleyPop:

    I don't disagree with anything there, but it's not just someone to lead off. It's approach and type of hitter. Idk, maybe we need to move one Baez/ Russell to open second for Zo/Happ or TLS. I like Addi, but I say put Javy at short, extend him, and watch him shine for the next ten plus years. Russell is a top ss in the mlb. Both should playing at it in the show.

  • I'm still hoping for Davis. Proved he could get the big outs in the playoffs against elite hitting. Pair him with Morrow, and hope CJ improves and Wilson returns to his pre trade form and that's an extremely solid bullpen.

  • I am against spending any long-term dollars on a closer. If Davis cannot find his deal, sing him for 1 year at $16MM with a Club option for Year 2 at $16MM. I don't believe Davis' arm holds up anyway.

    I do not tie up any dollars for next year's free agent class. If Harper or Machado were not signed by the Cubs and Davis remained healthy, you simply pick up the option.

    Davis earned $10MM last year and we just signed Morrow for $9MM. I don't know why a lot of folks do not think he is the closer. I firmly believe he is our closer.

  • In reply to rbrucato:

    I'd love to sign Davis on those terms, but I doubt the feeling is mutual.

    Some random lyrics, for absolutely no particular reason whatsoever and in no way hinting at anything. From Lit:

    "Please tell me why
    My car is in the front yard.
    And I'm sleeping with my clothes on.
    I came in through the window last night.
    And you're gone."

  • In reply to BarleyPop:

    Davis probably would not like I­t­ as you alluded to. However, he may not get the deal he is looking for. If he could get a 50% increase from his ‘17 salary on a short-term deal, then thatbis pretty good.

    If we are honest, he was pretty wobbly in the 2nd half after his awesome start. Lacked command, velocity was down a few ticks. I personally see him getting injured. Just a gut feeling watching his delivery. People with a higher pay grade than me will make that call, so we will see where he goes. I would hope the appeal of getting a significant raise and playing for one of the 4 best teams in baseball would matter. And the only one with a closer spot open.

  • In reply to BarleyPop:

    Barley. Drinking last night ?

    You sound “Lit”

  • In reply to Otto 2016:

    Sorry Barley,

    Didn’t mean to call you that

  • In reply to Otto 2016:

    That was the idea, whether in my response or rbrucato's contract suggestions. :)

  • If Justin Wilson put up better numbers in relief, while wearing a Detroit jersey, then the Cubs should let him pitch wearing a Detroit jersey..what's the problem?

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    In reply to Hey Hey:

    Lol. He could wear it under his Cubs jersey.

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    I know pitching is top priority and we have a really good infield. It's the OF I'm worried about. The OF defense is 2/3 great on defense, but Heyward and Schwarber need to get their act together at the dish. I would like to have Jay back too.

  • I agree with TC154 on both the topic of defense and the need for another "swing & miss" SP.

    With respect to the team defense, I think we're going to have to hold our collective nose on Schwarber, as he's clearly going to receive the bulk of the PT in LF. To counter that, I really feel that Almora needs to see a much larger chunk of CF ABs , than he did last year, even vs RHPs. I think one unpleasant surprise from '17 was a bit of deterioration from KB but there's no reason to say that we *couldn't* see some positive regression there.

    WRT to the SP, I think , given the strength of the overall roster, that you do have to look ahead and envision yourself in short playoff series vs the other top teams in the NL. I look back at the WAS series and the P mismatches that we faced throughout that series. Not everybody can have Scherzer and Stras but I'd feel a bit better about an Archer or Salazar rounding out our top 3, as opposed to this version of Lester or Cobb.

    Tying back to the original point about defense, if you *need* to play Almora more frequently to buttress your team D anyway, doesn't Happ become that much more expendable? I realize the depth question but we still have TLS and there seems like no way that Joe is going to suddenly exile Zo permanently to the bench. Speaking of Zo, given the nature of his wrist injury, I don't think it's unreasonable to expect some sort of rebound, which would be critical in maintaining the lineup depth that was so critical to our runs of the last three years. Trust me, I don't want to part with Happ but you can solve your front-of-the-rotation issue in a $$-effective way, while maintaining significant dry powder for next year's FA class.

  • In reply to Carl9730:

    WRT is that a radio station? Did you mean WXRT?

  • In reply to 2016 Cubs:

    Yeah, great call.

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    Who on this board would trade Machado for Russell & a couple prospects?
    I'm leaning toward yes if he agrees to a decent extension. I'm all for Harper, but Heyward is going to be a hard contract to trade.
    I'm 50/50 on Darvish. His playoff experience stinks, but he's a good 2 to get them to the party.

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    In reply to Wrigley0923:

    Russell+ for a Machado rental (agent said he would not sign an extension) is not a move I would expect from this front office. Giving up control of a good (possibly great) yound SS for a player that can be had for just money next offseason is foolish IMO. As for Harper, I don't think trading Heyward is a prerequisite for Harper, maybe if we want both Machado and Harper but we will have the money for one of them without having to make any corresponding salary moves.

  • That’s not a good move. There is no way that Machado doesn’t test the market.

  • Bruce levine said the cubs are kicking the tires on yu darvish. So that report out of japan was accurate.

  • In reply to bolla:

    Levine said cobbs asking price is prohibitive, which is why the cubs are exploring other pitching options.

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