Chicago Cubs: Building a Historic Rotation

Jun 11, 2016; Atlanta, GA, USA; Chicago Cubs starting pitcher Jake Arrieta (49) pitches against the Atlanta Braves during the second inning at Turner Field. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports
Jun 11, 2016; Atlanta, GA, USA; Chicago Cubs starting pitcher Jake Arrieta (49) pitches against the Atlanta Braves during the second inning at Turner Field. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports /

The Chicago Cubs’ rotation has been dominant this season and could be the key to progressing further in the postseason.

The Chicago Cubs are the best team in Major League Baseball this season, and for good reason. Not only has their offense been explosive all season long, but their pitching staff has gotten off to a red-hot start that could go down in history. More specifically, the starting rotation has been lights-out in the first two-plus months of this season.

The great rotations in baseball history all have one thing in common: a true ace at the top. The Cubs certainly have that with reigning Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta. Arrieta has been one of the best pitchers in the National League over the past calendar year. His only true competitor in that respect is Clayton Kershaw, who is arguably the best pitcher of this generation.

Another important trait of a great rotation is having a supporting cast of pitchers that each do their job. The Cubs have Jon Lester and John Lackey in the theoretical second and third spots in the rotation, and they have both consistently pitched very well for the Cubs. Kyle Hendricks and Jason Hammel being as successful as they have been this season may be shocking to the general MLB fan, but to Cubs fans this was a long time coming. Both Hendricks and Hammel have done their jobs this season, eating innings while productively pitching and having solid outings when the team needs it.

So just how did the Cubs manage to build such an incredible pitching staff when their amateur scouting was so clearly focused on position players like Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber? The answer is very wise trades and free agency moves that have played into the Cubs’ favor.

Lester, Lackey and Hammel were all added by the Cubs through free agency. Jon Lester was signed in December 2014 to a fairly large contract; he was the first of many chips to fall for the Cubs. Jason Hammel was signed by the Cubs in free agency twice, once in January 2014 and then again in December 2014 after he had been traded during the 2014 season. John Lackey was the most recent addition to the Cubs rotation, which appeared to be in need of help after running out of gas in last year’s NLCS.

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The pitchers the Cubs were able to sign through free agency were very good and are vital to the current success the rotation is having; however, the biggest steals came via trade for the Cubs rotation. Kyle Hendricks was traded to the Cubs in 2012 along with Christian Villanueva in exchange for Ryan Dempster. Dempster had some good seasons with the Cubs, but he was never elite and his career was essentially over when the Cubs traded him.

In return for Dempster they got a 22-year-old Kyle Hendricks, who quickly made his way up to the team by 2014. The rest is history. He has been able to be a very effective back-of-the-rotation guy who eats his innings and throws quality starts. He is exactly what any team would want out of their fourth or fifth pitcher in the rotation. Quite a steal for the Cubs, who were rebuilding at the time of the trade; however, it was not the biggest pitching steal they have made.

Remember that ace I was talking about? The one who won the Cy Young in 2015? Yeah, he was acquired by the Cubs through a trade. In one of the most infamous trades of late, the Chicago Cubs sent Steve Clevenger and Scott Feldman to the Baltimore Orioles in exchange for Jake Arrieta and Pedro Strop. The trade occurred in early July 2013. Arrieta was initially sent to AAA, then recalled for a start, then sent back. When he was called up again in August of that same year, it was permanent.

Since that call-up in 2013, Arrieta has gotten progressively better as time has gone on. During 2014 he showed flashes of his ability to be a true ace, taking three no-hitters to the seventh inning or later during that season. In 2015 he was a breakout star and outperformed Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke to win the Cy Young Award.

Now in 2016, Arrieta hasn’t slowed down one bit. He remains one of the best pitchers in Major League Baseball, just a slight step behind the incredible year that Clayton Kershaw is having. Despite being just a tick below Kershaw this season, Arrieta has managed to once again put up video game like numbers. His ERA is somehow even lower than the mark he finished with last season, down to 1.74 from 1.77, and his K% has slightly risen from 27.1 percent to 27.8 percent while his opponent’s batting average has dipped slightly from .184 to .173.

Essentially, Arrieta is off to a better start this season than he finished with in his Cy Young winning year. If Kershaw continues his dominance, he will likely return as the Cy Young winner, but Arrieta will certainly be in the conversation all season long.

The supporting cast for the Cubs has been as important as Arrieta, if not more so. Jon Lester has adjusted to pitching in Chicago and is now thriving in the National League. His ERA of 2.06 and WHIP of 0.99 are among the best in the league. Not to mention his K% of 25.8 percent and BB% of 5.6 percent are two of the best numbers in his career. Needless to say, he has been more than sufficient as a second starter for the first place Cubs.

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The newest addition, John Lackey, has found his groove with the Cubs as well. His 2.78 ERA and 0.98 WHIP have been more than sufficient in the third spot in the rotation that didn’t have a true member in that spot in 2015. His presence in the rotation has greatly improved the overall complexion of the staff. With his consistent play in the third spot in the rotation, he has taken the pressure off of Hendricks and Hammel, which has allowed them to thrive as well.

Jason Hammel pitched very well in the first half of 2015 before struggling in the second half. This season he is once again pitching well in the first half of the season, bu the Cubs hope he can continue his impressive play throughout the entire season. His ERA of 2.55 is third best in the rotation, and his WHIP is similarly great compared to his teammates at 1.08.

His K% numbers are down from last season, which may be concerning; however it appears that Hammel has forced the hitters to make weak contact, since he has not allowed many base-runners. Hammel did struggle in the latter part of 2015, so the club will certainly be watching for warning signs of regression as the season progresses. For now, he has been a very, very good fifth starter.

The Cubs pitcher who is perhaps the most underrated of all is Kyle Hendricks, who has good stuff and has been able to limit hitters this season. Despite his ERA being the highest in the rotation at 2.94 (yes, that is the highest), he has consistently done his job in each of his starts. He walks very few hitters, and he has the ability to strike batters out.

With dominance at the top of the rotation and consistency at the bottom, the Cubs rotation is well on its way to going down in history. The Cubs’ rotation ERA is the best in Major League Baseball at 2.39, which is almost a whole point lower than the second place Mets. They also have the best WHIP in MLB as a rotation at nice pretty 1.00. Essentially that number means the Cubs rotation allows only a single base-runner per inning pitched on average.

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The Cubs rotation was the overshadowed part of the team entering the season. However, they have proved how vital they are to the Cubs’ success during 2016. The Cubs have won as many games as they have because of the strong efforts from both their pitching and hitting. The rotation has provided the team with a spark and wins when the offense has struggled. Ultimately the strong rotation will provide the Cubs with the extra push they lacked during last year’s postseason.