The regular season isn’t over, but the Cubs, who boast a 16-game lead in the National League Central, can already turn their attention to the playoffs. Yesterday, I wrote about the two candidates to be Chicago's fourth starter in the postseason. The decision at the opposite end of the rotation is even more intriguing. When the Cubs open the National League Division Series at Wrigley Field on Oct. 7, who will be on the mound?
This would have seemed a silly question at the start of the season. Jake Arrieta was the clear ace of the staff after putting together one of the most dominant second halves in MLB history and winning the NL Cy Young Award in 2015. But while he has been great this season, he hasn't been the almost unhittable pitcher he was last year. Jon Lester has been every bit as good as Arrieta in 2016—their stats are nearly identical across the board—and he has the edge in postseason experience. Neither, meanwhile, has been the most valuable pitcher in the rotation this season. Kyle Hendricks leads all Cubs pitchers with 4.3 Wins Above Replacement (baseball-reference.com version) and sports an MLB-best 2.07 ERA. It’s easy to see why manager Joe Maddon and pitching coach Chris Bosio have a tough decision ahead of them.
This is a problem most teams would love to have, but that doesn’t make coming up with an answer any easier. Remember, too, that being the No. 1 starter in the postseason goes beyond that first game. Whoever starts Game 1 would be in line to start a potential, decisive Game 5 in the NLDS and would likely get the first crack at Game 1 in the NLCS, should the Cubs advance and the schedule allow. With the Nationals and Dodgers in good shape to finish first in the NL East and West, respectively, Chicago's Division Series opponent will be the wild-card team that emerges from a pack that is mostly down to the Cardinals, Giants and Mets. Below is a breakdown of the candidacies for Arrieta, Lester and Hendricks, as well as our pick.
The Case For Arrieta
Arrieta has not been the same pitcher he was in 2015. His ERA (2.84), FIP (3.42) and xFIP (3.68) are all more than a full run higher than last season. His WHIP, while still an excellent 1.05, is up from last year’s razor-thin 0.86 mark. He’s striking out fewer batters, walking more and surrendering home runs more often. The Cubs would trade 2016 Arrieta for the '15 version in a heartbeat.
But despite all of that, Arrieta is still deservedly on the short list of NL Cy Young candidates. Any pitcher in the majors this side of Clayton Kershaw would be thrilled to call Arrieta’s 2016 a down season. Arrieta hasn’t been as consistently dominant as he was across 33 starts a season ago, but he has flashed his brilliance as often as any pitcher in the league this year, especially on April 21, when he tossed the year's only no-hitter.
That game against the Reds was one of seven starts for Arrieta this season in which he has gone at least seven innings without allowing an earned run. That’s good for second in the majors behind, believe it or not, Tanner Roark of the Nationals, who has eight; only one other pitcher, the Marlins' Jose Fernandez, has as many as six. The importance of winning Game 1 in a five-game series cannot be overstated, and Arrieta’s ability to shut down an offense makes him an attractive choice.
There isn’t much difference in Arrieta’s home/road splits this year. He has made 14 starts at Wrigley Field, notching a 2.70 ERA, 1.13 WHIP and 100 strikeouts in 86 2/3 innings. In 13 road starts, he has a 2.99 ERA, a 0.96 WHIP and 68 strikeouts in 87 1/3 frames. He has made a total of seven starts against Chicago's most likely NLDS opponents—the Mets, Giants and Cardinals—and pitched to a 3.07 ERA and 1.22 WHIP with 43 strikeouts in 41 innings. Of those three teams, Arrieta has been most successful against the Giants, going 1–1 with a 2.08 ERA, a 0.92 WHIP and 15 strikeouts in 13 innings.
Finally, don't dismiss the intimidation factor. Arrieta is likely the most feared pitcher in the Cubs' rotation, and a singular performance from him in Game 1 could set the tone for the series. Some of the issues that have hampered Arrieta all season—his declining strikeout rate and rising walk rate, for instance—are still present. In fact, he has fanned a smaller percentage of batters while walking more since the All-Star break. No matter what the stats say, though, Maddon can’t escape the fact that the Game 1 starter must give the team its best chance to win. It’s hard to say anyone is better equipped to do that than Arrieta.
The Case For Lester
If postseason experience is a major factor, Lester has a huge advantage. Arrieta and Hendricks both got their first taste of the playoffs last year, combining to make five starts. Lester has pitched in six different postseasons in his career, making 16 appearances (14 starts) and amassing a 2.85 ERA, a 1.07 WHIP and 87 strikeouts in 98 innings. Lester has more World Series wins alone (three), including the clincher for the Red Sox in 2007, than Arrieta and Hendricks have combined for in their postseason careers (one).
Of course, Lester can do more than trade on the name he made for himself as a postseason pitcher with Boston. He has been a consistent, reliable presence in the Cubs' rotation all year, taking the ball every fifth day and racking up a 2.61 ERA, a 1.04 WHIP and 164 strikeouts in 169 innings. He has given up more than three runs in a start four times and failed to complete six innings in just five of his outings.
What’s more, Lester is enjoying his finest stretch of the season. Over his last seven starts, dating back to July 29, he has a 1.35 ERA, A 0.77 WHIP and 46 strikeouts in 46 2/3 innings. If playing your best baseball going into October matters, Lester has a strong case to be the Cubs' Game 1 starter.
Lester has been demonstrably better at home than he has on the road. In 13 Wrigley starts, he has a 1.91 ERA, a 0.91 WHIP and 89 strikeouts in 89 2/3 innings. In 14 starts away from the North Side of Chicago, he has a 3.40 ERA, a 1.19 WHIP and 75 strikeouts in 79 1/3 frames. His worst start of the year came at Citi Field against the Mets, where he allowed eight runs on nine hits in 1 1/3 innings.
If there’s one knock against Lester, it’s his performance against the Cubs' most likely NLDS opponents. He balanced his dreadful outing against the Mets on the road with a strong one at home. He did the same thing against the Giants: On Sept. 2, he beat them in a complete-game victory at Wrigley Field, allowing one run on three hits, but when he faced them at AT&T Park on May 21, he surrendered five runs on six hits in 2 2/3 innings. Surprisingly, he has drawn the division rival Cardinals just once this year, earning a no-decision while allowing two runs on five hits with six strikeouts in six innings.
Lester's status as a southpaw could also be taken into account. The Cardinals are much better against righties (.336 weighted on-base average) than they are against lefties (.321); the reverse is true for the Mets (.308 against righties, .325 against lefties). The Giants are nearly identical (.313 against righties, .314 against lefties). It’s possible that Lester could get a boost if St. Louis advances to the NLDS.
The Case For Hendricks
Statistically, Hendricks has been the Cubs' best starting pitcher this season. He leads the majors with a 2.07 ERA and his team with a 0.98 WHIP and 4.3 bWAR. He has the lowest walk rate (6.2%) on the team and highest soft-hit rate (25.7%) in the league. Hendricks doesn’t hurt himself and induces more soft contact, by a wide margin, than any pitcher in baseball. That can be an unbeatable formula, and it has been for Hendricks time and again this season.
The last time Hendricks gave up more than three runs in a start was way back on May 17, when the Brewers tagged him for four runs in 5 1/3 innings. He has gone 19 consecutive starts without surrendering more than three runs since, and only twice has he allowed more than two runs. Since that May 17 outing, Hendricks has a 1.60 ERA and a 0.97 WHIP in 124 innings.
If that weren’t enough, Hendricks has been phenomenal at Wrigley Field this season. The 26-year-old has made 13 starts both at home and on the road. His 1.21 ERA at Wrigley is the best home ERA in the majors (followed by teammates Jason Hammel at 1.77 and Lester at 1.91). He’s second in home WHIP at 0.85, bested only by Max Scherzer’s 0.84 at Nationals Park. Hendricks has allowed one run or zero runs in eight of his 13 starts at Wrigley Field. Put simply, he has been as close to untouchable as possible when he takes the ball at home.
Hendricks made one start against the Mets this season, tossing 6 1/3 shutout innings and allowing seven hits and one walk with seven strikeouts on July 20. He also faced the Giants once but was less efficient in that start, giving up one run on three hits in 5 1/3 frames on May 22 at AT&T Park. The Cardinals were able to get to him a bit at Busch Stadium in April, putting up four runs on seven hits in 5 1/3 innings. It was a different story when Hendricks faced St. Louis at home on Aug. 13, as he went seven innings and allowed just two runs on five hits with a career-high 12 strikeouts.
The largest obstacle that could prevent Hendricks from getting the Game 1 nod is experience: He clearly faded down the stretch last season and allowed five runs in 8 2/3 innings in his two postseason starts. While those fatigue issues haven’t plagued him this season, he lacks Arrieta’s overpowering repertoire. As good as Hendricks has been this season—and he very well may win the NL Cy Young—will Chicago bypass Arrieta and Lester for him in start Game 1, thus setting him up to start a potential Game 5?
This will not be an easy decision for the Cubs, and it be hard to argue against any of the three. Do they go with the sheer dominance of Arrieta, the experience and reliability of Lester, or the breakout season and steady hand of Hendricks? Each one is a strong choice in his own right, but only one can take the mound in Game 1. Ultimately, the bet here is that the guy who started the year as the team’s ace will carry that role into the postseason. No matter who the Cubs play in the NLDS, that team will likely be staring out at Arrieta to begin the series.