In this unscripted season, COVID-19 and the workarounds to dodge it are having effects on scheduling, rosters and, ultimately, playoff spots. Not to be overlooked among the cascading influences are the four months when baseball was shut down. The Chicago Cubs appeared to have used the time wisely as it relates to keeping arms ready and healthy. They jumped out to a 13-3 start with the best starting pitching in baseball.
Then the Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals reminded them this season is one big game of Jenga!–ready to topple at a moment’s notice.
Over the weekend the Brewers took three straight games from Chicago, each one by one run, which is their hemlock. Under manager Craig Counsell, Milwaukee is 90-60 over the past four years in games decided by one run–the best record in baseball–including 12-5 against the Cubs.
On top of the sweep, the Cubs saw starting pitcher Tyler Chatwood land on the IL with a bad back and Jon Lester give up five runs, and now they face five games in three days because of the Cardinals’ post-outbreak barnstorming tour. The Cubs need to find starters for two of those games.
With Javy Báez (.241 OBP, hitless in his past 17 at-bats) and Kris Bryant (.182, driven in two runners) ice cold, the Cubs have been carried by their starting pitchers, none of whom are either homegrown or especially young: Lester, 36, Yu Darvish, 34, Kyle Hendricks, 30, Chatwood, 30, and Alec Mills, 28.
Will the great pitching hold up? No team in the National League is close to the Dodgers. Are the Cubs an elite next-level team, or just fortunate to have banked a 13-3 start in a 60-game season? We’re about to find out.
Two overall themes in baseball became apparent last week: pitching injuries keep piling up and hitters are catching up to the pitchers. Check out how the early edge to pitchers has faded:
MLB Weekly Hitting, 2020
July 27-Aug. 2
The Cubs leveraged the early run-prevention environment with starting pitching that looked in mid-season form. Chicago’s rotation led the majors in WHIP (.917), batting average allowed (.198) and on-base percentage allowed (.246) entering Sunday.
The fast start can be traced to how their pitchers stayed ready during the shutdown. Hendricks, Darvish and Chatwood, for instance, continued to train at the Cubs’ Arizona spring training facility under the guidance of pitching coach Tommy Hottovy and run prevention coordinator Brad Mills.
“Our rotation is filled with really mature guys, veteran guys who get their work in,” Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said. “They used the break constructively. Tommy Hottovy and Brad Mills stayed on them in terms of their programs. Hendricks put in a ton of work on his curveball. Darvish is in great shape. Chatwood is in his contract year.”
Hendricks is putting his curveball work to good use. He has increased his usage of the pitch from 9.7% last year to 12.6% this year. It doesn’t grade out as an elite pitch, but he is getting hitters to take it for a strike 30% of the time he throws it.
Hottovy is just 37 years old and Mills only 35. The two of them bring first-language skills when it comes to the use of analytics and technology. They are among the many young pitching influencers that are changing the game, most obviously in the declining use of fastballs.
The Cubs are among the record 16 teams this year throwing less than 50% fastballs. (Last year there were seven; in 2018 five.) The Cubs have the eighth-biggest decline in fastball use this year:
Largest Drop in Percentage of Fastballs
7. Red Sox
Only a small part of the Cubs’ fastball decline is due to the absence of Jose Quintana, who cut his left (pitching) thumb in a dish-washing accident before the season. He threw a simulated game Sunday and should return for September. In addition to Hendricks throwing more curveballs, Darvish is throwing more cutters and Chatwood is throwing more cutters and curveballs.
“There are mixed reasons,” Hoyer said for the year-over-year drop in fastball use. “Quintana throws a ton of fastballs (59.8%). Jon Lester has used his fastball less in recent years for survival reasons, and he’s been really good. Darvish and Chatwood can rely on their cutters.”
Any time you talk about a pitching staff getting results, you have to talk about defense. The two elements go hand in hand. The Cubs are third in defensive efficiency. Only the Cardinals, who have played just eight games, and the Dodgers, who are wizards at using shifts, are better at turning batted balls into outs. Chicago has held opponents to a .258 batting average on balls in play, third lowest in MLB and the teams’ second-best mark since 1909. It’s an important barometer for a team that does not feature a big strikeout staff.
“I give Bryant a ton of credit,” Hoyer said. “Javy is Javy. [Nico] Hoerner and [Jason] Kipnis have been solid at second base. We have two Gold Glovers in Javy and [Anthony] Rizzo. But Bryant has really played well. Bryant has made a big leap defensively. It’s a credit to his work, and Andy Green has done really good work with him.”
Every team knew the importance of getting off to a good start in a 60-game season. The 13-3 start means the Cubs are almost certain to be among the eight NL playoff teams; they could go 17-27 after that and still finish at .500, which should be good enough. It reinforces the notion that any team is just two really good weeks away from being a playoff team.
This is a season with no blueprints, including how to prepare pitchers for a 60-game sprint after four months off and with a short training camp. The Cubs aced that part.