While the Cubs position players have had a fantastic first half, returns have been less than great on the pitching front. With ~60% of the season in the books, Jon Lester leads the pitching staff with 1.0 fWAR. I’ll go into individual player recaps below, but one thing I’ve been wondering for a while is why there has been so little criticism of Cubs pitching coach Jim Hickey.
Chris Bosio was let go in part because of a sense that he had a tough time integrating new pitchers into the Cubs system (e.g. Justin Wilson). This year, new acquisition Tyler Chatwood has taken a giant step backward, and new-ish acquisition Jose Quintana has taken a regular step backwards from his 2017 Cubs half season numbers, especially when it comes to his walk rate. Yu Darvish has been very successful in the past, but the team tinkered with his mechanics and pitch mix and saw him end up ineffective and injured.
As far as player who have been here a while, Kyle Hendricks is giving up a zillion home runs, and Jon Lester’s peripherals are not great. Some of these are easier to explain away than others (Lester getting older, injuries being injuries), but as a whole it’s hard not to come to the conclusion that the pitching staff has been a disappointment.
To be fair to Hickey, there have been successes on the margins. Unlike past years the Cubs AAA shuttle bullpen members have actually been pretty solid, and Anthony Bass in particular looks like a success story (though small sample sizes abound). But so far it’s hard to see a specific impact that Hickey has made to this pitching staff.
Some of this I mentioned above, but eh.
Jon Lester is getting older and his strikeout rate is down considerably this year. However he has the fourth best ERA in the National League, mostly in part to a .253 BABIP. Just above him on that list is Max Scherzer, who has a nearly identical BABIP and strand rate, but I have a good feeling who is the better pitcher. Lester is getting a lot less soft contact this year (15.4%) compared to a rough average of his last few seasons (~21%). On the plus side Lester is pitching slightly deeper into ballgames this year, and is on pace for 190 or so innings. Not great when compared to innings eaters of old but not bad for a guy in his 30s in today’s quick hook game.
Jose Quintana has seen his walk rate nearly double from his time with the Cubs last year, and his strikeout rate is down. Whatever weird criticism existed over Darvish losing his cool in the middle innings seems to be glomming onto Q now, and it’s tough to tell what exactly is wrong. Like Lester he’s also been hit harder, and in his case it’s not like there’s any particular velocity drop or something similar to point to. Sounds like a job for a pitching coach.
Kyle Hendricks has also seen his numbers slide this year, especially his home run rate. He’s struggled with some mechanical issues this year but his walk rate hasn’t suffered nearly as much as I would have expected. It’s right in line with what it was the last two seasons. His strikeout rate however is way down, and anecdotally I seem to remember hearing one of the color guys talk about how his curveball wasn’t working for him this year. I’m not sure if this is the same one that he added this spring, but it’s allowed hitters to sit on his Molina-esque fastball more than usual, which has led to fewer strikeouts and more homers.
The less that is said about Tyler Chatwood, the better. What a mess
Yu Darvish has morphed into the human form of the shrug emoji even before he left due to injury back in late May. He could be back soonish, but who knows what will be up with this triceps injury. His walk and home run rates took a big leap when he was able to pitch, and some of his pitch sequences seemed pretty bizarre in the early going. The Cubs are on the hook for another 1 or 5 years of Darvish, so hopefully he comes back strong.
Mike Montgomery has filled in admirably in Darvish’s stead. Despite the fact that he got the save in the Cubs first championship in over a century (people for get that), he might be the most forgettable Cubs pitcher of consequence since I started following the team on a daily basis over a decade ago.
Brandon Morrow has been pretty solid, assuming he remembers how to put on/take off pants. The Cubs have tried to use him relatively sparingly given his injury history, which has been a little frustrating at times. Nevertheless he has still appeared in 35 games, which is maybe 10 more than I would have guessed. He has a 1.47 ERA and a 2.95 FIP and at least his DL stint was unrelated to the act of throwing a baseball.
Carl Edwards Jr. looked fan-freaking-tastic over the first two months of the season, though there was some worry that Joe might be over using him. When he went on the DL at the end of May, I thought there was a chance that it was just the Cubs gaming the 10 day DL to give him a little rest. Thanks, Dodgers, for making me doubt any vague injury report out there. Edwards ended up missing an entire month. He still issues a few more walks than one would like but he’s not Carlos Marmol out there, and when you have a 41% strikeout rate that goes a long way toward erasing those negatives.
Steve Cishek is the Shawn Camp Memorial MVP of the bullpen this year. He has appeared in 45 games with an ERA of 1.88, and he’s clearly the guy Joe trusts the most in the pen. It’s seemed like Joe has used him a lot, but there have been 70 relievers this year who have at least 40 appearances so maybe it’s not so out of line as it feels.
As far as the rest of the pen goes, Pedro Strop has appeared in 40 games and has been so quietly reliable that I almost forgot to write about him here. Justin Wilson‘s ERA has bounced back from last year’s dreadful numbers but somehow he’s walking batters at an even higher pace. His walk rate is still better than Brian Duensing‘s, who has been injured and/or awful all year. Randy Rosario doesn’t strike many batters out, but has a solid ERA and seems to have taken over from Duensing as Joe’s trusted lefty who can get you an inning or two in middle innings. Retreat Anthony Bass looked surprisingly good in fourteen appearances before going down with some sort of virus. The rest of the AAA taxi squad has mostly managed to not embarass themselves while getting their cups of coffee, save for maybe Dillon Maples.
The Cubs might go out and get some kind of mid range starter at the deadline (J.A. Happ?), but their best bet will probably be to hope that their starters bounce back/regress to their projections in the second half. They invested money in this pitching coach, and it sounds like it’s time for him to get to work.