Chicago Cubs: How in the world did Jon Lieber win 20 games?


How did a career-.500 pitcher win 20 games back in 2001 for the Chicago Cubs? We take a look at the work of Jon Lieber and Jake Arrieta, putting them side-by-side.

While he barely kept himself above .500 during his 14-year big league career, the right-hander played an integral role in the early-2000s for a Cubs organization desperately seeking an end to its World Series drought.

As we all know now, they repeatedly fell short of that goal as this year’s club is the best shot we, as fans, have seen at that drought ending in some time. But that’s neither here nor there, for we are here to take a closer look at the numbers of Lieber back in 2001, when he went 20-6 and finished fourth in National League Cy Young voting.

There’s more purpose behind this analysis than just nostalgia sake, too. With Arrieta poised to win 20 games by the end of the season (barring another let-down from the Cubs offense), I know I personally wouldn’t mind seeing the road both pitchers took en route to 20.

Before we delve into this, let me preface by saying this: Lieber won 20 games while posting a league-average earned run average and striking out less than half-a-dozen batters per game. Arrieta, meanwhile, has been a true ace and could very well challenge for the NL Cy Young this year.

The most remarkable facet of Lieber’s 2001 season is his win-loss record at Wrigley Field. The former second-round pick in the 1992 Draft went an impressive 12-1 at the Confines, pitching to a 3.39 ERA and 1.049 WHIP in 122 innings.

Jake Arrieta is deserving of a 20-win season. I honestly can’t say the same about Jon Lieber’s 2001 campaign.

Breaking his campaign down month-by-month, his lowest earned run average came early on, when he pitched to a 2.92 clip in March and April while averaging a season-best 7.3 strikeouts-per-nine.

By contrast, Arrieta’s earned run average by-month was lower than Lieber’s 2.92 mark in every single month but one so far this season, topped by his sterling month of August, when he pitched to an unthinkable 0.42 ERA while winning six games for the surging Cubs – taking home National League Pitcher of the Month honors in the process.

The run support Lieber received would have made Arrieta a 25-plus game winner this year. In seventeen different starts, the Cubs’ offense scored more than six runs in support of Lieber, while Arrieta has gotten such support just nine times.

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Furthermore, Lieber struggled – badly – in those 17 starts, pitching to a 4.51 ERA and 1.210 WHIP, so let’s hope he thanked his teammates for those wins he got. Meanwhile, when Arrieta got that kind of run support, he actually improved his performance – throwing to a 5.73 strikeout-to-walk ratio across 62 1/3 innings of work.

Don’t get me wrong. Jon Lieber was a workhorse for the Cubs in the early years of the last decade. From 1999 to 2001, he averaged over 230 innings for Chicago, and while the championship drought didn’t end, he was an integral cog in that rotation.

But don’t compare him to a true ace in Jake Arrieta. It’s apples and oranges.

Appreciate what he did, but respect what the latter is doing this season: it’s truly remarkable.

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