Chicago Cubs: Pitching preparations for postseason

Jul 30, 2016; Chicago, IL, USA; Chicago Cubs starting pitcher Jake Arrieta (49) delivers a pitch during the first inning against the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field. Mandatory Credit: Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports
Jul 30, 2016; Chicago, IL, USA; Chicago Cubs starting pitcher Jake Arrieta (49) delivers a pitch during the first inning against the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field. Mandatory Credit: Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports /

With the playoffs right around the corner and the 2015 postseason fresh in the memory, Chicago Cubs Manager Joe Maddon must balance rest and preparation.

Good pitching is like good produce at the grocery story: fresher is better. Memories of the 2015 NLCS are proof to that fact. Further proof is in the numbers. The workload of these pitchers during the regular season affected their playoff performance. (See table below)

The eventual NLCS winning New York Mets had zero pitchers with more than 195 IP in the regular season. Bartolo Colon pitched 194+ innings but did not start in the postseason. The World Champion Kansas City Royals? Two pitchers with 200+ innings (Johnny Cueto and Edinson Volquez) in the regular season, but the rest of the staff was under 164. The Royals’ bullpen played a major part in the team’s postseason success as their starters accounted for all five postseason losses.

Jake Arrieta – 229 IP in 2015 regular season and 19.2 in Postseason (3 starts)

John Lackey – 218 IP in 2015 regular season and 10.1 in Postseason (2 starts)

Jon Lester – 205 IP in 2015 regular season and 14 in Postseason (2 starts)

Kyle Hendricks – 180 IP in 2015 regular season and 8.2 in Postseason (2 starts)

Jason Hammel – 170.2 IP in 2015 regular season and 4.1 in Postseason (2 starts)

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Now that we are in August, each starter has between eight and ten starts left. That is unless Joe Maddon gives them some rest. Going into the series with the St. Louis Cardinals tomorrow, the innings breakdown looks like this:

Lackey- 151.2     Arrieta – 142.1     Lester – 135.1     Hendricks – 133.0     Hammel – 127.1

With an estimated 10 starts left, multiplied by 6 innings per start, and you are looking at tired arms. Of course, pitchers want the ball. Have you seen the face on Lackey when Maddon comes to take him out of the game? I don’t want that job. Pitchers take pride in being on that mound and performing for their team. They are competitors. They want to be out there. But, more importantly, they want to win.

If the Chicago Cubs hope to win the World Series, they must pay attention to the number of innings the starting rotation is working. Ideally, 180 innings should be the point of focus. Too much after that amount and arms may suffer. Not enough innings and they can lose their mechanical rhythm. Balancing the two will be challenging.  How it will be done, ever more difficult.

First, Maddon and the coaching staff have to consider limiting the innings for each starter per game, while not taxing the bullpen. This could be allowing the starter to go six innings regardless of the status of the game and bring in relievers for each of the last three frames. This would be especially beneficial if the Cubs use Pedro Strop, Hector Rondon, and Aroldis Chapman in the seventh through ninth. Or, you could pair Strop and Chapman with Joe Smith and Rondon, alternating them each game, with another pitcher in the seventh. This will rest the starters, not stress the pen, and provide great situational practice for October. Of course, the pen has to stay healthy. Rondon is suffering from tricep soreness, Strop left tonight’s game with against the Anaheim Angels with an apparent leg injury, and Chapman’s body language suggested some discomfort as well. Not good.

Secondly, the staff will need at least two starts off, preferably between Aug 20 and September 12. Afterward, the Cubs have 15 games against only division opponents to close the season. Taking a regular starter out for rest during a series with the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants would eliminate opportunities for those teams to see pitchers that might be faced in the playoffs.

Next: Can Cubs convince Chapman to stay?

Finally, but in combination with the days off, bring up prospects from the minors. Let #18 prospect Ryan Williams and #20 prospect Rob Zastryzny have an opportunity to show what they can do in the big leagues. It could lead to more trades or better preparation for their future success.

Last year ended with 106 – with the Cubs saying “There is always next year.”

Not anymore. This is “next year.” But only if the MLB’s top rotation gets to rest.