Chicago Cubs: Who pitches the first game of the playoffs?

Oct 9, 2015; St. Louis, MO, USA; Chicago Cubs starting pitcher Jon Lester (34) reacts during game one of the NLDS against the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 9, 2015; St. Louis, MO, USA; Chicago Cubs starting pitcher Jon Lester (34) reacts during game one of the NLDS against the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports /

The Chicago Cubs have Major League Baseball’s top starting rotation. With five quality starters, setting the rotation up for October success is crucial.

There is no mistaking that the best starting rotation in all of baseball is the Chicago Cubs. All five pitchers have winning percentages above .500, with four already earning double-digit wins. They all have an ERA under 3.50, including four of the top fifteen in the MLB. All are in the top 20 in walks and hits per inning. The starting rotation is solid.

But, with October around the corner, Chicago Cubs Manager Joe Maddon must provide rest and set the rotation up for success in the playoffs. Barring a major slump, the Cubs will have home-field advantage through the NLCS. The question then becomes how to set up the rotation for the playoffs. This may seem simple, but there are several factors to address.

First, the Cubs have the best home win-loss record in the majors. So, whoever pitches at Wrigley Field has a strong advantage. They are also the third best road team, trailing two playoff contending teams in the St. Louis Cardinals and the Washington Nationals. With that in mind, let’s investigate the home and away stats for the starting rotation. As you could imagine, the home stats are better. Take a look.

Jake Arrieta: 6-3, 2.18 (home); 9-2, 3.29 (road)

Jon Lester:    7-2, 2.01                6-2, 3.88

John Lackey: 6-4, 2.47                3-3, 4.68

Jason Hammel: 8-1,1.79            5-4, 3.80

Kyle Hendricks: 8-1,1.31            3-6, 3.25

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Just looking at these numbers, it is not easy to justify any certain spot in the rotation. Sure, Arrieta is considered the “Ace” of the staff, but his numbers on the road best that of his teammates. With his recent struggles, however, in particular, the increased walks, he may be best pitching at home. Although, it was his last start at home that was his worst of the season.

So does the team go with a four man rotation or stick with five? Since all pitchers have performed well, can Maddon really move one of them to the bullpen? If so, who goes? Not Arrieta or Lester, we can agree on that I am sure. Lackey’s competitive edge and desire are hard to look past, but so are Hendricks’ craftiness and finesse. And as a result, Hammel may be the odd man out. Here is my case for the playoff rotation.

Possible NLDS Rotation

In the NLDS

Game 1: Jon Lester. Tons of playoff experience, great at home this season.

Game 2: Kyle Hendricks: He has been far better at home this year than away. Plus, he needs run support, and the energy at Wrigley will help propel the offense.

Game 3: Jake Arrieta has the best numbers on the road of the staff, and needs to get through the lineup one time to get his rhythm down.

Game 4: John Lackey has playoff experience. In 20 starts, Lackey has an 8-5 record and a 3.11 ERA. This experience coupled with his grit will be valuable to the team.

Game 5: Jason Hammel. If the first series goes to five games, starting Hammel will save Lester and Arrieta to start NLCS, if they make it there.

The above rotation utilizes the strengths of each pitcher, minimizes their weaknesses, and ensures that rhythm is consistent. In the NLCS and World Series, this could be limited to a four-man rotation with Hammel in the pen. Hammel has the least amount of innings on his arm this season so far. He could serve the team well in bullpen for long relief, resting Travis Wood and Mike Montgomery.

Next: The new faces in the pen

There is one more item to discuss regarding the pitching rotation. The offense has to score runs. The starters are 2-18 when the team provides two or less runs of support, but when three to five runs are scored? Then the record improves to 17-9. And with six or more, they are 42-1.

Moral of the story, the Chicago Cubs starting rotation is great, but only as great as the offense that supports them.