At the start of the 2020 season, the totality of the Chicago Cubs’ rotation looked like the team’s best asset.
The Chicago Cubs headed into the year under the assumption Yu Darvish and Kyle Hendricks would be the leading men on the staff. Indeed, Darvish ranks second in the majors in fWAR, per FanGraphs, and first in the National League in ERA. Hendricks has a couple of clunkers against the Cincinnati Reds but otherwise has been relatively steady.
But “steadiness” is something the rest of the rotation has lacked.
Jon Lester, Alec Mills and Tyler Chatwood were each tremendous in their first few starts. Lester and Mills mixed pitches and induced soft contact, while Chatwood had slashed his walk rate and even led the Cubs in strikeouts per nine innings, for a time. However, the outlook is much different now.
Lester has allowed at least eight hits in each of his four starts. More ominously, he is getting walloped. The veteran left-hander ranks in just the 41st percentile in average exit velocity and 42nd percentile in hard-hit rate, per Baseball Savant.
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This is not a good sign considering Lester is also in the lowest one percent in whiff rate.
Tuesday’s start against the Pittsburgh Pirates is a pretty good indicator of concerns regarding Lester.
“Big Jon” conceded a hit in each of the first four innings, but he escaped with just one run allowed and even tossed a scoreless fifth frame.
But the Pirates touched him up in the sixth, with Jacob Stallings, Ke’ Bryan Hayes, Adam Frazier and Jose Osuna all hitting absolute lasers. Pittsburgh scored four runs to get right back into the game.
Things are slightly different for Mills. The right-hander is still generating soft contact, and he has reasonable peripherals. But the 28-year-old has struggled with run prevention when runners get on base, and over 23 percent of fly balls hit off him are leaving the yard, per FanGraphs.
Meanwhile, it remains to be seen what Chatwood’s status will be going forward. He missed extended time due to tightness in his back and was pulled from Sunday’s game against the Reds with an elbow issue.
Jose Quintana figures to be inserted in the rotation, and “Q” looked (mostly) excellent against the Reds in relief on Sunday. The 31-year-old struck out six in just three innings of work, though he did give up a homer to Joey Votto.
David Ross can feel comfortable knowing Quintana has plenty of starting experience and has been yearning to work his way back into the rotation. At the same time, the left-hander is still working his way back from the thumb injury that put him on the shelf to start the year, while the Cubs need him to be effective immediately.
Concerns about the middle and back-end of the rotation were abundant during spring training and summer camp. Those concerns have resurfaced as the Cubs scramble for more stability from their starting pitchers.