Can a rotation built around inducing soft contact lead the Cubs to October?
Don’t expect to see much in the terms of overpowering velocity from the Chicago Cubs rotation this season. That is, at least not from its three current members: Kyle Hendricks, Zach Davies and Alec Mills.
All three rank among the softest-throwing starters in the game and the Cubs will trot the trio out atop its rotation in 2021. Whether or not that will lead to success remains to be seen. The benefit of a one-two punch of Hendricks and the recently-traded Yu Darvish came in the stark difference in their offerings and velocity.
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Without that contrast, hitters might find more success against Chicago. But pitching coach Tommy Hottovy isn’t worried – or, if he is, he’s sure not showing it.
"“Looking at them on paper and looking at them physically,” Hottovy told MLB.com, “you see a lot of similarities. But, what we try to do is identify the things that they do really well. What they all do really well is command the baseball. There’s something to be said for guys that have the ability to move the ball around and pitch to hitters’ weaknesses, attack and get weak contact.”"
For years, Hendricks has been one of the most underrated starters in all of baseball. He’s coming off one of the best years of his career, albeit in a somewhat limited sample size. In 2020, the right-hander worked to a 2.88 ERA and 0.996 WHIP in 81 1/3 innings of work to go with a career-best and MLB-leading 8.00 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
After getting the nod on Opening Day in 2020 and subsequently twirling a complete game gem to open the much-anticipated 60-game campaign, you can safely assume Hendricks will be get the honor again in 2021. In all honesty, I don’t worry about what we’re going to get here. The worst season we’ve got from ‘The Professor’ since 2016? His 2018 campaign when he went 14-11 with a 3.44 ERA and 1.146 WHIP in 199 innings of work. I’ll take that all day.
Davies seems like the team’s number two as things stand. Cubs fans are pretty familiar with this guy from his days with Milwaukee. Last year with San Diego, something seemed to ‘click’ for the former 26th-round pick, turning in a career-best 2.73 ERA and 1.067 WHIP in 69 1/3 innings of work. If he can replicate that same type of success in 2021, Chicago would undoubtedly be thrilled – and there’s a decent chance they’d look to flip him at the trade deadline given he’s in his last year of team control.
Behind Hendricks and Davies, at least as things stand right now, Mills seems like he’ll get a serious look as a number three guy. Of course, he etched his name in Cubs lore last year, tossing an improbable no-hitter, but his season was a see-saw ride in the truest sense. He finished the year with a 5.44 FIP and, at times, battled control issues (2.42 strikeout-to-walk ratio).
"“When you have guys that can command the baseball,” Hottovy said, “and you have a good idea of where the ball’s going to be thrown, then it does let you be maybe a little bit more aggressive and a little bit more pointed with your positioning, because you’re trusting that the pitcher can execute."
So what do these guys have in common besides their control-focused approach on the mound? A reliance on the defense behind them. In 2020, that paid off in a big way, with the Cubs winning the first-ever Gold Glove Team Award for their defensive efforts. Having just as strong of a defensive group behind them in 2021 will be critical.
Adbert Alzolay, a guy who’s much more of a ‘stuff’ pitcher than the aforementioned trio, could find himself in the rotation, as well – which would definitely change up the look hitters get against the Cubs. But as Hottovy himself pointed out, it’s going to take arms en masse to get the job done in 2021.