The Workaround: How the Cubs Keep Their Pitchers Healthy (Maybe)

The Cubs are off to a blistering start in 2016, not only winning at an historic clip, but doing it convincingly, with an unprecedented run differential and even better peripheral indicators of team quality. Last season was a different story. Though those Cubs eventually won 97 games, one of the key narratives surrounding them—and one you can still find some corners of the Baseball Internet quibbling over, if you look hard enough—has been that they got lucky. In some respects, that’s fair: the 2015 Cubs’ Pythagorean record was notably worse than their actual record. On top of that, as many have noted, the team was fortunate to stay fairly healthy throughout the season.

I will certainly grant that (although the bullpen and bench were somewhat ravaged by injury at certain points) the team was lucky not to incur serious injuries to any key players. This season’s version of the team has already learned what that feels like, with Kyle Schwarber and Miguel Montero both having missed time, and Schwarber not coming back at all this year. I think it’s worth exploring, though, whether the Cubs’ good health on the pitching side of the ledger was something more than good fortune.

When it comes to the problem of pitchers forever getting hurt, I stand among those who believe the solution will remain beyond our grasp. Teams have plenty of competitive incentive to get ahead of the curve in injury prevention, but not nearly as much reason to try to solve the problem entirely—and anyway, there are incentives to practice brinksmanship in that regard, too. There are too many factors at play, and too many competing theories and motivators pulling all the potential problem solvers in multiple directions, to allow us to really cure the pitcher injury bug.

Still, every now and then, a team does get out ahead of the pack. Over the last few years, I’ve grown increasingly convinced that the Cubs are such a team, not merely because their pitchers have stayed healthy, but because the organization seems committed to both selecting pitchers who are likely to stay healthy and keeping them that way once they’ve acquired them.

First of all, let’s establish the fact that the Cubs really were remarkably healthy last year, and have been this year, too. Only four teams finished 2015 with at least 30 starts from four different pitchers: the Cubs (Jake Arrieta, Jason Hammel, Kyle Hendricks, and Jon Lester), the White Sox, the Indians, and the Padres. The Cubs also got full, uninterrupted seasons from Hector Rondon, Pedro Strop, and Travis Wood, their three reliable relievers. Any team that can keep their key pitchers (this year, they’ll look to that same group, plus John Lackey) on the mound that regularly is doing something right.

I imagine there’s credit to be given to pitching coach Chris Bosio for that. Bosio emphasizes clean and repeated mechanics as a buffer against injuries, and the Cubs have helped some pitchers (most notably Rondon, Strop, and Arrieta) employ their natural, high-powered deliveries with enough efficiency to minimize injury risk. It runs much deeper than whatever edge Bosio might offer, though.

Here’s one way the team has gone about preventing injuries: only two teams (the Rockies and Phillies) had more starts of fewer than 80 pitches last season. Hammel and Hendricks had seven such starts apiece. It’s great to minimize average pitch count or the number of high-stress outings to which you subject your starters, but it might be even more advantageous to get guys out early every so often, giving them a full two-start cycle over which they face very little strain. (Happily, that not only engenders good health, but often helps you win games, too. The trick is to transfer the strain responsibly to the bullpen, which we’ll get into shortly.) Hendricks and Hammel averaged just 87 and 89 pitches per start, respectively.

Though Arrieta and Lester bore heavier average workloads, in terms of pitches per start and tendency to push past the 100-pitch mark, the Cubs were proactive with them, too. Seventeen of Arrieta’s starts came on at least five days’ rest, a number topped by only 11 other starters. Lester had 16 such starts, Hendricks 16, and Hammel 14. In other words, with a staff of three veterans and one young arm, the Cubs asked their two best to go deep in games, but protected them with extra rest; proactively pulled their third hurler, but kept him on a shorter rotation to permit that extra rest for the aces; and shielded the youngster from injury by both minimizing in-game stress and maximizing rest between outings.

That the Cubs had only Hendricks to really protect is notable, too. Only four teams had a higher average pitcher age than did the Cubs in 2015, and that was intentional. Recall that, with a few exceptions, the Cubs focused their time and energy on acquiring young position players throughout their rebuild. That wasn’t out of arrogance about their ability to acquire young pitching later, or (as some supposed) a desire to build up a stockpile of bats to trade for arms. Rather, it was an acknowledgment of a truth that eludes too many teams working their way through similar rebuilds: young pitchers are hard to manage and keep healthy. They’re an inefficient expenditure of resources.

Instead of trying to build a Mets-style rotation (one that would be vulnerable to an annual Tommy John scare, of worse), the Cubs drafted and developed young hitters, targeted the same in trades, and looked for veteran pitchers as the cornerstones of their pitching staff. Whatever struggles Arrieta had experienced in Baltimore, he’d been healthy enough to pitch whenever called upon for several years prior to the trade that brought him to Chicago. Lester is far more than an innings eater, but his sterling health track record (bone chips in his elbow be damned, he’d made 31 or more starts in seven straight seasons even prior to 2015, and that doesn’t count his 13 career postseason starts) was a huge part of the allure for the Cubs. Strop has made just two trips to the disabled list since 2008, both for non-arm injuries. Wood’s last injury came in 2007, and indeed, one major reason why he survived the rebuild and is still a part of the Cubs’ plans is his rubber arm.

None of those pitchers pitched for the Cubs before their 25th birthday, and only Wood was close. The Cubs went and got hurlers who not only had a significant track record of good health, but were now past the window within which the risk for arm injuries is highest. That remains a vital part of their philosophy when targeting pitchers, too. Adam Warren has only been unable to take the ball for two weeks of his professional pitching life, when he was in the minors in 2010, and the reason for that absence wasn’t disclosed. Trevor Cahill’s career went off the rails, but not because of injury. He missed some time with a stress reaction in his non-throwing shoulder in 2010, and after a batted ball battered his hip in 2013, but his health history is clean. John Lackey, though a Tommy John survivor, is a veteran who has proved capable of shouldering a heavy big-league workload many times.

There’s no secret ingredient to pitching health, no shoulder workout (as the Rays used to claim) or throwing program (1990s Braves, others) that can totally save a team from pitching attrition. The Cubs have taken a multidisciplinary, wide-angle approach to the problem, looking to prevent suffering from injuries not only by preventing the injuries themselves, but by identifying pitchers whom it will be easiest to keep healthy. Thus far, the 2016 Cubs have had the same good health on the mound as the 2015 club. If that keeps up, don’t chalk it all up to luck. The Cubs’ front office continues to make sure they face as few pitcher-injury dilemmas as possible.

Lead photo courtesy Jeff Curry—USA Today Sports.

Related Articles

Leave a comment

Use your Baseball Prospectus username