If you’re like me, you don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the exact reasons why the Cubs won the World Series. It’s strange, because if they hadn’t we would have spent all winter tearing apart every little mythological sinew and fiber looking for what went wrong, all the way down to what they ate before each World Series game and whether or not LeBron’s aura is just too crushing for any Chicago sports team if he’s in the building. Or you would have just been screaming about Joe Maddon suddenly thinking he was The Hatter and March Hare and it was time for a tea party in Game 7. And I would have been right there next to you.
What we can’t deny is that the Cubs rotation was their strength in the 2016 season. It was their strength in the 2015 season as well when the offense wasn’t actually that good for long stretches of that season. While there’s no question the talent in that rotation is a big reason why it has been a strength—they’ve had one Cy Young winner and two others come close in that two-year span—the rotation’s health has been another. And perhaps that’s my biggest worry heading into 2017: Looking around at every other team, the kind of health the Cubs have had in the rotation is simply unprecedented.
In 2016, the Cubs Opening Day rotation took every possible start save ten. And some of those starts they didn’t take were by choice, not injury, as Maddon went to a six-man rotation at different periods. They had four starters make 30+ starts, and John Lackey, the only pitcher to miss any extended period of time, made 29. The year previous, too, the Cubs had four starters make 30+ starts, and only the fifth spot was passed around like a joint until Dan Haren showed up midseason. Only Jason Hammel missed any time with injury, and even that was for just one start.
You simply don’t see this kind of health anywhere else. Now that I’m part of the leading “nerd party” here at BP, I get to use their oh-so-handy research team (it won’t be long now before I demand they send me lunch and get me vacuum parts, as I’ll assuredly confuse them with Amazon Now while hungover). Based on what they found and looking over all the other MLB teams’ starts for the past five years, you start to get the feeling that the Cubs are going to have to have a Plan B, and Plan C, and probably a Plan D when it comes to their rotation this season.
Just for funsies, let’s say the Cubs had all five starters make 30+ starts because Lackey got to 29 and geez, isn’t that close, and aren’t we nice people, and it’s about being more inclusive these days, no? How many teams over the past five years have had five starters make 30+ starts? Let’s put it this way, there would be more than enough food to go around for everyone at this gathering. The 2012 Reds did it (Cueto, Bailey, Latos, Arroyo, Leake). Much like the Cubs, they were able to double-up that kind of stability the next season, when Bailey, Arroyo, Leake, and Latos were able to back it up, but Cueto couldn’t repeat the feat. The following season? Only three starters, and only Leake was the repeat performer as Cueto bounced back and Alfredo Simon joined the party. Bailey and Latos couldn’t match previous years.
In the interest of being as kind to others as I am to my own team and ignoring my feelings about Detroit, we’ll throw the 2013 Tigers on the list as well. Verlander, Fister, and Scherzer made 30+ starts, and Porcello and Sanchez made 29 each. Close enough for disco, yeah? The following season only Verlander, Scherzer, and Sanchez backed it up, and even though Fister was in DC, he only made 25 starts.
If I’m being really kind, I’ll add the 2013 A’s to this list. Griffin, Parker, and Colon all made 30+ starts, Straily made 27, and Milone made 26. Again a stretch, but come with me, the water’s warm. The following season only Colon did, and he did that in Queens, and the rest of them have disappeared to the land of wind and ghosts.
Now we get to it. The 2012 Giants are perhaps the only team that had a rotation that exceeded what the Cubs did last year. Lincecum, Cain, Zito, Bumgarner, and Vogelsong all topped 30 starts or more. The following season, only Lincecum, Cain, Bumgarner matched the feat, and the following season saw Lincecum and Cain basically beginning their descent into hell.
So as you can see, three straight seasons of only having to roll out your planned rotation just hasn’t happened at all in the majors. That doesn’t mean it can’t, because I certainly don’t know the medical history, MRIs, and whatever else that would determine the health of Hendricks, Arrieta, Lester, Lackey, and Montgomery this season (though as Monty has never seen a full season as a starter in the majors, he’s going to need help somewhere along the line).
But recent history suggests the Cubs are going to have to go six, seven, eight deep or more into the rotation, and do a little better than throwing Brian Matusz out there for giggles.
Lead photo courtesy Caylor Arnold—USA Today Sports