The Cubs Have an Ace, or Three

After days blitzing Japanese Rosetta Stone to try to decipher the non-emoji parts of Yu Darvish tweets, I allowed myself to read some English words on Twitter. This is rarely a good idea.

Most Cubs fans are psyched about the possible signing of Darvish, and for great reason! Adding Darvish—or Jake Arrieta—makes this an incredible rotation. But I’ve seen people saying that without Darvish, the Cubs don’t have a “top of the rotation starter,” or an “ace,” and that makes me think we have to start passing around the English Rosetta Stone program. That thought is wrong, somewhere between one and three times over.

So maybe, before we get a shiny new toy that I am also very excited about seeing in blue, we can take a minute to appreciate the firepower the Cubs already have.

Start with the lefties: Jose Quintana has been described as Lester-esque, and the WARP rankings over the past four years bear that out.

Quintana WARP rankings: 2017 (28th), 2016 (19th), 2015 (43rd), 2014 (34th).

Lester WARP rankings: 2017 (37th), 2016 (15th), 2015 (18th), 2014 (18th)

Note: there are 30 rotations in MLB.

Even in Lester’s worst year as a Cub, his DRA of 3.94 put him between Felix Hernandez and Danny Duffy. If you want to argue Lester’s not an “ace” at this very second, you certainly can. He’s 34, his WHIP jumped three-tenths of a point from his peak year, and he gave up 25 more hits in 20 fewer innings. But the man is a single year removed from a runner-up Cy Young finish and NLCS MVP award.

If you read enough nerdy baseball articles (and if you’re here, there’s a good chance you do), you’re likely sick about hearing about how underrated Quintana is, but it’s hard to find a number that doesn’t support that reputation. In 2017 28th in WARP, and his cFIP puts him near-elite: among pitchers who threw at least as many innings, Q ranked eighth, behind Sale, Kluber, Scherzer, Severino, Archer, Greinke, Carrasco, END OF LIST.

However, Quintana is not quite the ace of being underrated on this staff. That’s the Cubs current ace, Kyle Hendricks. If you don’t think Hendricks is a number one, you have solely been looking at the screen which reveals the MPH reading of each pitch. If you just lower your gaze slightly, to the actual field of play, you’ll find a top of the rotation starter, George Michael Bluth-ing his way off the field after (probably) giving up zero runs in yet another inning.

Remember how Kyle struggled last year? Hendricks’ DRA last year was 3.31, .01 behind some Kershaw guy, and better than the vast majority of starters, but also better than Aroldis Chapman (3.34). His ERA was 3.03, which would have placed him ninth in MLB if he had the innings to qualify. He didn’t, which is a valid concern! Aces should throw lots of innings. You give Hendricks the innings consistency of Lester, Quintana (or Arrieta), and there’s surely less reticence for people to recognize how good he truly is.

Over the three years that Hendricks has been a full-time member of the Cubs rotation, he has averaged 169.7 IP per year (outside of the playoffs, where he’s tacked on 50 more IP). Over his past three seasons pitched, Darvish has averaged 143.67 IP per year. I say “seasons pitched,” because while Hendricks was starting 32 games in 2015, Yu was out for the full year, injured. When it comes to being a workhorse, there is little recent proof that Darvish even reaches Kyle’s level.

You can quibble with ERA, but the fact is, those are the runs the pitcher is actually giving up, and that’s where Hendricks truly stands out. He’s got the 2016 NL title, and since he came into the league, his career ERA is sixth in all of baseball over that span at 2.94, tied with Madison Bumgarner, just ahead of Chris Sale and Jacob deGrom.

It would be weird if these Cubs pitchers had so many “ace-like” numbers, ranking them among unquestionable “top of the rotation” guys, without making them either of those things.

There’s 30 teams, so, logically, there should be about 30 guys who could reasonably be considered a “top of the rotation” guy. But here’s the thing: life isn’t fair, assets aren’t distributed evenly. So sign Darvish, or Arrieta, and let’s make the “who’s our ace” argument a little tougher come opening day.

Lead photo courtesy Dennis Wierzbicki—USA Today Sports

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