The title of the article is an allusion to Schott’s Miscellany, which you should definitely check out if you never have and feel compelled to know that a group of larks is called an exaltation or that a member of the 32nd degree of Freemasonry is known as a Sublime Prince of the Royal Secret.
–The Other Best Rotation in Baseball–
There are several reasonable answers to the question of which rotation is the best in baseball. Following their offseason addition of Max Scherzer, the Nationals’ starters have certainly lived up to expectations, Strasburg aside. Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke provide a pretty fearsome one-two punch for the Dodgers. Corey Kluber and Carlos Carrasco provide the same for the Indians, and though they may not have quite the same name recognition, it is their rotation that leads baseball with 9.3 strikeouts per nine. The Cardinals are the Cardinals. Their scouting and player development is so good that they can afford to trade Shelby Miller and lose Adam Wainwright to injury and still boast an elite rotation with arms like Lance Lynn, Michael Wacha, and Carlos Martinez picking up the slack.
How many teams would I have to go through before you landed on the Cubs? Their 47-40 record and contender status are not a surprise, but while Kris Bryant has earned the majority of the fanfare, it’s the Cubs’ rotation that has driven that success. In fact, the Cubs’ starters trail only the Nationals in FIP and the Dodgers in xFIP.
|Rotations with the best FIP, 2015||Rotations with the best xFIP, 2015|
Jon Lester was paid to be the ace of the staff, and he has delivered similar numbers to those from his previous seasons. His 8.9 strikeouts per nine are right in line with his rate from 2014, and while his walk rate has climbed to 2.5 from a career-low 2.0 in 2014, this would still be the second best control season of his career. The only thing holding Lester back from scoring like a top 20 starter is poor fortune. Lester’s 3.59 ERA is 44 points higher than his FIP and 45 points higher than his xFIP and he has just a 4-8 won-lost record. I would expect him to be a top 20 starter in the second half.
Still underrated because of an underwhelming start to his career on the Orioles, Jake Arrieta is the actual ace of the Cubs’ staff. Since 2014, Arrieta and Lester share an identical 2.1 walks per nine, but Arrieta has struck out half a batter more per nine innings. Meanwhile, Arrieta has maintained a lower ERA thanks also in part to his limiting of home runs. His 6.6 percent home run to flyball rate is tied for the fifth lowest among qualified starters over the last two seasons. That is especially interesting because of how homer-prone Arrieta was earlier in his career. He’s a completely different pitcher now having replaced an ineffective slider with an excellent cut fastball—or perhaps just dramatically improving his slider, leading to classification confusion—but it still seems likely that his home run per flyball rate will regress somewhat toward the league average. That may make his top 10 starter status a bit optimistic, but he’s safely in the top 20.
Jason Hammel is the next pitcher to benefit from the Cubs’ starting pitcher elixir. Despite a career strikeout per nine rate below 7.0, Hammel is striking out more than a batter per inning this season while also walking just 1.6 batters per nine. Both rates are easily the best of his career. Like Arrieta, Hammel has decreased his reliance on his four-seamer, instead throwing more sliders to great success. His lack of elite track record keeps him out of the top 20 in my mind, but that change in his approach makes me willing to trust his current production. As such, he’s in my top 30 starters.
With only 7.2 strikeouts per nine, sophomore starter Kyle Hendricks does not feature the same strikeout potential of the Cubs’ big three or even the team’s fifth starter, Tsuyoshi Wada, but excellent control has helped him maintain similar success to his rookie season in 2014. Over his last three starts, Hendricks has struck out 16 batters, walked two, and not allowed a run. Last season, Hendricks benefited from a low 4.9 percent home run to flyball rate and a high 78.5 strand rate, which held his ERA to about a run and a half below his xFIP. This season’s 3.55 ERA is more reflective of his ability. But even with a limited strikeout potential and an ERA in the mid-3s, Hendricks remains a deeper league consideration because of the safety of his WHIP.
As a left-hander throwing in the high-80s, Tsuyoshi Wada does not have the look of pitcher who strikes out a batter per inning. But, so far this season, Wada has fallen just short of that benchmark and sports a 3.53 xFIP that is fairly similar to that of Hendricks. A shoulder injury landed him on the DL in late June and disrupted his establishment in the fifth starter role, but since the injury, the Cubs have cycled through various pitchers—Clayton Richard, Donn Roach, and Dallas Beeler—in that spot in the order. Meanwhile, Wada has already thrown a pair of rehab starts and should return to the major league team shortly. I would wait to see how he performs in his first couple of starts back in the majors, but if that goes well, he should return to his streamer status.
Scott Spratt is a fantasy sports writer for FanGraphs and Pro Football Focus. He is a Sloan Sports Conference Research Paper Competition and FSWA award winner. Feel free to ask him questions on Twitter – @Scott_Spratt