In the first of our series of Cubs report cards, the offense earned a solid C for its 2018 performance. Now we examine the pitching staff and defense, arguably the strongest portion of the team this year. The starting pitching struggled early before coming on late, while the bullpen more or less followed the opposite track.
Time to dive into the numbers and give out some grades.
Starting Pitching: B
The rotation posted a 59-50 record with a 3.84 ERA in 2018. While the win total was down from 64 in 2017, the ERA was improved from 4.05 last season. The strikeout total from the starters was 769, which, while very nice, was off somewhat from 819 the year before. One big issue was a walk total that skyrocketed from 290 (2.94 BB/9) to 349 (3.54 BB/9).
These issues can be tied closely to Yu Darvish and Tyler Chatwood. Darvish was expected to put up similar strikeout totals to the departed Jake Arrieta, but injuries took most of his 2018 season away. Chatwood was a total disaster, walking a staggering 88 batters in just 96 innings (8.25 BB/9). Those issues, as well as early struggles from Kyle Hendricks and Jose Quintana, led to a iffy April and May for the starting staff.
Jon Lester was strong all season long, with Hendricks and Quintana coming on down the stretch. Replacing Chatwood with Mike Montgomery and trading for Cole Hamels solidified the rotation in second half and the Cubs ended 2018 with the 10th best starting group in the majors.
The numbers are very similar to the figures the Cubs put up in 2017, with an opponent batting average of .247 that was two points lower than the previous year’s. Amazingly, the 888 innings pitched by starters this year was just a third of an inning less than in 2017.
The bullpen showed significant improvement from the struggles late in 2017, with a 3.35 ERA that was down dramatically from the 3.80 posted the season before. As with the starters, the ‘pen saw its strikeout total drop from 620 to 564 and walks increase from 264 to 273. The biggest improvement came in the home run department, with 51 this season after 69 in 2017.
Steve Cishek, Brandon Morrow, and Jesse Chavez were new additions that contributed a lot throughout the season. Pedro Strop was excellent as ever, but he and Morrow were hurt late and could not contribute. Carl Edwards Jr. and Justin Wilson seemed to bounce back from 2017 issues early before faltering late, with Edwards folding dramatically again in September.
The Cubs worried that they had overused their pen in 2017, causing it to falter in the playoffs. This season, relievers actually threw 29 more innings and finished the year looking a little gassed. Morrow’s numerous injury concerns leave a question mark over who will close in 2019. Edwards is also a looming concern, with command issues remaining a persistent problem.
The Cubs continued to play very good defense in 2018. An ultimate zone rating (UZR) of 23.4 was good for ninth in baseball, as was defensive runs saved (DRS) mark of 42. According to FanGraphs’ all-encompassing defense stat, the Northsiders had the fifth best defense in the league this year.
That DRS was significantly higher than their 22 in 2017, while the UZR was slightly lower than 24.5 last season. More playing time for Albert Almora Jr. and improvements from Kyle Schwarber helped keep the defense on point. David Bote also proved himself a quality replacement for Kris Bryant at third. Daniel Murphy created a hole in the defense, but the Cubs were able to limit his exposure for the most part.
Overall Grade: B+
New pitching coach Jim Hickey emphasized controlling the strike zone heading into 2018. While they really weren’t able to improve in that area, possibly due to Chatwood’s frequent implosions, the overall results were better than 2017. The rotation became stronger as the season progressed and the bullpen had a quality year before injuries caused some late hiccups.
The pitching and another above-average defensive performance were the biggest factors in another 90-plus-win season for the Cubs. The lack of offensive support in September wasted terrific starting pitching in the stretch run. Chicago allowed only seven combined runs in the crucial final three losses of the season, so it’s safe to say the pitching wasn’t the problem.
Keeping Hamels for a full season to replace Chatwood is a no-brainer for the Cubs, as is retaining Jesse Chavez. A return to health for Strop, Darvish, and Morrow will also boost performance in 2019, while losing Murphy should make the defense even better than it was in 2018.
The Cubs should also add a couple more consistent arms for the ‘pen, though that is easier said than done with the inherent volatility of relievers. Overall, the ingredients are there for another quality year from the pitching staff in 2019.