Time For a Quarter Final Review: The Starting Rotation

While the Cubs continue to be in the range of the quarter mark of the season, now having played 40 games on the year, our look at the four phases of the Cubs as they currently stand. Yesterday, we took a look at the starting position players, and what was wrong with the offense. Today though, we look at another very important aspect of the team, that being the starting pitchers.

Before the season began, our starting pitching was looked at as being one of the weaknesses on the team. Most fans and “baseball experts” took a look at the Cubs starting staff and predicted doom and gloom for the team. They saw Carlos Zambrano and saw a player who was one mistake away from having a mental break down. Ryan Dempster was met with many questions because last season he was hot and cold. When they saw Tom Gorzelanny, they could only see a pitcher that was so bad, that the Pittsburgh Pirates didn’t even want him. Randy Wells didn’t do anything for them either, as he was coming off a rookie year where he caught many teams by surprise. Don’t even get me started on Carlos Silva, who everyone had written off after a couple seasons which would make anyone nervous to throw him out to start a game. With Ted Lilly slated to miss a month, most people around baseball were not expecting him to make an impact, and whatever he was able to give the team, would not improve the rotation enough to make it dangerous at all.

With no expectations being given to the Cubs starting pitchers, they quickly surprised the league by throwing quality start after quality start. Just about every time out of the game, the starting pitchers did everything they could in order to keep the team in the ball game, but unfortunately the offense let them down more often than not. In fact, towards the end of April, the starting pitching staff was ranked with the best in the Majors with a combined ERA under 2.50.

When you see that statistic, you may be wondering why I am including the starting pitching in the discussions of what needs to be improved. While they have started off the year in tremendous fashion, they have not been able to continue to dominate the opposing hitters. Now, half way through May and a quarter of the way through the season, the Cubs starting pitchers have a combined ERA just over 4.00. That is a far cry from being among the league’s leaders. The combined ERA of the starters though, may actually make the starting staff look worse than they actually are when you look at the individual performances of each pitcher.

Without a doubt, the biggest surprise of the Cubs pitching staff has been Silva. When the Cubs acquired him from the Seattle Mariners for Milton Bradley, fans and media looked at the deal as trading trash for trash. No one expected the Cubs to get anything out of Silva, so with him leading the team with five wins, the Cubs have obvious won this trade. Not only is Silva leading the team in wins, but he is also the team leader with a 3.35 ERA . Having pitched eight games, those are some fantastic statistics. But look a little deeper into his outings. In eight games, he has pitched an average of six innings per start allowing an average of only just over two runs per game. You could argue that Silva should be sitting pretty with a record of 8-0 right now, but 5-0 is something any logical Cub fan will happily take.

Dempster has come on strong again this year, though he has lost his last four outings. You should take notice that in only one of those games did he allow more than three runs, so he should not be held completely responsible for all four of those losses. His record of 2-4 does not reflect his solid ERA of 3.49, and even that stat line does not speak of how well he has pitched this year. In his eight starts on the year, Dempster has gone an average of seven innings every start, allowing just under three runs a start. Much like Silva, he is averaging a quality start every time he takes the mound. His main problem this season, has been his run support. In his eight starts, the offense has only supplied him with 20 runs. The way Dempster has pitched this year, he should have at least twice as many wins, especially when you consider he received two no decisions when he only allowed one run.

Gorzelanny, who starts tonight against the Philadelphia Phillies, has been another pleasant surprise for the Cubs this year. His 3.60 ERA is better than most people would have expected from him through his seven starts. However, he has received even less run support than Dempster. Through his seven starts, he has allowed a very impressive average of just over two runs a game. The sad part of this story, is that his ugly record of 1-4 may be the biggest sign that the offense has been the biggest problem with this team, not the pitching. That isn’t to say that Gorzelanny is not without fault, as he is averaging just under six innings every time he takes the mound. With him leaving the game earlier than you would like, he leaves the door wide open for the bullpen to blow any chance of him recording a win. If he wants to start winning more games, he needs to start going deeper into games, and staying in for at least six innings. That is my only complaint with Gorzelanny.

Wells has posted an ERA of 4.13 with a record of 3-2 through his eight starts in his Sophomore season. Much like with Dempster and Gorzelanny, his stats make him look worse than he actually may be. He is averaging six innings per start, and just under three runs per game. That falls in line with the old standard of what a quality start entails. Much like with everyone of the other starters, his lack of run support has damaged his chances of posting more wins. While he has had a handful of poor starts, allowing more than three runs only three times, he has pitched well enough to have at least four or five wins; especially when he had two no decisions where he only gave up one run. He has been yet another victim of the teams hot and cold offense.

Lilly on the other hand, could be looked at as a disappointment when you consider how well he has pitched his previous three years with the Cubs. You can blame his unusual season on him still trying to come back from an injury if you like, but that does not mean he should not carry some blame with how he has been pitching. Much like the other pitchers in the rotation, Lilly’s stats fall in line with the basic requirements of what a quality start should look like. He has been going at least six innings in each of his games on average, while allowing just over three runs in each start. He has had only one bad start really, allowing six runs against the Arizona Diamond Backs, but two of his other starts he allowed four runs. If he had not of thrown six scoreless innings in his first start of the year, he would look a lot worse. In this case, his stat line makes him look better than he has actually pitched this year. He needs to step up his game, because while he practically has the same record as Gorzelanny with two less starts, he has also given up one more run on average. Whatever is troubling Lilly, he needs to step things up and pitch as he has his first three years with the club.

That brings me to Zambrano, the very pitcher who started the season opener. This season has been a roller coaster ride for Zambrano, who started the season opener and was then thrown into the bullpen to pitch setup; but is now being put in long relief to stretch him out so he can start again. Who moves out of the rotation when he returns is anyone’s guess, but that is at least a week or two away. Since he is returning to the rotation sooner rather than later, he deserves to be included in this discussion, if nothing else because he is a part of the combined ERA.

So far, Zambrano has been limited to only four starts on the season, posting an ugly ERA of 7.45 as a starter, with a 1-2 record. This has been a poor year for Zambrano, given this is a small sample size this year, because he has been getting knocked around. In his four starts, he is averaging just under five innings per start, which is heavily skewed by his only lasting 1.1 innings in his first start. He lasted seven, five and six innings in his three other starts. What may be more troubling though, is his average of our runs per start. A pitcher allowing four runs a game isn’t horrible, but that isn’t anything to brag about either. Even if you pitch a complete game every time out, you are still going to have an ERA of 4.00, which isn’t that good for a National League starting pitcher. When he returns to the rotation, he needs to pitch like the Ace he was tabbed to be. Statistically, he has been one of the best 10 pitchers over the last 10 years. He just hasn’t shown that much this year. The problem with stats, they tell you what you have done, not what you will do. So far this season, Zambrano has been a big disappointment, no matter what role the Cubs have used him in.

As a whole, while the Cubs have a team ERA over 4.00, the starters have lasted an average of over six innings per start, and allowed under three runs per start. With that statistical line like that, they should be winning more games. The over all stat line looks really bad, until you break things down a little bit. Could they be better? Of course, there is always room for improvement. Are they the reason why they are losing? No, the offense remains the reason the Cubs are losing. The pitching is doing all they can, they just have a sore back from carrying the offense the first month and a half of the year.

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