Two things struck me watching Jon Lester’s start Thursday night in Milwaukee. Like most of Cubs Nation, the first was relief. Six innings, no runs, 89 pitches. A nice calming tonic after Lester’s early exit on Opening Day.
Second, with the current championship window open, Cubs pitchers can toss out any likely shot at a Cy Young award. Not for a lack of pitching talent, mind you. It’s just that the team’s priority to save the rotation for extended postseason play also means less chance to rack up award-winning stats.
Solid priority, and the team follows this strategy in three ways.
Starter preservation techniques
The first of these way is by regularly shortening starts. Consider that Joe Maddon also lifted Kyle Hendricks from his first 2018 start after six innings and 88 pitches. This marked the ninth time going back to 2016 that Hendricks exited short of 90 pitches while allowing two or fewer earned runs.
Hendricks is not alone. In 2016, Cubs starters led the National League in innings pitched (989) and help opponents scoreless a league-high 15 games. But only twice did Maddon let his starter go all nine innings.
Second, the team likes giving extra days off between starts before the All-Star break and as often as possible in September. This typically shaves two starts off each starter’s total.
Last, the Cubs seem to have embraced disabled-list trips for extra rest, such as Lester’s 10-game visit last August. The Dodgers recently began employing this tactic to provide mid-season breaks for Clayton Kershaw’s back, hoping to shift a few peak-condition starts into October.
Cy Young workhorses
The Cubs’ strategy is well-suited for the three-round playoffs, but not for accumulating workhorse Cy Young stats. Among Cy Young-winning starting pitchers, 83 percent ranked in their league’s top five in innings pitched. Plus, most Cy Young winners must keep their foot on the accelerator and throwing up the goose eggs, be the score 1-0 or 8-0.
However, thinking has changed over the last generation, as shouldering a Cy Young workload would seem to leave winners depleted in the playoffs. In the last 16 years, no eventual Cy Young winner appeared in that year’s World Series. Compare that to period prior to this expanded playoff format, when 69 percent of World Series featured an eventual Cy Young winner.
So if you’re an ace on a contending team, it’s your choice whether to be Kershaw or Madison Bumgarner. The former was known to dominate regular seasons winning three Cy Youngs but then flail in October (he changed this last year). In contrast, Bumgarner never finished better than fourth for Cy Young, but retained the gas to propel his team to three titles.
Well timed, Jake
This means an ace today is best to take his Cy Young shot outside a pennant season. Thus, Jake Arrieta couldn’t have timed his 2015 Cy Young drive better.
That season, the Cubs did not expect to contend deep into October. So once Arrieta began rolling in June, the team was liberal with his innings. This helped Arrieta to finish second in the NL in innings pitched and threw 110 or more pitches 11 times.
For his exertions, Arrieta would nose Zack Greinke in one of the hardest-fought Cy Young races ever. Arrieta did have one masterful postseason start left in him, shutting out the Pirates in the Wild Card game. But his tank was empty after that and he turned in two ineffective, Kershaw-like playoff starts.
17 percent chance
After that disappoint postseason exit, the Cubs would no longer be so permissive with starters’ innings. The next year, power workhorse Max Scherzer would run away with the Cy Young. Distant runners-up Lester and Hendricks would finish sixth and 21st, respectively, in innings and take home the World Series trophy.
This doesn’t mean it’s impossible for a Cy Young winner to also pitch in the World Series. I’d put it somewhere less than 17 percent, the percent of Cy Young-winning starters to not make the top five in innings.
Not great odds, but I’m with Maddon and the front office’s strategy. Another championship trumps another Cy Young.