Counting your chickens before they hatch could be the worst philosophical approach to take in the game of baseball.
However, the Chicago Cubs provide a rare circumstance in which doing so is acceptable.
It’s decently safe to assume the Cubs have locked up the NL Central pennant for the third consecutive season. Chicago’s magic number has whittled down to five in the final week of the regular season.
For Chicago to miss out on an NL Central crown, it would have to go 3-4 while the Milwaukee Brewers would have to win all six of its remaining games. Even if that did happen, the Cubs would be facing a one-game Wild Card playoff at Wrigley Field.
So, let’s talk postseason pitching. Specifically, what Chicago needs to focus on to see success from its starting staff.
Unexpectedly, it’s been an up-and-down season for the Cubs in terms of starting pitching. Luckily, Chicago’s rotation has gotten into a rhythm as of late and only needs to maintain it for a few days to head into October baseball with momentum.
The Cubs’ starting pitching performing to a satisfactory level will help Chicago on multiple levels in the playoffs.
Even though the Cubs have done well with this, they have played from behind constantly this season. Though this isn’t that big of a deal during the regular season, doing so is not desirable in playoff baseball.
Well, the easiest way Chicago can limit being forced into uphill battles is getting effective results from its starting staff in the early innings. This is a pivotal factor for the rotation’s success.
With how lethal the Cubs’ bats can be, simply getting through the first two or three innings unscathed usually will lead to Chicago drawing first blood.
Postseason baseball is micromanaged and very controlled.
Getting on top early in a playoff game gives a team a better chance to win compared to scoring first during the regular season. This is because managers heavily focus on matchups and break up the game as much as possible, especially Joe Maddon.
If Chicago’s starters went out and threw seven shutout innings every playoff game, that would be great. But, even going five or six innings and leaving with the lead will do just fine in most cases.
Cole Hamels has been good in just about every stage of the game for the Cubs. But, it’s worth noting that Hamels isn’t statistically at his best in the first inning.
Hamels’ 2018 ERA in the first inning is 5.76. When facing batters for the first time, Hamels’ opponent batting average is .229 compared to .211 the second time around.
The veteran occasionally needs a few innings to get settled in. Luckily, this was more of a problem for him as a Ranger compared to as a Cub. Still, we have seen Hamels get knocked around a bit in the first inning since he got traded to Chicago.
Getting through the first inning will be the biggest thing to watch from Hamels’ in the postseason. The lefty is at his best in the few innings thereafter. Hamels’ second inning ERA is 2.48 while he has a 2.17 ERA in both the third and fourth innings.
After 10 starts in a #Cubs uniform, where do you have Cole Hamels in the playoff rotation?
He takes the mound TONIGHT at 7 on @NBCSChicago!
— Cubs Talk (@NBCSCubs) September 24, 2018
Postseason superhero Jon Lester has a sub 3.00 ERA in the first inning this season. Lester is solid in all of the early innings except the second. Lester has a 5.23 ERA in the second inning, making it statistically his worst inning in 2018.
This definitely has something to do with facing the middle of the order. Well, the Cubs will undoubtedly be faced with at least one dangerous 4-5-6 combination in the postseason.
For example, Milwaukee’s middle of the order consisting of Aguilar, Shaw, Braun, and sometimes Thames can do serious damage. Jonny will have to hone in on limiting big bats such as those early in the game.
Kyle Hendricks has been much more inconsistent than Cubs fans are used to seeing this year. But, conveniently, Hendricks has gotten hot at the perfect time.
September has evidently been “The Professor’s” best month this season. Hendricks has pitched to a 1.67 ERA over 32 ⅓ innings in five starts. Hendricks was one out away from a complete game two starts ago and has only allowed more than one run in one start this month (he allowed two).
Though Hendricks has been great as of late, September doesn’t reflect what has potentially been the starter’s biggest issue this season: first inning damage.
The Professor’s first-inning ERA is a ridiculous 7.03 in the opening frame this season. But, when Hendricks gets past the first, he tends to get into a groove. First inning success will be a focal point of his overall production in the playoffs. He will need to keep the ball on the ground in the opening frame.
Kyle Hendricks, Ridiculous 88mph Sinker Movement. 😮 pic.twitter.com/pVlQRclFEY
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) September 23, 2018
Cubs fans never really know what they are going to get from Jose Quintana. He’s been awesome at times, yet extremely unpredictable.
Even when Q gets in a groove early, he often suddenly loses his touch and falls off track.
Quintana is at his best when facing batters for the second time, which is usually in the middle innings. His opponent batting average the second time through the order is a masterful .193, compared to .249 the first time and .326 the third.
Taking this into consideration, Quintana may not have to face an entire lineup three times in the playoffs. So, getting through the order twice will be extremely important for the starter.
The majority of Quintana’s struggles when facing a lineup for the first time in a game happen in the first inning, where his ERA is 4.20. When Quintana can get through the first inning, he has a much better chance at persevering through the early innings.
His second, third, and fourth inning ERAs are all under 3.70, respectably. Quintana often runs into trouble again during the fifth and sixth innings. If Q can limit the damage in the first inning, chances are you will see at least four solid innings from him in a postseason start.
All in all, early inning prosperity will be the centerpiece for Chicago’s starting rotation doing its job in the playoffs. If the rotation performs ideally, it takes loads of pressure off of the Cubs’ bullpen and offense.
- Born and raised in the suburbs of Chicago, Eddie Herz is a senior journalism major at Colorado State University. He has been a beat reporter for CSU's newspaper, the Rocky Mountain Collegian, since he was a freshman. Eddie has also contributed to the BTPowerhouse.com, a sister website of SBnation. Eddie will be the CSU Football beat reporter for the Rocky Mountain Collegian this coming Fall.
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