The Cubs don’t believe in Billy Goat or black cats or Bartman or any of that other nonsense. But mention the remarkably good health of their starting pitchers and president of baseball operations Theo Epstein wants to tap the dugout railing at Wrigley Field: “Knock on wood.”
Epstein, once the Boston Red Sox curse-buster, is the architect of a team that has already won 97 games, slicing the magic number to clinch home-field advantage through the National League Championship Series down to two.
Sweeping the Cincinnati Reds with Wednesday night’s 9-2 victory won’t tell us much about the Cubs shaking off their post-clinch hangover and getting locked back in mentally and applying Joe Maddon’s hitting lessons. This week’s headline on FiveThirtyEight — Nate Silver’s numbers-driven website — summed it up: “The Reds’ Pitching Might Be The Worst Of All Time.”
Don’t focus so much on the gaudy run differential (plus-239) or the time-filling MVP/Cy Young Award debates or Maddon’s T-shirt gimmicks or David Ross’ clubhouse influence (which does have a real impact on this team). To understand this runaway season, know that the Cubs now have five pitchers who have accounted for at least 28 starts this season.
“That’s the lead story for me,” pitching coach Chris Bosio said, “because when you have that, you have success.”
John Lackey made it through another tune-up for the Big Boy Games, limiting the last-place Reds (63-89) to two runs across seven innings, giving the Cubs five starters with double-digit wins and ERAs between 2.06 and 3.56. There’s the NL’s defending Cy Young winner (Jake Arrieta) and two leading candidates for this year’s award (Jon Lester and Kyle Hendricks). Jason Hammel is a 15-game winner who’s getting questions about auditioning for the playoffs.
“There’s more we don’t know about pitching health than we do know,” Epstein said. “So the things that we do know and that we can prove empirically — or that we have a strong intuition work — we try to put into practice from rookie ball up through the big leagues and hire the best trainers and best coaches and try to focus on a long-term perspective. The season is more important than any one inning or any one situation.
“So give a lot of credit to the guys in the trenches keeping our pitchers healthy. But, look, if we could replicate it every single year — that would be quite a trick. We’re going to try. But I think there’s some good fortune as well.
“Credit our pitchers, too, for doing their work. (We’re) trying to find guys with clean deliveries and good track records of health. We hope some of the things we do work. But we also know we certainly don’t have all the answers in that realm.”
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That integrated-system ideal hasn’t produced any elite pitching prospects or homegrown starters yet. But the Cubs experienced their 97-win breakthrough last year when Arrieta, Lester, Hammel and Hendricks each made between 31 and 33 starts, something that you wouldn’t have bet on happening again in 2016 after an exhausting run to the NLCS.
“It’s one thing at the end of the day I hang my hat on,” Bosio said. “It’s something I’m extremely proud of in my five years here with our horses, our core guys, whether it’s (Jeff) Samardzija and Hammel. (Or Matt) Garza, (Ryan) Dempster, (Scott) Feldman, (Paul) Maholm, all those guys.
“That means a lot to me. That’s my job. That’s how I’m going to be judged at the end of the day — the performance of our starting pitchers and our health. The same thing then goes for our bullpen.”
Restoring and flipping those rotation assets helped build the best team in baseball. Consistent starting pitching means the relievers have thrown the fewest innings in the majors and shouldn’t feel beaten-up by October. It helps explains why the Cubs lead the majors in defensive efficiency and haven’t had a losing streak longer than two games since the All-Star break.
The Cubs can only make educated guesses about why their starters haven’t broken down (yet), but this snapshot of a full-strength rotation fuels their World Series ambitions.
“When you got good mechanics, you’re going to have good results,” Bosio said. “Our guys are pretty mechanically sound. We worked extremely hard on that, because if you can’t locate the ball as a pitcher, then you can’t really follow a scouting report. If you can’t follow a scouting report, then we can’t set up the defense. So all these things coincide. It’s a fine-tuned machine.”