Is Cubs Rotation Good Enough to Win a Title?

Despite the Cubs’ continued success throughout the 2015 season, there’s been a specter of doubt haunting the jubilation. Sometimes it appears as little more than an odd bit of over-exposure in the post-game snapshot, but at other times it might as well be a poltergeist stacking chairs on the dining room table. The fear expressed by many is that the starting rotation isn’t good enough to get it done in October.

Jake Arrieta seems primed to go on a run like that Madison Bumgarner enjoyed last year with the Giants. MadBum was like a buzzsaw (the jam-defusing type, to boot), tearing through opponents on his way to several postseason records and another World Series title. But you can’t really count on a one-man band, particularly when that ace’s utilization will be someone limited in the opening series due to his use in the Wild Card game.

The good news is that the Cubs also have the playoff-tested Jon Lester to take the lead when the NLDS opens. He’s not been the dominant force some seemed to think the Cubs were getting, but Lester has been very good and has the been-there-done-that mentality much of the rest of this team lacks when it comes to the postseason. After that, however, things get a little sketchy. Jason Hammel has been spotty at best since injuring his hamstring and the back end of the rotation is far from a sure thing.

Former Cubs Insider favorite Ryan Davis put together a really nice look at why Dan Haren is the best choice to slot into the #4 spot, but I’m not sure anyone would want to lay a bet on either him or Kyle Hendricks right now. Obviously, this is all very highly speculative stuff, as the playoffs are still nearly a month away and the Cubs would have to win a game just to bring about the necessity for the rotation to be leveraged further.

But Ryan’s post got me to thinking: Is this rotation really as suspect as some seem to suspect? Do you need a great rotation to win a World Series? A quick look at last year’s Giants team seems to answer the latter question in the negative. After Bumgarner, the Giants ran out post-prime versions of Tim Hudson, Jake Peavy, Ryan Vogelsong, Tim Lincecum, and Matt Cain throughout the regular season, with the former quartet making up the shortened playoff rotation.

Of course, we can’t just look at one postseason and compare the Cubs against it to come up with any conclusions. Well, not any good ones. We can’t even look at the top 4 pitchers, since we still don’t know who the Cubs would use and how the games would break down. To that end, I used aggregate stats from the last 10 World Series winners to measure the Cubs’ starting rotation against those of recent champions.

Cubs 8.63 2.25 0.93 46.9% 11.9% 3.52 3.41 3.33 15
Giants 7.59 2.38 0.90 44.6% 10% 3.74 3.65 3.58 9.6
Red Sox 7.59 3.21 1.0 43.5% 10.5% 3.84 3.96 3.97 12.1
Giants 7.7 2.96 0.94 42.8% 9.9% 3.73 3.82 4.01 11.4
Cardinals 6.1 2.5 0.78 49.5% 9.1% 3.81 3.69 3.76 12.5
Giants 7.99 3.39 0.94 41% 8.9% 3.54 3.89 3.98 13.1
Yankees 7.48 3.62 1.05 43.9% 10.6% 4.48 4.31 4.25 14.4
Phillies 6.24 3 1.15 43.0% 11.7% 4.23 4.53 4.31 11.1
Red Sox 7.01 2.81 1.02 42.5% 9.2% 4.21 4.2 4.27 14.7
Cardinals 5.62 2.99 1.31 46.7% 13.4% 4.79 4.96 4.59 6.6
White Sox 5.78 2.38 1.04 44.9% 10.9% 3.75 4.13 4.1 18.4

As you can see, the Cubs stack up really favorably against the competition. In fact, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that this year’s group of North Side pitchers appears to be the best of the bunch by a pretty wide margin. There is, of course, a great deal of noise in these numbers though. Not only are these coming from both the AL and NL, but the stats account for a full rotation and not the likely 4-man unit teams utilize in the playoffs.

But my point here was not to project the Cubs as a World Series winner. Rather, I wanted to see whether there’s really any merit to the fear that the Cubs don’t have the pitching to get it done. What I found, while admittedly the result of limited research, is that they do. I believe the Cubs could go 12-8 against the Pirates, Cardinals, and whatever sacrificial lamb the AL offers up. In all seriousness though, it’s not difficult to imagine this team putting up such a record.

I’d be willing to argue that a rotation of Arrieta, Lester, Hammel, and Haren/Hendricks could be just as good as what the Giants took into last year’s postseason. The key is having those guys all pitch well, or at least getting 2 good performances from everyone outside of the ace. Of the 17 starts Giants pitchers made last year, MadBum accounted for 7, Peavy and Hudson had 4 each, and Vogelsong picked up the remaining 3.

After seeing Haren take care of business in St. Louis, I feel a lot better about that back end. Then again, given Arrieta’s conditioning, he might just be able to go out and throw 7-8 innings of shutout ball every other day. But here I am straying into exaggeration and speculation. Again, the purpose of this exercise was simply to see whether or not the Cubs are on par what what winners have sent to the bump in the past.

And since numbers never lie (except when they do), I feel pretty good answering the titular question with a definitive “Yes.”

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