There has been a lot of talk about the Cubs’ signing of Yu Darvish and how it solidifies their rotation and separates them from the rest of the NL Central Division, specifically the St. Louis Cardinals’ rotation. Sure, on paper it looks like a no-brainer, but are they really that much better?
Today, I wanted to tackle a couple of questions regarding the Cardinals Are the Cubs really that much better? Can the St. Louis Cardinals‘ rotation challenge for a division crown?
Note: WAR stats used are based on Steamer projections for 2018. To learn more about what WAR is, how it’s calculated, and how it’s used please see FanGraphs here.
Carlos Martinez (4.0 WAR) vs. Yu Darvish (3.9 WAR)
Without a doubt, Yu Darvish is an elite pitcher. However, Carlos Martinez is a force in his own right. In 2017, Darvish went 10-12 with a 3.86 ERA and 10.08 K/9. His xFIP was 3.65, so he was just a little better than his ERA showed. Martinez went 12-11 last year with a 3.64 ERA and 9.53 K/9. His xFIP was right in line with his ERA at 3.63.
At 31 years of age, Darvish is a known quantity. He’s a bonafide ace that will strike out a lot of batters and keep his team in a position to win. But he is 31 with a lot of mileage on that arm. Was the World Series an outlier or did Darvish’s arm start to get tired at the end of the playoffs?
Martinez, on the other hand, is only 26 and should continue to progress. With youth and health on his side, Martinez looks poised to improve on what was an already fantastic 2017. The big question is whether or not he can find the consistency from start to start that eluded him at times last year.
Stats don’t lie and these two look awfully close. I like Martinez here and give the nod to the Cardinals. Most might disagree with that, but I feel confident that Martinez will make further progression and outperform Darvish this year.
Michael Wacha (2.8 WAR) vs. Jon Lester (3.5 WAR)
This is a battle between consistency and volatility. Jon Lester has been a consistent starter his entire career. Michael Wacha has both flashed brilliance and made us scratch our heads. Lester was 13-8 with a 4.33 ERA and 8.97 K/9 in 2017. Wacha was just as good last year going 12-9 with a 4.13 ERA and 8.58 K/9.
At 34, Lester is getting a little long in the tooth as far as pitchers go. One has to wonder if the loss in velocity on his fastball and cutter in 2017 were a result of age regression starting or just a post World Series hangover. The increases in his walk and HR rates last year suggest the former, but it’s still too early to know for sure.
Once viewed as a potential frontline starter, Wacha still has the ability to be very good. He’s only 26 and showed last year that he might be starting to figure things out. There is a definite concern with Wacha’s injury history. He had starts skipped in 2017 due to arm fatigue. Can he stay healthy? Can he be consistent?
By WAR alone Wacha (3.2) outperformed Lester (2.7) in 2017. It’s interesting that the projections have essentially flipped that stat for 2018. If age really is starting to catch up with Lester, Wacha has a chance to outperform him again this year.
That also hinges on Wacha’s ability to remain consistent and finally become what many thought he would be. I’m giving the nod to Lester if for no other reason than his track record. Don’t be surprised though if Wacha does manage to finally figure it all out.
Luke Weaver (2.6 WAR) vs. Kyle Hendricks (2.7 WAR)
The story here is all about control. Neither Luke Weaver nor Kyle Hendricks has a lights out or overpowering fastball. Though Weaver can hit 97mph, he usually settles in around 93-95mph. Hendricks is normally in the mid to high 80s with his. Hendricks was 7-5 with a 3.03 ERA and 7.93 K/9 over 24 starts in 2017. Weaver went 7-2 with a 3.88 ERA and 10.74 K/9 over 11 starts.
Hendricks disappointed a bit in 2017, but that’s a relative term following his masterful breakout in 2016 that garnered Cy Young consideration. That 3.03 ERA is nothing to sneeze at, but his 3.76 xFIP suggests he also got a little lucky last year as well. To be fair, those numbers are still elite.
— cardinalsgifs (@cardinalsgifs) September 9, 2017
They just aren’t Hendricks’ 2016 numbers. His ERA has historically outperformed his xFIP though, suggesting that he owes a great deal to the defense behind him. With a career ground ball rate around 50%, that reliance on his defense seems to ring true. One can’t help but wonder when that ERA begins to line up more with his xFIP.
Weaver was an absolute revelation for the Cardinals in 2017. A couple of rough outings inflated his ERA somewhat, but his xFIP was an amazing 2.93. That’s elite as well. There are questions as to whether his performance is sustainable due to his paltry swinging strike rate (9.7%) on balls out of the zone.
Alex Chamberlain of FanGraphs explores that here. But then he kind of backtracks here. That’s because Weaver is very good at commanding the zone and stealing strikes in the zone. He doesn’t need to live outside the zone when he can thrive inside it.
Yes, his changeup is that good, as you can see in the above tweet from cardinalsgifs. In fact, it may be one of the better changeups in the majors. If the curveball continues to come along as well, then Weaver’s 28% strikeout rate is definitely sustainable.
Accuse me of drinking the Kool-Aid, but this writer is all in on Weaver. I give the nod to him over Hendricks for two reasons. 1) Weaver’s stuff is just better and 2) Weaver’s stuff is just better. Okay, it’s only one reason, but it’s the only reason you really need.
If you need more on why Weaver will be successful this season, check out Joe Schwarz’s excellent piece on Weaver’s pitch tunneling ability.
Adam Wainwright (1.6 WAR) vs. Jose Quintana (4.2 WAR)
This is a battle between the Elder Statesman (Adam Wainwright) and Mr. Reliable (Jose Quintana). The last two years were not kind to Waino. 2017 saw him pitch to a 12-5 record with a 5.11 ERA and 7.01 K/9. Quintana came from across town at the deadline and went 11-11 with a 4.15 ERA and 9.87 K/9 between both Chicago teams.
Quintana is still relatively young at 29 and has already established a reputation for being consistently reliable. His 26.2 K% was the highest of his career, but so was his ERA at 4.15. He was much more effective in blue pinstripes than he was black stockings though.
His contributions down the stretch helped the Cubs reach the NLCS for the second year in a row. Quintana is in his prime and there’s no reason to believe that he won’t be just as strong if not stronger going into 2018.
Adam Wainwright’s final year of his current contract is this season. There’s a good chance it could be his last if things don’t turn around quickly. His 1.9 WAR in 2017 was the worst of his career over a full season and he’s now four years removed from the 4.9 WAR he was worth in 2014. At 36, there may not be much left.
Wainwright is out to prove the naysayers wrong. The xFIP was better than the ERA and his K/9 was close to career norms. It’s possible he’s finally fully recovered from the Achilles injury he suffered in 2015. It’s also possible that it doesn’t really matter if he is.
With youth and recent consistency on his side, I’m giving the nod to Quintana in this one. As a former pitcher who has also torn his Achilles’ tendon, I know the strain it can put on a pitcher. Wainwright never looked comfortable after the injury.
Maybe he was just tentative. Maybe it altered his mechanics just enough that he hasn’t been able to finish his pitches. Either way, Wainwright hasn’t looked like himself for three years now. He’s one of my favorite Cardinals of all time, but I don’t think we will see the old Waino again. I’m praying for his sake and the team’s that I am wrong.
Miles Mikolas (1.8 WAR) vs. Tyler Chatwood (1.9 WAR)
This might as well be a battle between two unknown quantities. Can
Tyler Chatwood‘s road splits be trusted? Will Mikolas’ Japanese performance translate? Chatwood went 8-15 with a 4.69 ERA and 7.31 K/9 in 2017 with the Rockies. Mikolas pitched to a 14-8 record with a 2.25 ERA and 9.0 K/9 in Japan in 2017.
Chatwood’s 2017 sounds like every other Colorado pitcher. Not great at home (6.01 ERA), really good on the road (3.49 ERA). Consider though that his xFIP at Coors was slightly better than it was on the road.
His walk, strikeout, and HR rates were all almost identical though. Even if we ignore what happened at Coors, Chatwood’s xFIP (4.39) was nearly a run higher than his ERA. Chicago’s defense is good enough to mask the disparity and as Eno Sarris noted, there’s a definite upside to like here.
As has already been argued on this site, Mikolas was nothing short of phenomenal in Japan and is poised to surprise everyone in 2018. His Japanese results have been compared most to Kenta Maeda. Maeda has provided mixed results thus far but has performed admirably as a member of the Dodgers’ rotation. If Mikolas can provide the same results for the Birds on the Bat then this is a great addition to St. Louis.
Given what we know, this becomes a question that essentially sounds like this: “Would you rather have Kenta Maeda or Tyler Chatwood?” Since I’d go with Maeda there I have to go with Mikolas here. Score one more for the Cardinals.
Based on what we’ve covered I think we can answer our two questions. Is the Cubs’ rotation that much better than the Cardinals’? No, it isn’t. Can the St. Louis Cardinals’ rotation challenge for a division crown? Yes, it can.
Everything depends on matchups in baseball. Admittedly these matchups were arbitrarily chosen based on how I think the rotations for both clubs should shake out. In case you weren’t keeping track, Cardinals 3 Cubs 2.
There are several X-factors that could sway this either way. Injuries happen and players will either overperform or underperform based on a variety of factors. Anything can happen.
The general consensus says the Cubs have distanced themselves from the rest of the division. When it comes down to it though, all the Cubs really have in their rotation is name recognition. If that’s what you’re into then yes, the Cubs have a better rotation. If you care to look deeper though, the Cardinals might actually be better. They also have starting depth that the Cubs don’t have.
If I’m the Cardinals I like where we stand. If I’m the Cubs, I can only hope that one of those big names doesn’t go down with an injury. So to all the naysayers and Cubs’ cheerleaders, I hope you realize now that the gap is not nearly as wide as you might think it is.
Anyways, that’s just my opinion. What are your thoughts Cardinals’ Nation? Let us know in the comments below or on Social Media!