Player Profiles 2020: Chicago Cubs Starting Pitchers

Nick Pollack analyzes the Chicago Cubs rotation for 2020 with in-depth player profiles.

Throughout the winter months of the offseason, the Pitcher List staff with be creating profiles for every fantasy-relevant player for 2020. Players will be broken up by team and role through starting pitchers, bullpen, lineup, and prospects. You can access every article as it comes out in our Player Profiles 2020 hub here.

 

Cubs At A Glance

The Cubs were blessed in 2019 to have just twelve games started by pitchers outside their core five, but with Cole Hamels departing to the Braves in free agency, it may be a bit tough to find 150+ innings of quality.

That won’t stop Yu Darvish and Kyle Hendricks from producing once again, though Jon Lester and Jose Quintana are looking more like weathered veterans than formidable assets with each season. The latter two will be designated as streaming options, while the former pair may come on a solid discount on draft day.

The fifth starter? Don’t worry about that. Seriously, it’s not in your best interest.

 

Yu DarvishLocked Starter

Nickname: The Second Person

 

2019 In Review

Despite hearing the cliché countless times, I can’t help myself. This was truly a tale of two halves for Darvish, who struggled to find his fastball in the first three months, then settled into dominance the moment it clicked in July. See it for yourself, Darvish held a 5.01 ERA through his first 18 games, then won leagues with a 2.76 mark in his final 13, even ending the season with three games where 12 strikeouts was the lowest mark.

We wonder if his volatility is gone for good with his fastball release point adjustment or if this is the year Darvish returns the ace value he had back in 2013. Either way, the strikeouts will be there.

 

Fastball (35% usage)

 

Figuring out his four-seamer was everything in 2019. The pitch went from a horrible -10.5 pVal to a solid 3.5 mark at the July 12th juncture, while also heavily reducing his poor sinker in the process.

I still have my concerns if Darvish will have a strong enough four-seamer through the full season. His massive longball problem is rooted in heaters (20 allowed across 1000 four-seamers & sinkers!) and while his new release point alleviated the problem, it could still creep back again across a long 2020 campaign.

 

Cutter (35% usage)

 

There’s a good amount of debate regarding how many cutters vs. sliders Darvish threw last season, and I’m inclined to believe he threw a ton of cutters and plenty fewer sliders. This cutter was the pitch. Given that the fastball wasn’t trust-worthy, he tossed cutters into the zone incessantly, and often times overdid it. In concert with his fastball, Darvish’s slider wasn’t a pitch he had good command of early in the season, forcing Darvish to turn to this cutter to get the job done.

However, with stable options surrounding it, it’s a great pitch. Solid whiffs, plenty of called strikes, and generally better than your average fastball. Let’s just hope everything else is clicking as well.

 

Slider (15% usage)

 

I really love Darvish’s slider and I hope he gets a bit more comfortable with it this year. When it’s on, it can return a 20%+ SwStr rate, while inducing plenty of terrible swings.

There was a move to consider his splitter and curveball over his slider a bit more in the final few months, but I think larger confidence in slide pieces will only help Darvish in the long run.

 

Splitter (9% usage)

 

Darvish brought back the splitter a touch in 2019 and it still did its magic with a 21% SwStr rate and 46% O-Swing. No surprise that it carried a 58% strikeout rate across its small 150 pitch, and I wonder if we’ll see more of it next season. Likely only if his fastball can get strikes and not become a liability.

 

Curveball (7% usage)

 

Darvish has come out and said that Craig Kimbrel taught him his knuckle-curve and began featuring it in games. The results were strong—a .125 BAA and a 43% O-Swing. That plays. That definitely plays. I wonder if we’ll see more of it this season, but there’s only room for so much in this incredibly deep repertoire.

 

2020 Outlook

 

With an incredible array of secondary pitches and a tweaked fastball, Darvish finished 2019 strong and looks to pick up where he left off in 2020. There’s a history of turbulence that suggests caution spending a high pick here, but if he comes out the gates swinging, we could be in for a Cy Young contending year, just like the good ole days.

 

Realistic worst-case projection: 4.00 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 27% K rate in 160 IP

Realistic best-case projection: 2.75 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, 33% K rate in 190 IP

 

Nick’s reluctant Yu Darvish 2020 projection:

3.50 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 30% K rate in 180 IP

 

Kyle HendricksLocked Starter

Nickname: The Professor

 

2019 In Review

 

We saw Hendricks post a 3.44 ERA in 2018 and expected more of the same in 2019. How right we were. A 3.46 ERA with a 1.13 WHIP and 21% strikeout rate is just what we were expecting, boring but productive across 177 frames.

As he enters his 30-year-old season, it’ll be easy for us to consider jumping ship with his 87 mph fastball early in the season if things go poorly, but the wise will know the season is long and full of terrors. Hendricks was, and will be, the same boring production we’ve come to love.

 

Fastball (62% usage)

 

It really is remarkable just how effective Hendricks is with his sinker, a pitch he features over 40% of the time and constantly…works. It pounds the zone successfully at a 61% rate and returned an average 106 wRC+. No, it’s not a heater that rivals the elites, but it doesn’t need to be. It just needs to be good enough to allow his changeup to demolish.

Meanwhile, he tosses in a four-seamer about 20% of the time that surprises batters with its lack of ride and even though it comes in at 87.3 mph, it returned a 12.3% SwStr rate and 25% O-Swing. That’s how you pitch, kids.

 

Changeup (28% usage)

 

So this changeup does all the things you want plate-discipline wise, with a 47% O-Swing, 46% zone rate, and near 15% SwStr rate (so close to a money pitch—So close). Thing is, it actually returned a negative pVal for the first time in his career last season, as Hendricks elected to feature it in the zone in the 40% range for the first time. Batters squared it up more often for a .264 BAA, increase its contact rate to a pedestrian 77% clip, a far cry from its career 68% mark.

But it’s still filthy. You’ll watch with joy as batters lean their bodies over the plate in a poor effort to make contact, and last year’s step back looks more like a bump in the road than a downward spiral.

 

Curveball (10% usage)

 

Hendricks made an effort to throw fewer fastballs for strikes, forcing him to lean more on his changeup to be in the zone, and it extended to this curveball as well, bumping its usage a few points. The pitch has been used as a show-me offering plenty, but Hendricks was able to sneak it over the plate a bit more in 2019, earning a near 50% zone rate and getting away with it too—its .022 ISO is laughable low and a .217 BAA did wonders to keep his numbers in check.

I’m not sure it’ll perform this well in 2020, but hopefully the changeup and sinker regain a step to even things out.

 

2020 Outlook

 

There are small warning signs that could snowball for Hendricks—a more hittable changeup and a few too many poorly located sinkers—though it seems well within reason for the 30-year-old to make the right adjustments and comfortably produce another sub 4.00 ERA season in 180 innings.

 

Realistic worst-case projection: 4.20 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 18% K rate in 160 IP

Realistic best-case projection: 3.10 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 22% K rate in 190 IP

 

Nick’s reluctant Kyle Hendricks 2020 projection:

3.70 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, 20% K Rate in 170 IP

 

Jon LesterLocked Starter

Nickname: The Horror

 

2019 In Review

 

Lester’s 2018 seemed fishy to many, sporting a 3.32 ERA despite a 4.57 SIERA, sub 20% K rate, and 1.31 WHIP, and 2019 gave us the line that seemed a bit more apropos with a 4.46 ERA and 1.50 WHIP. It’s not a great time for Lester with a fastball that’s losing velocity and his cutter & changeup failing to provide the backup they have in the past.

Things could get a lot worse before they get better.

 

Fastball (38% usage)

 

We often sit in our armchairs, yelling at pitchers to stop throwing pitches that don’t fare well, believing they’ll never do anything about it.

But then there’s Lester, who noticed his fastball lost a tick and was flat out terrible last year, so he adapted and pulled back its usage over 10 points in favor of cutters. Props to him for trying to make it work.

It was a really harmful pair of pitches, though. Batters rarely touched his four-seamer of out the zone (15% O-Swing) and crushed it for a near .900 OPS and .305 average across 862 thrown. His sinker…ho boy. Just a 31% zone rate with a .380 average. Yeah, not what you want.

 

Cutter (35% usage)

 

This cutter has been the backbone of Lester’s success for years and it came with a huge decline in 2019. After years sitting above a 40% O-Swing, it fell dramatically to 32% last year, then even farther to just 24% in 2019. The result was more walks, a career-high 122 wRC+, and its first negative pVal since 2013. Without the same poor contact on chases out of the zone, this cutter simply will not do. It’s possible the increased usage hurt the pitch overall, but it’s still better than his heaters and it leaves Lester in a tough spot.

 

Curveball (15% usage)

 

In previous seasons, Lester leaned on this curveball as a surprise strikeout pitch, often hooking it down-and-away to nip the plate against right-handers for a backward K, or falling beneath the plate to get a chase.

That strikeout has fallen from 52.3% to just 36% in two seasons, though it still does a great job of limiting damage overall: A  .062 ISO and 54 wRC+ does just fine as a #3 pitch.

He can’t rely on it to steal strikes, though, and that creates a problem. There just isn’t a pitch here that Lester can get away with early, allowing batters to stay aggressive.

 

Changeup (12% usage)

 

Like his curveball, Lester’s slow ball is used to get whiffs and induce weak balls in play from contact out of the zone.

Thing is, it’s gotten worse at the latter over the years, culminating in a disappointing .292 BAA last season. Maybe its .343 BABIP was a fluke, maybe it’s Lester throwing worse changeups and not being able to set up the pitch properly like he used to.

 

2020 Outlook

 

It doesn’t look pretty. Lester’s inability to sneak strikes effectively with cutters and fastballs is preventing him from taking advantage of batters with decent changeups and curveballs.

It’s hard to bank on his cutter or four-seamer rebounding in a major way in 2020, making a bet on quality volume a tough investment. The inevitable decline has begun.

 

Realistic worst-case projection: 5.00+ ERA, 1.50 WHIP, 19% K rate in 140 IP

Realistic best-case projection: 3.90 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, 22% K rate in 180 IP

 

Nick’s reluctant Jon Lester 2020 projection:

4.60 ERA, 1.40WHIP, 20% K rate in 160 IP

 

Jose QuintanaLocked Starter

Nickname: HerFlush

 

2019 In Review

 

Three years. Three years of a 4.00+ ERA and it’s getting hard to expect a whole lot different. At least in previous seasons there was strikeout upside (26% in 2017!), but even that has fallen off a cliff, dipping to just 20% in 2019 as he failed to excel with four-seamers as he had for each of the three years prior.

Without a resurgence in his secondary stuff, there’s little hope for Quintana to get back on track.

 

Fastball (62% usage)

 

There were moments when it clicked for Quintana, elevating up-and-in to right-handers with ease, setting up sinkers, curveballs, and changeups away. These were glorious, inspiring, and…brief. His four-seamer was rarely commanded that well, though his sinker was easily the best pitch of the lot, a surprising fact given is pedestrian 117 wRC+ and .297 average allowed.

Nevertheless, because of that sinker, he’ll be able to skirt through games that you don’t feel he should perform well in. Enjoy those moments of bliss, and make sure not to get sucked in.

 

Curveball (27% usage)

 

To be frank, this pitch was never all that great, save for 2015 when it returned a 40% O-Swing and 13.2% SwStr rate. Those marks were career highs then and still hold to this day. Yep.

Last year, it’s below-average 11% SwStr did few favors, failing to earn enough strikes to propel Quintana forward. It wasn’t entirely detrimental, though, as batters held just a .678 OPS when ending at-bats. Still, there was a whole lot of meh across the roughly 600 non-PA ending curveballs, meh that doesn’t seem to be going away in 2020.

 

Changeup (11% usage)

 

This changeup has always been an afterthought, a pitch that Quintana felt he needed but never quite grasped. It truly fell out of his hand last season, surrendering a 158 wRC+ and failing to hit a 10% SwStr rate. Quintana needs something else.

 

2020 Outlook

 

With a pair of secondary pitches trending in the wrong direction for a few seasons and a four-seamer that only has moments of success, it’s getting tough to argue in favor of a strong bounce-back for Quintana—even for a Toby-esque season.

Consider him a streamer at best, but even against weak opponents, there could be a major downside.

 

Realistic worst-case projection: 5.00+ ERA, 1.45 WHIP, 18% K rate in 160 IP

Realistic best-case projection: 4.00 ERA, 1.30 WHIP, 21% K rate in 180 IP

 

Nick’s reluctant Jose Quintana 2020 projection:

4.60 ERA, 1.40 WHIP, 18% K rate in 170 IP

 

 

Tyler ChatwoodFringe Starter

Nickname: The Ratio

 

2020 Outlook

 

After years mostly starting and returning a season with a higher BB% than K%, Chatwood spent most of his 2019 in the pen and looked plenty better than we’ve previously seen. There’s a chance his redemption in the pen grants him a shot at the fifth spot in the rotation, but if that were to come, don’t anticipate his increased fastball velocity to carry over.

This has “DO NOT TOUCH” written all over it.

 

Adbert AlzolayFringe Starter

Nickname: Adele

 

2020 Outlook

 

The fastball is electric and the curveball may hint at a money pitch at some point, but odds are that his violent mechanics will speak to inconsistent command for a long, long time.

Alzolay had a few chances at starting last year, but it seems more likely that he profiles to be a reliever. I just don’t see an arm here that can go a strong six frames on a given night.

 

Alec MillsFringe Starter

Nickname: The Feddes

 

2020 Outlook

 

Mills was a pleasant surprise giving us six innings of six strikeout ball during his first game of the year, then close the year with two productive starts of 9.2 frames, 15 strikeouts and just 1 ER.

It’s a questionable skill set to buy into, though, even if it came with a 12.5% SwStr across the small 36 inning sample. It’s a sub 90mph heater (yuck, you’re not Hendricks!) that instantly makes us question his ceiling, but on the plus side, his curveball and changeup performed surprisingly well—15% SwStr and 44% Zone for his curveball + a tantalizing 52% O-Swing and 25% SwStr rate for his changeup.

It does scream small sample, though, and while Alec may be a sneaky play to get the 5th rotation start and present some value for the cost of nothing, there’s a very low floor here that may make any gamble ultimately not worth the risk.

But hey, if he becomes the starter, don’t overlook a good stream or two.

 

Jharel CottonFringe Starter

Nickname: The Inkling

 

2020 Outlook

 

I used to be really into Jharel Cotton and his fantastic changeup entering 2017 and even at the start of April, fresh off seven shutout innings and six strikeouts against the Royals.

Then it all went terribly, concluding in a 5.58 ERA and TJS the next spring. Now back in action for the Cubs after 27 innings of minor league relief for the A’s last season, I wonder who we’ll see. No, he’s not worth any investment at this point, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Cotton got a chance in that fifth spot at some point this season and hey, maybe that changeup is just as beautiful as ever.

 

Colin ReaFringe Starter

Nickname: Just Fantasy

 

2020 Outlook

 

Rea, the man known for getting TJS at the wrong time and denying the Padres Luis Castillo, gave the Cubs Triple-A affiliate 26 starts last season and they were…what you’d expect: a 3.95 ERA, 1.36 WHIP, and 19% strikeout rate.

This isn’t the sneaky play you’re looking for. Even if Rea gets his opportunities in the bigs, it’s very unlikely to come with an impact in your fantasy leagues.

 

Nickname explanations:

Yu DarvishThe Second Person. “You” grammatically is talking in the second person.

Kyle HendricksThe Professor. He went to Dartmouth and pitches slowly. It’s what people call him.

Jon Lester: The Horror. He’s one who lests often. Also, watching his ability degrade before us isn’t a pleasant sight.

Jose QuintanaHerFlush. The Quint of Ana, quint is a straight flush in the game of piquet, but HerStraightFlush doesn’t roll off the tongue as well.

Tyler ChatwoodThe Ratio. It’s a struggle every year for his strikeout rate to be higher than his walk rate. Yeah.

Adbert AlzolayAdele. He’s Ad-Al.

Alec MillsThe General. General Mills is a cereal company. Lucky Charms n all.

Jharel Cotton: The Inkling. We’ve Cotton inkling that he’ll be decent this year. Yep, it’s in the book.

Colin ReaJust Fantasy. It’s not Rea life.

 

 

Photo by Mark Albert/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Justin Paradis (@freshmeatcomm)

Nick Pollack

Founder of PitcherList.com. Rotographs and Washington Post contributor. Worked with CBS Sports, Grantland, and SB Nation. Former pitching coach and Brandeis alum.

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