Setting the Cubs Rotation

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I wrote this just before watching Black Panther, which was very very good.  The movie, that is…I have no idea what you think of what I wrote, but I thought my ideas were well-conceived given what we know of the current roster and in-house options.  I did start a spreadsheet based on the 2018 regular season schedule, and I decided to line up the starters in three ways…

  • Straight five-man rotation, with Mike Montgomery as a pure reliever (or emergency starter, because that is a likely scenario regardless);
  • Straight six-man rotation, with Monty in the final spot;
  • A “hybrid” system, with a top four or five, and Monty is now a spot starter in parts of the season and a spot starter elsewhere.

As noted in the previous blog, there are a ton of off days built into the schedule, with interleague against the AL Central allowing for a few random two-game series that are bookended by off days, as well as a couple of two-game series against division foes, which I’ve never seen before.  Or maybe I just forgot about it?  Those two-game series do happen a lot more than in previous seasons in my estimation, though, and that could give the players more rest or more wear depending on what you think about non-game action and travel.  If no games ever go to extras (ha, right), then that’s 162 games times nine innings, or a total of 1458 innings.  We’ll just round it up to an even 1500 innings then, and that is what will need to be split between the starters and their taxi squad.

Anyway, the scheduling spreadsheet was a bit of a chore, and I probably could’ve done it more effectively if I knew how to code better.  But counting through the schedule wasn’t that bad all things considered, although I did neglect to indicate home vs. away games for the most part.  I think you can figure that part out though.  I did indicate all the off days and consecutive games, with most stretches being manageable at 10 games or fewer.  The longest stretch is right before the Fourth of July, with 17 games in a row.  Where it says “ST,” that means the first start of the season for the starting pitcher, and I’m fairly certain Joe Maddon will have given that starter at least five days off before the start that matters.

Five-Man Rotation

In this case, we have the predicted top five, with the top four potentially interchangeable…

Top Four in the Rotation

Number five starter

This is, of course, assuming that everybody stays healthy and Montgomery never has to make a spot start, making this scenario unrealistic but I thought I’d just throw it out there.  In the five-man rotation, the top two get 33 starts each, while everyone else gets 32 starts each.  If we are confident and assume the top four can last an average of six innings each start, while Chatwood gives at least five innings per start, that breaks down to:

  • #1 starter = 198 innings
  • #2 starter = 198 innings
  • #3 starter = 192 innings
  • #4 starter = 192 innings
  • Tyler Chatwood = 160 innings

So that’s 940 innings that the starting rotation can probably take care of, leaving 560 innings for the bullpen.  That sounds realistic, so we can go with those numbers for now.  Not counting the post-All Star Break starts, and with off days already factored in, the starters will have to go about 16 to 19 starts each on four or five days rest.  Of their share of starts, more starts will come on five days rest than on four.

However, that is still at least 10 starts on four days rest for each starter, and those starts are not evenly distributed throughout the season, so you know that a sixth man is eventually going to be needed.  The evenly spaced off days in the Cubs’ schedule certainly help, but not enough to completely eliminate spot starters.  And since we know at least a few games will get rained out to reshuffle the schedule or force doubleheader makeups, Montgomery and crew will get their starts.

As it goes, though, a straight five-man rotation isn’t a bad thing if everyone stays healthy and effective.  Since shit happens, let’s assume we will have to look at a six-man rotation at some point.

The Straight Six-Man Rotation

If the Cubs elect to go with a straight six-man rotation, similar to what the Angels are trying to do now with Shohei Ohtani and some spare parts, then every starter will have an even number of starts (27), with at least five days of rest in between every start and six days of rest most of the time due to all those off days.  As you can read in the article linked there, the Angels might have a problem sustaining their six-man rotation because of health and effectiveness, but the Cubs’ current rotation on paper is objectively superior, so there’s a chance this could work for the North Siders.

If we assume, again, that everyone stays healthy and doesn’t suck, then we can give the top four starters an average of six innings each start, while Chatwood and Monty eat up at least five each.  So that breaks down to…

  • #1 starter = 162 innings
  • #2 starter = 162 innings
  • #3 starter = 162 innings
  • #4 starter = 162 innings
  • Chatwood = 135 innings
  • Montgomery = 135 innings

That’s only 918 innings, leaving nearly 600 innings for the bullpen to pick up, and since we don’t want the bullpen to get too tired, let’s scratch that idea.  That leaves us with the hybrid idea…

The “Hybrid” Rotation

In this situation, we have the top four starters eat up the most starts, while Chatwood and Montgomery get comparatively fewer.  This has the advantage of ensuring that the bulk of the season’s innings go to the best starters in the rotation, while limiting the wear and tear on Chatwood and Montgomery since they will be relegated to bullpen duty once the playoffs start anyway.  And while both have their good points, I imagine most fans (and the front office and Maddon) trust the top four much more than they do Chatwood and Monty.  The back of the rotation in this case isn’t horrible, mind you; they’re just obviously not as good as the big guns.  And that’s nothing to be ashamed of.

However, the starts would break down like this, if we assume again that the top four eat at least six innings and the bottom two get at least five:

  • #1 starter (29) = 174 innings
  • #2 starter (29) = 174 innings
  • #3 starter (29) = 174 innings
  • #4 starter (28) = 168 innings
  • #5 starter (26) = 130 innings
  • #6 starter (21) = 105 innings

That is 925 innings, but wait!  Remember that Monty was a piggybacker for Eddie Butler last year, and he did pretty well in that role.  Also note that I predict that, if the season lines up the way I set it up, Monty will have three starts with 11 days rest and five starts with 12 days rest, and that’s probably too much inaction.  If the Cubs are not going to yo-yo Monty between the rotation and the bullpen, it seems that those are eight appearances where he could piggyback behind Chatwood and eat at least three innings per turn, maybe even four.  So conceivably Monty can provide another 30 innings, save the bullpen during Chatwood starts, and bring the starter share up to 955 innings, leaving just 545 for the bullpen.  That’s not too bad.

I like the hybrid idea very much because I designed it to get every starter at least five days off every time, and I tried to set up the rotation such that the big boys are lined up against the better projected teams, leaving the scabs to the bottom of the rotation.  I’m sure the order can be reshuffled in any number of ways, but let’s talk it out:

  • The hybrid rotation allows for optimum rest, mostly five or six days, without keeping the top four too rusty by giving excessive time off.  I think Yu Darvish did suggest that he would prefer more time off between starts, although he was pretty effective on shorter rest in MLB during his time here.  But extra rest to keep arms fresh and protect arms that are, in a way, still on the mend from Tommy John surgery?  I’m okay with that.
  • The hybrid rotation allows for flexibility to reshuffle the top four in the order to maximize matchups.  The order I listed in the spreadsheet is not set in stone.  Starters can be bumped to rest them further, with Montgomery taking over that start, and it’ll probably change anyway in September when (we hope) the Cubs clinch early and they just play out the slate with call-ups.  It’s a fine line to keep guys fresh and also to prevent rust, but the Cubs certainly have the right manager for it.
  • The hybrid rotation also keeps Monty happy, because I have Monty making 21 starts and staying stretched in between if they skip an official start of his.

I think if they are going to give Montgomery the starts in spring training to stretch him out, we are very likely to see some form of this hybrid rotation.  It’s a fine luxury to have.  While most teams have six or more pitchers who could start if they had to, most teams don’t have the arsenal that the Cubs have in their top six.  This is going to be fun.


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About Rice Cube

Rice Cube is the executive vice president of snark at World Series Dreaming. He loves all things Cubs, with notable exceptions (specifically, the part of Cubs fandom that pisses him off). Follow on Twitter at cubicsnarkonia