The Great Debate

So for the rest of the season, there will be talks amongst your friends about how to tighten up the roster for the playoffs. Not that you can really tune your roster perfectly for what essentially becomes a lottery, but it’s still fun and just about all you can do when your team is this far ahead. We’ll talk about whether Heyward should lose his starting spot, whether Baez should replace Zobrist, various ways the pen should be laid out, whatever else.

The biggest question though will be which four starters make the grade, and which one gets left out in the cold. And it could be especially harsh because whichever starter isn’t in the rotation, might not make the roster at all. Because which would be a better option out of the pen than what’s already down there? Still, with Wood’s wonkiness of late they might be better reserved as a long man. But that’s what Cahill might be. Anyway, one thing at a time.

So when trying to pick through Lackey, Hammel, or Hendricks, it’s probably a good first step to see which one is the most illusionary so far this year. That’s probably what the front office, Maddon, and Bosio will try and figure out too.

The one with the numbers that don’t line up to his career most is obviously Hammel, especially in this incredible second half he’s put together so far. When looking at Hammel over the full season, we see a 60 point dip in his BABIP from his career number, .298 down to .237. All the Cubs pitchers are seeing some sort of dip, and some of that can be absolutely attributed to the best in the league defense the Cubs sport now instead of the barely ok one last year. Hammel has also seen a jump from last year in his ground-ball rate, though that’s just about at his career norm, 44.7 this year to 43.8 over his career.

What Hammel has been able to control, and I don’t think we can chalk up to luck, is a drop in his line-drive rate against from 24.8 last year to 18.4% this year. He’s also tripled the percentage of infield flies he gets, from 3.6% last year to 9.8% this year, and that’s generally considered within the pitcher’s control as well.

It’s also hard to ignore that Hammel is getting a 84.5 LOB% this year, which is a full 13% over his career mark and it’s 96.2% in the second half! Clearly the second one at least is not sustainable, and the first number might not be either. That’s just sequencing.

When talking about Hendricks, the first thing to notice is a 98.9 LOB% in the second half. That’s like, beyond insane. Overall, it’s 80.8%, which is actually perfectly weighted to cancel out his unlucky 69.8% last year for a career mark of 75.2%. Again, some of this probably has to do with the excellent defense behind him getting the outs and double plays to strand runners, but some of it is just luck.

Hendricks’s BABIP has seen a 47-point drop from last year, .296 to .249. Once again, some of that has to be the defense behind him, some of it luck, and some of it the soft contact he induces. And this is where Hendricks separates himself a little. Hendricks’s line-drive rate against has only dropped two points, 21.8% to 19.2% this year. His infield fly rate has only is up only two points as well, 10.6% from 8.8% last year. So it feels like this is a little more in line with who he actually is than getting all the bounces in a season. I don’t think either is an illusion, but Hendricks’s season, as ridiculous as it might sound given his arsenal, might be a touch more on the real side.

As for Lackey, he’s actually on the other side of the spectrum. While he’s seen a jump in Ks and the same drop in BABIP as the other two (getting the sense the Cubs’ defense might be pretty good?), he’s not getting the LOB% luck as the others. His 75% is right in line with his career mark, so he’s not really been bad in this category. He’s just not getting the sequencing the other two are at the moment. Lackey has also seen a small jump from last year in his line-drive rate against and hard contact percentage, though nothing revolutionary. He’s also not getting the same IFFB%, and I guess if you wanted to you could argue it’s something to do with a  little off the fastball. But his velocity hasn’t dropped at all, so it’s just one of those things.

Obviously, other things that just numbers are going to play into this. Lackey’s experience in the playoffs will almost certainly win him a spot in the rotation in October. That leaves Hammel and Hendricks, and I would guess Hendricks’s season long performance would win out over Hammel’s surge. Plus, Hammel throws harder and his slider probably leads to more Ks out of the pen. I’m guessing whichever one starts the other one will be on alert to come for an early rescue should the starter falter. And their stuff is different enough where it would be a gear change for any lineup to adjust to.

But things are probably going to depend on how each finish the season, so we’ll revisit this in September.

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