Who is the Cubs’ best pitcher?
That’s easy, right? Jake Arrieta. Defending National League Cy Young winner, scourge of major-league hitters, grower of impressive beards.
Actually, the answer is indeed easy: Kyle Hendricks. He leads the starting rotation in earned-run average (2.17), WHIP (1.02) and complete games (two), and is second in opponents’ batting average (.210). His 11-7 record is more a fluke than a reflection.
Now, which pitcher is manager Joe Maddon going to start in Game 1 of the Cubs’ first playoff series? Let’s put that another way: Do you think Maddon would have the gumption to tell Arrieta that he’s not going to get the ball? Not a chance.
But it could get trickier after that. If Maddon goes on merit, which is what sports is supposed to be about, Hendricks would be next up for a start. Maddon could argue that he doesn’t want to mess with a good thing – a rotation of Arrieta, Jon Lester, John Lackey, Hendricks and Jason Hammel has been excellent all season.
It’s also likely Maddon would say he favors playoff experience over regular-season success. It’s why Lester was brought to Chicago, though that didn’t work out so well in last year’s postseason.
But like the case with Arrieta, that decision would sound like code for, “Hey, you try to telling Lester and Lackey that Hendricks is starting ahead of them.’’ Lackey is wound so tight that, in those moments when he does look happy, it’s as if somebody else’s lost smile has wandered onto this face. Lester isn’t much looser. No, it’s not fun to deliver bad news. But if you don’t, how do you look at players and tell them with a straight face that the best people play?
At some point, Hendricks deserves to be rewarded for being so good and so consistent this season. It’s the same with the number of innings Maddon gives him. Someday, the skipper has to consistently let Hendricks pitch more than five or six innings per start. Maybe that day has arrived: In his last two starts, Hendricks has pitched nine innings and 7 1/3 innings, respectively.
If these are problems, we should all have problems. But they could end up being momentous decisions down the road.