Cubs manager Joe Maddon and the staff caught a lot of flak from veteran pitchers unhappy with their pitching schedules getting disrupted just before the All-Star break – and twice after – by the use of a sixth starter.
Nobody can know for sure what kind of difference it made. But keeping the five-man rotation intact and strong – as it appears to be heading toward the playoffs – was, of course, the idea of building in those periods of extra rest.
Surely, the Cubs starters are convinced of the value at this point – especially after a handful of key pitching injuries to other potential playoff staffs in recent days.
“They haven’t admitted that,” Maddon said. “I think they’ve been good about it, though. They’ve benefitted. But it’s hard to get any of them to admit to that, So I’m not even trying.
“I just hope that it doesn’t happen to any of them.”
Just over the weekend, All-Star starter Jacob deGrom of the Mets (elbow surgery) and Carlos Carrasco of the Indians (broken finger) were deemed out for the season by their clubs.
That puts three of the four Mets starters from last year’s playoff sweep against the Cubs currently sidelined with injuries, with the chance lefty Steven Matz could return. Carrasco joins Danny Salazar (forearm) – two of the Indians’ top three starters – on the sidelines, both considered out for the postseason.
And Stephen Strasburg (elbow), the Nationals’ No. 2 starter when the season started, still remains uncertain for the playoffs two weeks after being sidelined.
By contrast, among the pitchers who opened in their rotations each of the past two seasons, only John Lackey, late this season, spent any time on the DL. He went less than three weeks between starts because of a sore shoulder and sill should reach 30 starts this season.
That durability is one reason the Cubs have four 15-game winners for the first time since 1935, seventh time in franchise history – with Jason Hammel’s 5-2 victory over the Reds on Monday giving the Cubs the fourth.
Only one Cubs team had more: Three Finger Brown’s 1904 club.
Whatever it may say about the Cubs’ methods – and whatever the cranky old tough guys in the rotation might think about extra rest – the recent injuries among other contenders just increased the Cubs’ relative strength as a World Series favorite.
“There’s more we don’t know about pitching health than we do know,” team president Theo Epstein said. “The things that we do know and that we can prove empirically, or that we have a strong intuition that work, we try to put into practice from rookie ball up to the big leagues. And we try to hire the best trainers and the best coaches and try to focus on the long-term perspective.
“We hope some of the things we do work, but we also know we certainly don’t have all the answers.”
The Cubs aren’t the only team that uses spot starters to pace the regular starters for a long season of health. But few do it with as systematic an approach.
“I just think that industry-wide going into next year you’re going to see a lot of second halves that include sixth guys in the rotation,” Maddon predicted. “I really believe that. … The biggest problem is to get that sixth guy. Everybody’s trying to get five. And some teams are trying to get four guys they like.”