CINCINNATI — It’s clear by now that most of the consternation in Cubdom about what’s wrong with the Cubs and what needs improvement has more to do with the clear sailing they had in 2016 than the flaws they have in 2017.
They are, after all, in first place with an early-season pace that would result in 95 victories after winning their fourth game in a row Saturday.
But even a 12-8 victory against the Reds underscored the area most worth watching in the next few weeks because of its potential to put the Cubs on the kind of run they spent most of last season riding.
That’s the starting rotation, which pitched circles around the rest of the National League in 2016 but has been up and down this season despite returning its top four starters.
The Cubs’ rotation led the majors with a 2.96 ERA and 100 quality starts last season, including a 2.21 ERA and 15 quality starts in the first 17 games as the team got off to a torrid start.
‘‘I still think we’re at the top,’’ said right-hander Jake Arrieta, who survived yielding a three-run home run to Joey Votto in the first inning to regroup for a six-inning start and improve to 3-0. ‘‘If you go strictly by the numbers, then, yeah, it might not be the case. There’s been a couple of mistakes here and there. But I think we’ve thrown the ball pretty well.’’
The rotation has a 4.00 ERA through 17 games this season (clustered in the middle of the pack in the majors) with only six quality starts. Only five major-league teams had fewer quality starts through Friday. Cubs starters have averaged 5⅔ innings a start.
Arrieta (3.65 ERA) and 2016 NL ERA leader Kyle Hendricks (6.19) have battled early-season dips in velocity. That’s especially detrimental to Hendricks because he relies heavily on one of the best changeups in the game.
Jon Lester (2.66 ERA) doesn’t have a decision in four starts largely because of a lack of run support, John Lackey (4.00) has been a sieve when it comes to allowing first-inning runs and newcomer Brett Anderson (4.40) has battled command and Wrigley weather conditions so far.
‘‘[If] we limit the free passes, [if] we use our stuff, we’re going to be fine,’’ said Arrieta, who didn’t walk a batter after walking only one in his previous start. ‘‘We’ve had some hiccups, but we’ve been picked up by the offense the last few times.’’
Consider that the Cubs allowed 24 runs during their four-game losing streak, which ended Tuesday. They’ve allowed the same number in their last four games and won them all.
Anthony Rizzo hit a three-run homer in each of the last two games. Jason Heyward hit one Saturday, a day after hitting a solo shot for his first homer of the season. Willson Contreras added his first career grand slam.
If Arrieta’s finish — retiring 12 of the last 14 batters he faced, including six strikeouts — is any indication, he might be on the verge of running off a streak of dominant starts. His velocity even ticked up to 94 mph, inching closer to his 95 to 96 mph norm.
‘‘After that [mistake to Votto], I was able to really lock it in,’’ Arrieta said. ‘‘My command throughout the game was really good. It was probably the best stuff I’ve had so far this year.’’
Just wait till the Cubs get through April, Contreras said.
‘‘April is the month to make adjustments and see how they’re going to attack us and how we’re going to pitch them,’’ Contreras said. ‘‘But I think in May and June, we’re going to get a little bit hotter than we are right now.’’
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