Cubs' rotation has stolen spotlight from Mets

Jake Arrieta will throw on Saturday vs. the Mets; Noah Syndergaard will take the hill on Sunday against the Cubs. USA TODAY Sports, Getty Images

Last year's NLCS between the New York Mets and Chicago Cubs was billed as a battle between the young rotation of the Mets versus the young hitters of the Cubs. The Mets won decisively. Matt Harvey, Noah Syndergaard, Jacob deGrom and Steven Matz combined to allow just six runs in 25 innings. The Cubs hit .164 as the Mets swept the series.

Like the aliens in "Independence Day: Resurgence," however, there's another round to this fight. The Cubs and Mets begin a four-game series at Citi Field tonight, their first matchup of the season, a series that comes at a crucial point for the reeling Mets. The Nationals just swept them and they've fallen a half-game out of the wild card. Reports surfaced this week that Syndergaard and Matz are both pitching with bone spurs in their elbows, and the offense is struggling with injuries and productivity.

Meanwhile, it's the Cubs' rotation that is having the historic season so far, not the Mets' fireballers:

That 2.54 rotation ERA would be the lowest since the 1981 Astros posted a 2.43 ERA. In context, however, the Cubs' mark is more impressive. 1981 was not only a strike-shortened season, but the Astrodome was a pitchers' park and the overall run environment was lower than 2016 (3.91 runs per game versus 4.43).

Whether the Cubs can continue pitching like this remains to be seen, of course. Note the BABIP column: Because of that, the Cubs' starters have allowed a meager .205 batting average. How sustainable is that level of dominance? Ben Lindbergh and Rob Arthur of FiveThirtyEight addressed that question last week, writing that it appears the Cubs' starters have excelled in managing hard contact (and thus limiting hits):

As with any extreme observation, it seems safe to expect some regression to the mean for Chicago’s pitchers. Still, we can conclude that the Cubs' historically low BABIP through their first 69 games isn't merely luck. One way or another, the Cubs have earned a lot of those outs.

We were originally going to get a Jake Arrieta-Syndergaard matchup on Saturday, but the Mets shuffled their rotation and Syndergaard got pushed back to Sunday. Let's take a quick at the four matchups.


John Lackey (7-4, 3.29 ERA) versus Steven Matz (7-3, 3.29 ERA)

Lackey's string of 10 consecutive quality starts ended in his last outing, but here's the interesting note about the 37-year-old veteran: He's striking out batters at a much higher rate than he ever has:

2016: 26.4 percent

2005: 22.5 percent

2006: 20.6 percent

Last year, he whiffed batters less than 20 percent of the time. He hasn't changed his repertoire much -- a few more curveballs and changeups, a few less fastballs, same amount of sliders. But he's generating more swings and misses, especially with his slider, which has a swing-and-miss rate of 42.6 percent, a result of it diving out of the zone more often:


Jason Hammel (7-4, 2.58 ERA) versus Jacob deGrom (3-4, 2.67 ERA)

The early concerns on deGrom centered around his decline in velocity, but that has been picking up of late. Average fastball velocity:

2015: 94.9 mph

April 2016: 92.3 mph

May 2016: 93.0 mph

June 2016: 93.2 mph

No, it's not what it was last year, and that maybe explains why his fastball has been hit a little harder this year:

2015: .220/.269/.363

2016: .303/.341/.424

Those numbers are just the results in plate appearances ending in fastballs. His swing-and-miss rate overall is down about 3 percent with his fastball and when batters do connect, they're hitting it harder. Opponents had a .117 well-hit percentage against his fastball in 2015, but that's up to .202 in 2016. Still, his overall numbers remain solid, and he has eliminated the platoon split he had last year as he's actually held left-handed batters to a lower OPS than right-handed ones. Look for him to continue throwing more off-speed stuff, especially the changeup to the Cubs' lefties.


Jake Arrieta (12-2, 2.10 ERA) versus Bartolo Colon (6-4, 2.86 ERA)

Arrieta has coming off a start where he allowed five runs and five walks in five innings -- his first five-run outing in more than a year. His walk rate is way up this season, and you may think that's because his control is off, but his rate of pitches in the strike zone is basically identical to last season (49.5 percent in 2016 versus 49.2 percent). His rate of pitches in the zone when he gets to three balls, however, is down about 9 percent, so it could be a conscious decision of just not giving in when he's behind in the count. The overall results: More walks, but a lower average allowed and a lower slugging percentage. It's also led to more short outings due to pitch inefficiency; he has gone just five innings in four of his past seven starts and six times already on the season after doing that just twice all of 2015.


Jon Lester (9-3, 2.03 ERA) versus Noah Syndergaard (8-3, 2.49 ERA)

Lester is having his best season, but all eyes will be on Syndergaard after the report about his elbow. He says it's not a problem, although Buster Olney wrote today how some rival execs are surprised at how the Mets are handling the situation:

Standard operating procedure in the industry in a situation like this is caution, especially with a young pitcher. Syndergaard is 23 years old, with the best fastball of any starting pitcher in the game, and theoretically could have a long and successful future, if he can stay healthy.

Which is why the Mets greatly surprised a lot of rival executives by keeping Syndergaard in the rotation to face the Nationals this week. "Have you ever heard of anything like that?" one executive asked rhetorically.

Said another, ticking off a checklist commonplace in the industry: "Pitcher has elbow trouble, pitcher gets checked, pitcher gets placed on the DL. What happened?"

About that fastball. It actually has been hit quite a bit lately -- batters are hitting .329 against it June and lefties are hitting .374 against it on the season. Yes, the velocity on the heater helps set up his breaking stuff, but Syndergaard ranks just 21st among starters in wOBA allowed on his fastball. More importantly, however, is how he bounces back from that three-inning stint against the Nationals.