When you score 55 runs over four games, your other foibles tend to be overlooked. That’s an old baseball cliche, y’know. So this morning, everyone’s a little less concerned about the Cubs being without half of their “core four” for the rest of the regular season because of all the runs pouring like an avalanche comin’ down the mountain. On the other side, the Cubs will soon stop seeing the confused and despondent cooking-school rejects that have taken the mound for the Pirates and Reds the last four games. It actually starts tonight with Sonny Gray, and the Cardinals will sport real live pitchers for those seven games to decide the fate of us all.
So the worry is that when the Cubs need to fight fire with fire, pitching-wise (which is probably ice with ice given that offense is always considered the hot weapon and defense the cool one so “fight Sub-Zero with Sub-Zero?”), they only have two of five guys who can do it right now. If it wasn’t for Kyle Hendricks and Yu Darvish, this season may have already been taken out to the curb. The three lefties have been woeful of late. Now maybe that’s something you can paper over for 12 more games, which is all that’s left. But the Cubs have been trying to get around it for a few weeks now, so there just might not be that much sand left in the top chamber here.
Two of them are easily explicable. Jon Lester might simply be past it, and the thin margins of error he already had the past couple seasons are simply now imperceptible and unreachable. His fellow over-35 southpaw, Cole Hamels, is coming back from an injury that derailed his career once already for a year and a half, and he seems completely lost or hurt or both. To expect these two to be anything more than what we’ve seen is almost certainly optimistic at best, deluded at worst. We have the evidence of why this is happening.
Jose Quinana, on the other hand, is a stranger case. There’s no injury that we know of. He’s only 30, though has certainly piled up his share of innings. So health and age aren’t the concerns for him that they are for Lester and Hamels. And yet his recent stretch is worrying as well. With three starters rolling, you figure the Cubs could close this season out triumphantly. With only two, it becomes more of a stretch of imagination as the Cardinals spend a majority of those games making sure the Cubs aren’t actually putting up a touchdown or two.
It’s easy to forget, even if it was just a month ago, how good Q was in August. He had an ERA of 2.02 with 39 Ks and only six walks. He had a four start stretch where he gave up just four runs over 26 innings. And the numbers could have actually been better. He had an extremely weird start against the Nationals where he literally did not give up one hard-hit ball, almost all of it was on the ground, and yet it all found holes or the Cubs starting throwing it around like a shuttlecock. Even his last start of that month was good, though Maddon got a little panicky and pulled him with two outs in the sixth even though he hadn’t given up a run.
But September has been puke-tastic. He’s only seen the 4th inning once, and has given up 13 earned runs in just 10.1 innings. Again, some of this is weird, as his start in San Diego was essentially sabotaged by defense again. But it’s not like Q to fall apart after something like that, which he promptly did after Ben Zobrist did a fine Mitch Trubisky impression on a double-play ball (too soon?).
So is there something going on? On the surface, there’s isn’t a lot of change. There’s no velocity drop, it’s not like his walks have risen hugely, or anything else we jump to first. When digging around a bit, it does look a little like his change-up has flattened and lost some drop:
The past two starts he hasn’t gotten a swing-and-miss on it, which is a problem.
Still, there’s an element of weirdness, as there always is in baseball. Quintana in his last three starts has been getting way more ground-balls than he did during his brilliant stretch in August, which you would think should be a good thing. In those August starts he only got half of his contact-against on the ground once. He’s done that in every start since and including that Washington one, but with these results. Does he miss Baez the most?
What he hasn’t gotten in his last couple outings is any whiffs on anything but his four-seamer, and that’s got to change. As you’d think, or hope, that with the greater amount of grounders, even adding a smidge of Ks to it would get Q back on top sharpish. It’s likely the Cubs will need that.