The early hand-wringing about the Chicago Cubs centered on the bullpen and the lack of hitting.
Something else is jumping off the page now, and it could be cause for concern down the line: the lack of quality starts by members of the rotation.
The Cubs entered Monday night’s series opener at Pittsburgh with twice as many non-quality starts as quality starts, 12-6.
That difference moved to 12-7 as Brett Anderson worked 6 innings and gave up 1 earned run (of 3 total) in a 14-3 victory over Pirates at PNC Park. The Cubs heavily supported Anderson with 4 runs in the first inning, 5 in the second and 1 in the third.
It was the first quality start by a Cubs starter since Jon Lester pitched 7 innings of shutout ball on April 16. After that, the Cubs went six straight games without a quality start.
A quality start happens when a pitcher works at least 6 innings and gives up no more than 3 earned runs. The minimum standard computes to an ERA of 4.50, but most quality starts are much better than that. Last year the Cubs received 100 quality starts. The team went 74-26 in those games, and the starters’s ERA was 1.47.
In the 61 non-quality starts turned in by Cubs pitchers, the world-championship team went 29-32, the starters posting an ERA of 6.26.
By the 19th game of the season last year, the Cubs had gotten 16 quality starts, with their starters having thrown 108⅔ innings in those games. In the 7 quality starts the Cubs have gotten this year in 19 games, the starters have thrown 44 innings.
By lagging well behind on quality starts compared with last year, the Cubs risk overtaxing their bullpen. The team opened the season with a 12-man pitching staff, with seven relievers. The mid-April activation of Brian Duensing off the disabled list increased the staff to 13 pitchers, eight relievers.
That should help spread the workload among the relievers a little better, but having a 13-man pitching staff makes for a short bench, and that could hamper manager Joe Maddon late in games.
The Cubs haven’t fared badly during games in which they didn’t get a quality start, going 6-6. But when teams are winning games in which they didn’t get a non-quality start, it means they hit enough to overcome the starts. That’s not going to happen every day.
The sample sizes are still small, and the Cubs do have some depth with Mike Montgomery. He could be stretched out to start if needed, either to replace one of the five starters in the rotation now or to be the sixth man when Maddon decides to go that route, which he’s fond of doing during busy stretches of the schedule.
The simple math of quality starts is that teams, even bad teams, win the majority of games when they get them and don’t win the majority of games when they’re not getting them.
We’ll see how the trend develops over the next two or so months leading up to the all-star…