It feels like it’s been months since the Cubs bowed out of the 2020 MLB Postseason. While the result was downright abysmal, the lack of offense produced in a two game sweep at the hands of the Marlins should have surprised precisely no one. Alas, it has now been over a week, which means the time is ripe for digesting and evaluating individual performances this season.
The Cubs’ offseason has already produced a bit of drama. Yet another hitting coach may be on the hot seat, Theo Epstein’s end-of-season presser yielded sentiments we’ve all heard before, and the Cubs are staring down a crossroads of four members of the core in contract years (including Epstein himself), frustrating underperformance in 2020, and a continued budget crisis fabricated by the Ricketts family.
For now, let’s dive into individual player grades. We will start with Pitchers. Please keep in mind that my grading scale isn’t merely about a player’s season numbers, but how those numbers reflect pre-season expectations, assumed role, and overall impact to the club.
Note: Only position players with at least 60 plate appearances, and pitchers with at least 10 appearances (or two or more starts) will be considered. Additionally, only players that finished the season in the organization will be evaluated.
Yu Darvish (RHP): 76 IP, 93/14 K/BB, 2.01 ERA, 2.23 FIP, 3.0 fWAR
It’s practically impossible to overstate Darvish’s performance in 2020. A career low ERA (and FIP), a walk rate halved from his career average, and being consistently dominant all season while maintaining his typically fantastic strikeout rate are enough to give him an exemplary grade.
What’s all-the-more impressive is that Darvish is a legitimate Cy Young candidate — if not the outright frontrunner. Yu led the NL in fWAR (3.0), trailing only Shane Bieber of Cleveland (3.2) among starters in MLB — who is a lock to win the AL Cy Young. His BB/9 (1.66) trailed only his teammate, Kyle Hendricks (0.89), in the NL among starters, and his FIP was the lowest in the senior circuit while trailing only Trevor Bauer in ERA.
Darvish was, without question, a top three starter in 2020. Regardless of whether or not he takes home some deserved hardware, he was an absolutely elite performer.
Kyle Hendricks (RHP): 81.1 IP, 64/8 K/BB, 2.88 ERA, 3.55 FIP, 1.9 fWAR
In his age 30 season Hendricks continued to be the pitcher that defies conventional wisdom. Last season witnessed an uptick in four seam fastball usage, particularly at the top of the zone, and while he continued that trend in 2020 he added a new wrinkle: throwing his curveball at a career-high rate.
What’s particularly impressive about Hendricks isn’t simply his durability and consistency, it’s that he’s maintained both of those attributes throughout his career while continuously evolving how he attacks hitters.
Hendricks led all of baseball in walk rate (0.89 BB/9), tossed the third most innings, and continued to dazzle despite everyone’s consternation that velocity is king. Hendricks’ peripherals will always suggest he’s a bit lucky, but when a pitcher boasts an ERA significantly better than their FIP every year while putting up Ace-like numbers, you have to accept he’s an exception to the sabermetric-ordained rules.
Darvish was the Cubs’ Ace of 2020, but Hendricks wasn’t far behind. This is a helluva one-two punch to have for the next few seasons.
Jon Lester (LHP): 61 IP, 42/17 K/BB, 5.16 ERA, 5.14 FIP, 0.3 fWAR
The drop-off in production after Hendricks and Darvish was steep, and it started with the greatest free agent acquisition in franchise history.
While nobody was expecting Lester to be dominant in his age-36 season (with almost 2,600 regular season innings under his belt), there was hope he’d amount to a league average starter, eat-up innings, and mentor a staff with several question marks entering the season.
Lester did eat up innings, and he certainly served as a veteran/mentor for players (while also being a healthy conduit to first-year skipper David Ross), but the production on the field was far from ideal. Lester managed to accrue a positive fWAR despite the worst ERA (and FIP) of his career, second worst home run rate, and a diminishing strikeout percentage. After two terrific starts to begin the 2020 campaign his season floundered, an unfortunate reality indeed.
Lester’s option for 2021 ($25 million) almost certainly won’t be exercised, but the Cubs offering him a relatively small, one-year contract after his $10 million buyout is both reasonable and logical. If he returns to the Cubs in ’21, expect him to slot into the fifth-starter role as he looks to notch his 200th career win on the Northside.
Alec Mills (RHP): 62.1 IP, 46/19 K/BB, 4.48 ERA, 5.44 FIP, 0.2 fWAR
Mills wasn’t supposed to be in the rotation from the outset, but injuries to both Tyler Chatwood and Jose Quintana necessitated he step-up. And, all things considered, Alec did a bang-up job for the Cubs in 2020.
The historic no-hitter against Milwaukee will, of course, always be a fond memory, but it belies how his season actually unfolded. Like Hendricks, Mills relies on below-average velocity, yet unlike Hendricks he has not mastered the ability to consistently control his secondary offerings.
‘Inconsistent’ is probably the most apt term for Mills this season, as it seemed every start could be one of a quality nature or a dud in which he’d throw five or fewer innings while surrendering four or more runs. That inconsistency led to merely a league average ERA, yet eclipsing 62 innings in 11 starts ain’t too shabby for an expected long-reliever.
Relative to his expected role and overall expectations, Mills had a fine year for the Cubs. Expect him to compete for a rotation spot once again in 2021.
Tyler Chatwood (RHP): 18.2 IP, 25/9 K/BB, 5.30 ERA, 3.55 FIP, 0.4 fWAR
Grading Chatwood’s season is a difficult endeavor. After a couple of brilliant outings to start the season, he absolutely imploded against the Royals — lasting just 2.1 innings, surrendering 8 runs, and landing on the IL.
Chatwood was showing terrific velocity, and had discovered his strikeout stuff prior to the injury. All told he only mustered five starts in the pandemic-shortened season, and while his numbers are a bit curious (his FIP is markedly lower than his ERA) we simply saw just a glimpse of what could have been had he stayed healthy.
2020, Chatwood’s walk year, was a microcosm of his tenure in Chicago: Sad, frustrating, and disappointing.
Adbert Alzolay (RHP): 21.1 IP, 29/13 K/BB, 2.95 ERA, 3.05 FIP, 0.5 fWAR
Alzolay has been a pitching prospect for what seems like an eternity. Always on the cusp, injuries or inconsistencies have always bogged him down — but 2020 may have been a turning point in his career.
Adbert had a couple of brief stints with the Cubs this year, but it’s what he did down the stretch (making the playoff roster to boot) that stands out. After being sent back to South Bend, Alzolay reworked his breaking ball, and began throwing what became a devastating slider.
His last two starts included 15 strikeouts in just nine innings, giving up a run a piece in either start. Adbert wasn’t on the Cubs enough in 2020 to make a huge difference, and he needs to fine tune his control, but the manner in which his season ended — and the promise of the future — positively affected his 2020 report card.
Jeremy Jeffress: 23.1 IP, 17/12 K/BB, 1.54 ERA, 4.09 FIP, 0.2 fWAR, 8/10 Saves
Jeffress is perhaps the surprise player of the year for the Cubs. For a team that signed literally every random veteran reliever imaginable (both in the off-season as well as throughout the year) they needed someone to stick. And Jeffress not only impressed, he displayed glimpses of his previously elite ability while helping to solidify the back end of a maligned unit.
Mixing a fastball, curve, and splitter, Jeffress induced ground balls at an impressive clip (54.4 percent), and while he walked too many and didn’t display the swing-and-miss stuff you typically see from a Closer, he simply got the job done.
It wasn’t always pretty, and his FIP questions his true effectiveness, but the 1.54 ERA while serving as the team’s de facto Closer suggests Jeffress had a helluva campaign. Hopefully the Cubs find a way to re-sign the veteran hurler.
Craig Kimbrel: 15.1 IP, 28/12 K/BB, 5.28 ERA, 3.97 FIP, 0.1 WAR, 2/3 Saves
Kimbrel’s season might not display dominant numbers, but that’s entirely a result of the unmitigated disaster of his first four outings. Those first four outings yielded seven earned runs in just 2.2 innings, including five walks against just two strikeouts. It was as if 2019’s disaster not only carried over, but worsened to an unimaginable degree.
After, however, he was absolutely dominant. In the final 13.2 innings of the season he pitched to the tune of a 1.98 ERA (1.22 FIP), striking out nearly half of the batters he faced while surrendering a paltry .130 batting average against (.174 slugging). He still walked too many batters (eight) in that stretch, but the sheer dominance he displayed was what the Cubs expected when signing him midway through the 2019 season.
Kimbrel may very well be an elite closer next year. And while his 2020 season was mostly dominant, losing his role as the Closer early in the season does impact his overall grade.
Rowan Wick: 17.1 IP, 20/6 K/BB, 3.12 ERA, 2.67 FIP, 0.5 fWAR, 4/4 Saves
Wick became a trusted member of the bullpen dating back to last season, and he maintained that role in 2020. He shored up the back end of the ‘pen, including saving games when needed, all while limiting walks and inducing strikeouts at a clip befitting of his role.
His season ended prematurely due to an oblique strain, but Wick provided what was expected of him.
Ryan Tepera: 20.1 IP, 31/12 K/BB, 3.92 ERA, 3.34 FIP, 0.3 fWAR
Tepera is one of the many arms the Cubs found on-the-cheap. There was no guarantee he’d make the roster out of camp, but he made the most of his opportunities in 2020, making 21 (mostly) effective appearances.
Tepera relied on a fastball/cutter combination, his velocity sitting at 94 as he amassed an impressive strikeout rate (34.8 percent). Used more as middle relief than high-leverage, Tepera walked too many batters (13.5 percent), and could stand to induce more ground balls. Still, his overall performance was admirable given the nature of his signing and expectations entering the season. He’s arbitration eligible in 2021, and almost certainly earned a spot in the Cubs ‘pen next year.
Jason Adam: 13.2 IP, 21/8 K/BB, 3.29 ERA, 3.78 FIP, 0.1 fWAR
In another minor league deal gone well, Jason Adam impressed with the Cubs. Relying mostly on a fastball that sat around 95 mph, Adam also offered three secondary pitches (curve, slider, change), an impressive mix for a reliever. Stop me if you heard this before, but Adam surprised in 2020, striking out hitters at a high level, walking a bit too many, and inducing ground balls at a below average clip.
Already 29, Adam is under team control next season before hitting arbitration. His elite spin rate comes with a troubling injury history, but given his effectiveness, and because he’ll be cheap, it’s a safe bet to assume he’ll be in the ‘pen in 2021 (health willing.)
Dan Winkler: 18.1 IP, 18/11 K/BB, 2.95 ERA, 5.32 FIP, -0.1 fWAR
Another random veteran relief arm, Winkler’s numbers are hard to understand. His ERA looks mighty fine, but the FIP was nearly double that for a reason: he walked far too many batters without maintaining a high enough strikeout rate to justify the free passes. His BABIP was also an impossibly-low .186, suggesting luck had as much to do with the low-ERA as anything else.
Luck be damned, it was still an impressive performance, especially for a player with little expectations headed into the season. Winkler doesn’t have a contract for next season with the Cubs, and with his peripherals, it doesn’t seem likely that he returns in 2021.
Duane Underwood, Jr.: 20.2 IP, 27/6 K/BB, 5.66 ERA, 4.74 FIP, 0.0 fWAR
Underwood, like Alzolay, has long been a prospect that hasn’t quite put it all together. While his overall numbers in 2020 don’t look great, the underlying numbers are solid (30.6 K rate, 6.8 BB rate), and a gaudy .408 BABIP suggests he was a bit unlucky.
A mid-90’s fastball, coupled with an effective change and curve, suggest a viable piece in the bullpen moving forward. Still just 26, Underwood is under team control for two more years before hitting arbitration — but he’s also out of options and needs to stick with the big league roster out of camp.
I’m a big believer in Underwood long-term, but his grade is a reflection of 2020’s performance.
Kyle Ryan: 15.2 IP, 11/6 K/BB, 5.17 ERA, 7.09 FIP, -0.3 WAR
A breakout performer in 2019, Ryan’s 2020 season was absolutely dreadful. Injuries and diminished velocity led to ugly numbers, which was especially disappointing given the role he was expected to play coming into the season.
Ryan’s fastball velocity dipped nearly two ticks from 2019, his ground ball rate was nearly eight points lower than his career average, and he surrendered an atrocious five long balls in less than 16 innings of work. This was simply the case of a talented player enduring a hellacious season.
Ryan finally enters arbitration next year, and will certainly be with the Cubs to begin the 2021 campaign. Let’s just hope his velocity — and with it, his effectiveness — returns to form.
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