It's become a yearly tradition. Some blustery winter day a couple months after the baseball season is over, we see new footage of the swing changes Jason Heyward has been working on. Everyone argues over if the swing looks any better, what's wrong with it, and, actually, if it's changed at all. The season starts. Eventually there are signs of promise. Everything goes downhill from there. We all agree to never speak of Heyward being fixed again.

The next season starts. Heyward goes on a tear for a week or two, and, inevitably, people proclaim that Heyward is fixed. Does it ever work out for those people?

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There was a time not long ago when Jake Arrieta was the undisputed ace of the Cubs' pitching staff. In 2015, he won 22 games, posted a 1.77 ERA, won the Cy Young award, pitched a no-hitter, shut out the Pirates in the Wild Card Game, and set a major league record for the lowest second-half ERA in history at 0.75. Then 2016 happened. 2016 started out much like 2015 ended for Arrieta. He threw another no-hitter and had a 1.74 ERA until his June 27 start. From then on, he was a broken pitcher.

From June 27 on last year, Arrieta had a 4.44 ERA. There were flashes of dominance, but he started giving up homers like a mere mortal and his control issues were interminable. Meanwhile, Kyle Hendricks and Jon Lester cruised to sub-2 second-half ERAs on their way to finishing first and second in the majors in ERA for the year. Arrieta took a backseat as Hendricks and Lester played starring roles in the Cubs' march through the playoffs.

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Kyle Hendricks' velocity, or lack thereof, has caused a lot of panic in Wrigleyville. This isn't quite a doomsday scenario, though. Perhaps I've deluded myself, but I'm ready to take the jump and ride that 84 mph fastball all the way back to the World Series.

I'll admit, when I first saw Kyle throwing 84 mph fastballs, I was alarmed. Hendricks had spent his first three years in the majors with a sinker that sat above 88 mph. And in two of his first three games this year, while he got off to a sub-par start, his sinker averaged less than 85 mph. I was cautiously optimistic because Hendricks started out last year at a lower velocity, before ramping it up as the season went along. Hendricks did see his velocity rise again this year after the scary April, with his sinker averaging over 86 mph in May and June before a hand injury shut him down for nearly two months.

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After bouncing back-and-forth between the majors and the minors in 2006 and 2007, Jon Lester finally stuck in the Red Sox's rotation full-time in 2008. He quickly became one of the best pitchers in the league. From 2008 through 2011, Lester was worth well over 4 wins per season, as measured by fWAR. According to RA9-WAR, he was worth nearly 6 wins per season during those years. Great peripherals; even better results.

Lester experienced a mid-career hiccup in 2012 and 2013, though. While he finished each of his first four full seasons with an ERA below 3.50 (in the AL, while pitching in hitter-friendly Fenway Park), his ERA across the 2012 and 2013 seasons was 4.28. His peripherals were a little better, as his FIP was 3.84 and his xFIP was 3.86. Still, it wasn't the kind of performance Red Sox fans had become accustomed to seeing. His strikeouts were down. He was allowing more base runners. And those base runners were scoring more often. Lester was only worth about 3 wins per season in 2012 and 2013, according to both fWAR and RA9-WAR.

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The Cubs head into a Sunday night matchup with the Red Sox with a 13-10 record, sitting in first place in the NL Central, having won six of seven series.  Things are going pretty well on the Northside, even if, perhaps, not as well as we'd expected.  One area of concern for most fans is probably the well-being of the starting rotation.  Collectively, Cubs starters have a 4.34 ERA, which ranks 22nd in baseball.  An inauspicious start, indeed, for a staff that put together a 2.96 ERA last year.  Last year's rotation was good at just about everything.  They ranked 5th in K/9, 6th in BB/9, 7th in GB%, 2nd in HR/9, 4th in FIP, 3rd in xFIP, 2nd in IP, 2nd in xwOBA2nd in average exit velocity, and 2nd in % of pitches that were "barreled."  It was a fair assumption that starting pitching would be a strength for the Cubbies in 2017, what with the staff being led by the second- and third-place finishers in Cy Young voting last year and another guy who won the award the year before.

So what's going on with the Cubs?  Let's start with the issue that Jeff Sullivan ponders in the linked article:  the velocity, or lack thereof.  Cubs' starters have seen large drops in velocity, across the board, in the early going.  Sullivan wonders if perhaps the Cubs have instructed their starters to take it easy out of the gate, in order to save some bullets for when things really matter.  Sullivan states:

That’s not something I can recall ever seeing, but I see how it might be a workable theory....Which would be very cool, and a little bit cocky.

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On April 17, I wrote an article titled "Kyle Schwarber is Breaking Out."  At the time, Schwarber was hitting .244/.393/.444.  Since then, Schwarber has hit .151/.270/.302 in 100 PA.  Real ground-breaking analysis I'm providing here at NSBB.  You'd be well within your rights to call this Fake News.

There are only two explanations that make sense here: Either Kyle Schwarber was not breaking out or... I've cursed him.  The first explanation is plausible.  It was only a couple weeks into the season.  That's a little early for me to be making such boastful proclamations.  The second explanation is also plausible.

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Kyle Schwarber is back playing baseball this year after missing nearly all of 2016.  The last thing you probably remember about Schwarber is his superhero performance in the 2016 World Series.  You may have forgotten about the strikeouts, though.  Strikeouts have been a bit of a problem for Schwarber during his time with the Cubs.  He struck out in 28.2% of his plate appearances in his rookie season.  He's striking out in 33.9% of his plate appearances this year.  That K% ranks 12th highest in the majors of qualified hitters.  Granted, he's still been a very good hitter, due to his power and ability to get on base.  But, he's really taken his Three True Outcome profile to the extremes in the early going this season.  Despite his high strikeout rate, he's still posted a 130 wRC+, largely thanks to his 17.9% BB%.  Though it's rather jarring to see a leadoff hitter striking out this often, Schwarber's .393 OBP is second-highest of 20 players with at least 40 PA while hitting lead-off.

If there's one thing you want from your leadoff hitter, it's probably for him to get on base.  Schwarber's filling his duties as a leadoff hitter, even if he's doing it extremely unconventionally.  But, I'm here to tell you that things are actually going even better than they may seem.  While his strikeout rate is way up, Schwarber's actually making a lot more contact.  The one major red flag with Schwarber in 2015 was his contact rate, particularly his contact rate on pitches inside the strike zone.  As Dave Cameron pointed out at Fangraphs:

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