Inspired by this recent episode of the Cubs Related podcast, I thought I would put together my own Mount Rushmore of the 2011-2019 Cubs: the four players who best represent the Theo Epstein era. First, a quick disclaimer–there are, of course, more than four Cubs without whom this era would not have been what it was. I’ll cover notable omissions after my list.
- Anthony Rizzo
Rizzo is unquestionably the first Cub on our Mount Rushmore. He was with Epstein’s Cubs before they were good, and he leads in home runs, runs, RBI, has nearly 1800 more plate appearances than the next-closest hitter (Starlin Castro), and even ranks third in stolen bases. Not only that, Rizzo has the second-highest wRC+ of any Cub with at least 300 plate appearances over that time (by just five points). The new Mr. Cub is an excellent ambassador of the franchise off the field, and I can’t imagine any reason why he wouldn’t be one of the four most important Cubs of the last decade.
- Kris Bryant
The other half of “Bryzzo” is nearly as essential. Bryant edges Rizzo in all three triple slash categories (batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage), and is just a few WAR behind Rizzo in three fewer seasons. He’s accumulated the most baserunning value of any Cub in that time despite only stealing 34 bases, and watching him run the bases is a delight. Bryant is also the only current Cub to have won an MVP award. The main reason Rizzo gets the nod over Bryant is longevity; Bryant has been a better player, but Rizzo has been more consistent and was with the team in its down years. The Cubs have only missed the playoffs once when Bryant has been on the team, and since Bryant came up in 2015, only two hitters have produced more fWAR: Mike Trout and Mookie Betts.
- Kyle Hendricks
This is probably the most controversial choice here. It’s not the easiest argument to make, but Hendricks pitched the most innings for the Cubs of anyone during this time span and accumulated the most fWAR. He has a better ERA and FIP with the Cubs than Jon Lester, and the second-best ERA and FIP of any Cubs starter who pitched at least 400 innings, second only to Jake Arrieta. Hendricks started the series-clinching Game 6 of the 2016 NLCS against the Dodgers, and outpitched Clayton Kershaw, giving up just two hits while walking none and striking out six, facing the minimum through 7.1 innings thanks to a pickoff and a double play. He then went on to start the most important game in Cubs history, and outpitched Corey Kluber, giving up two runs (one earned) in 4.2 innings of work. Over the whole 2016 postseason, he started five games, pitched 25.1 innings, gave up 19 hits, five runs (four earned), seven walks, one home run, and struck out 19, good for a 1.42 ERA and a .216/.278/.284 slash line allowed. Hendricks won the NL ERA crown in 2016 and finished third in Cy Young voting.
While Jake Arrieta was undoubtedly better at his peak, Hendricks has provided an incredible level of consistency. Not only that, but from 2016-2019, Hendricks led both Lester and Arrieta in FIP every year, never posting a FIP above 3.88 in that stretch. Only 12 other starters had a FIP under 4.00 those four seasons; only 10 other starters had a FIP under 3.89 in all four seasons.
I don’t think the Cubs win the World Series in 2016 without any of Lester, Arrieta, or Hendricks, and you could easily make an argument for any of the three to be on the Cubs Mount Rushmore. But I’ve enjoyed watching Hendricks the most (the command, the changeup, the 81-pitch complete game!), and I think he’s the most underrated of the three, and, as a tiebreaker, he’s accumulated the most WAR, so he’s earned a spot on my Mount Rushmore.
- Pedro Strop
This could also be a controversial inclusion. By fWAR, Strop was worth just 5.7 wins during his time with the Cubs, less than a third of Kyle Hendricks’ WAR total. However, he accumulated the most WAR of any Cubs reliever, and posted an ERA under 3.00 five consecutive seasons, from 2014-2018. With how today’s game is played, it felt like there should be a reliever on Cubs Mount Rushmore, and Strop is by far the best and most iconic. Even though he rarely pitched as a closer, and was therefore often overshadowed, Strop’s consistency and clubhouse presence make him stand out. He wasn’t the same in 2019 after rushing back from a hamstring injury to pitch in the 2018 Wild Card game, and though his tenure didn’t end as well as it could have, the team wanted Strop back (though not enough to make room for him in their payroll). Strop was obviously close with Javier Báez, on several occasions telling him he was going to win the game for the team (and on at least two occasions he was right), and the club even did a Strop-themed road trip. While Strop’s on-field contributions don’t match the other three, this era of Cubs baseball wouldn’t have been the same without him, and he deserves a place on the mountain.
Three other players just missed my Mount Rushmore. I wouldn’t have any problem with seeing any of these three on there:
- Jake Arrieta
Arrieta had a stretch where he was one of the most dominant pitchers of all time. He won a Cy Young award with the Cubs and threw two no hitters. However, while Arrieta was better than many realized in the latter part of his Cubs tenure, he wasn’t as good or consistent as Hendricks or Lester then, and the increase in wildness could make his starts frustrating to watch.
- Jon Lester
Lester will go down as one of the best free agent pitching signings in Cubs history. The main reason Hendricks gets the nod instead is that both Hendricks and, to a lesser extent, Arrieta were developed by the Cubs, while Lester was brought in as a free agent. Additionally, Lester has been prone to occasional blowups: from 2017-2019, he’s tied for the most starts allowing seven or more runs with ten such starts. Lester is a Cubs legend and a leader of the team, but Hendricks has been more consistent and enjoyable to watch.
- Javier Báez
Báez is by far the most entertaining Cub, and should be considered part of the team’s core. However, he became a star later in the decade than Bryant and Rizzo. In terms of overall status, it doesn’t help that his development has coincided with the team’s overall decline. Báez is the current Cub most likely to make the next decade’s Rushmore, but I couldn’t put him on this decade’s mountain over any of the four that I chose.
Finally, for reference, these are the top five Cubs by Fangraphs WAR from 2011-2019:
- Anthony Rizzo — 29.7
- Kris Bryant — 27.8
- Kyle Hendricks — 19.2
- Jake Arrieta — 18.3
- Jon Lester — 16.7
Sorry for the delays in getting posts out the last few weeks; it’s been a little hard to find motivation, for obvious reasons.
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I hope you are all staying safe and isolated to the best of your abilities. Be understanding with each other, and remember: there will be baseball on the other side.