There’s a saying in baseball: “A team never wants to lead the league in meetings.”

The implication being that when a club holds a meeting, it’s almost universally to discuss what is going wrong and how to repair it. But teams rarely find themselves where the Chicago Cubs stand, having already clinched the NL Central and preparing for the playoffs.

Manager Joe Maddon had three scheduled meetings on the books in the past few days, two of which were to answer a question most playoff-bound franchises would love to ponder: Which of his three starters—Jake Arrieta, Jon Lester or Kyle Hendricks—should be the team’s ace, trusted to start Game 1 of the postseason?

Deciding between that trio is like being forced to choose between five-star resorts. Because when you put together a list of baseball’s best starting pitchers in 2016, all three are on it.

“It’s what you make of it, and to me, it’s a lot better than having to push your guys extra hard and put more innings on guys’ arms and not getting enough rest and, maybe, waking up and being worn down,” Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said.

Who is the most deserving of the three? The answer is all of them because it depends on which filter you examine the question through.

Hendricks leads MLB with a 2.06 ERA, but Lester comes in at No. 2 (2.36) and Arrieta No. 9 (2.96). Arrieta is the reigning NL Cy Young Award winner and had a .185 batting average against, which is the lowest of the trio. Lester and Hendricks come in at .211 and .201 respectively.

According to FanGraphs, Lester and Hendricks are tied with 4.1 WAR and Arrieta trails with 3.5.

If all that makes the issue more confusing, good. It should. These are the statistical measures the Cubs—and fans who are formulating their opinions on the matter—must consider.

Given how close all three stand statistically, experience likely will—and should be—the deciding factor. Lester is by far the most seasoned in the group with 14 career postseason starts. Hendricks and Arrieta both got their first tastes of the playoffs last year, though the latter threw a complete-game shutout in the NL Wild Card Game against the Pittsburgh Pirates.

But even if Lester, the only pitcher among the three who has won a World Series, seems like the obvious choice, Maddon offered this among the criteria the organization will consider: “A lot of it has to do with whom the opposition is, also who is pitching best for you at the moment. You can’t deny that.”

If you don’t deny it, the decision becomes even harder.

In the month of September, only Arrieta has struggled, posting a 4.15 ERA over three starts. Lester (0.58 in four starts) and Hendricks (1.80 in three starts) have been outstanding. 

After Wednesday’s action, the San Francisco Giants, St. Louis Cardinals and New York Mets all stood tied in the wild-card standings. Two will play in a one-game playoff, with the winner facing the Cubs, the presumptive favorite to win home-field advantage in the NL playoffs.

Consider their numbers against each opponent:



Note: The Mets are 29th in runs scored (595), 28th in batting average (.242) and 26th in on-base percentage (.311).

Based on that data, which is limited in some cases, it’s reasonable to consider Arrieta the team’s best candidate to start against San Francisco. The Cubs should go with Lester if they face the Cardinals and Hendricks if they draw the Mets.

But one benefit Chicago does not have is waiting to see which team it will face.

“You’ve got to have some idea by the end of the season because you want to work guys in toward the end of the year so they’re not so long before their next start,” Maddon said.

So not only is their decision based on evaluating the three pitchers but also trying to prognosticate which of the three teams the Cubs may face in the NLDS—a futile task.

And as numerous factors, permutations, formulas and statistics are considered, there may only be one obvious answer to the question at hand.

No choice appears to be a bad one.


All statistics current through the conclusion of Wednesday’s games.

Seth Gruen is a national baseball columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @SethGruen.

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