Pitcher Carlos Villanueva could probably not imagine a more miserable start to the 2014 season. Although he began the season as the No. 5 starter in the Chicago Cubs‘ rotation, Villanueva’s first two appearances came in extra innings in which he wasted no time allowing two walk-off wins to the Pittsburgh Pirates.
In his first start, Villanueva appeared to right the ship, pitching five innings of one-run ball in a win against the Philadelphia Phillies. However, in his next 7.2 innings pitched over two starts, Villanueva went on to allow 14 earned runs on 19 hits, culminating in a season ERA of 10.93 through his first 14 innings.
Amazingly though, Villanueva is sporting a 3.51 FIP and 3.84 xFIP, which suggest he has pitched as well as most No. 3 starters in the league. The reason those numbers are so much lower than his ERA is due to the fact that Villanueva has shown impeccable command with 8.4 K/9 and 0.6 BB/9, combined with the fact that opposing batters are hitting an absurd .466 against him on balls in play.
While it may be easy to look at those numbers and conclude that Villanueva has simply been unlucky and should continue to be given a shot in the rotation, digging deeper into each of Villanueva’s starts reveals a trend. The most total batters Villanueva has faced so far this season was on Easter Sunday, when he faced 24 Cincinnati Reds, a start in which he started strong with three shutout innings before repeatedly being peppered for runs in the fourth and fifth innings.
In his previous outing against the St. Louis Cardinals, Villanueva faced 21 batters and gave up five runs in the fourth inning without recording an out. Going back to Villanueva’s first start, he faced 22 batters and made it through four innings unscathed before the Phillies put up a run in his fifth and final inning.
It seems clear that Villanueva simply cannot face batters for a third time through the order without a high risk of serious damage being done. This only goes to confirm what most believed all along: Villanueva is ideal in long relief and can provide spot starts here and there, but he is not a starting pitcher.
The Cubs know it, and hopefully now Villanueva knows it and he can focus on his craft as a relief pitcher. He is a valuable player to have on the roster, so it would seem to be a good move for the Cubs to sign him to fill the same role this offseason when he becomes a free agent.
In the meantime, Jake Arrieta will make his final rehab start tonight and should be able to take over the fifth spot in the rotation when Villanueva’s turn comes up next. While Villanueva clearly has skill, this will hopefully be the end of his experiment as a starting pitcher and the beginning of strong season in the bullpen.