Monday, April 27, 2015

What's Going On With Andrew McCutchen?

Andrew McCutchen is...well, choose your cliche. The best player on the Pirates, the face of the franchise, the team's superstar...you name it. He was the National League MVP in 2013 and finished third in 2014, when he arguably had a better season, leading the league in on base percentage and OPS. This year, so far, not so much:


Year AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI SB CS BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS OPS+
2013  583 97 185 38 5 21 84 27 10 78 101 .317 .404 .508 .911 157
2014  548 89 172 38 6 25 83 18 3 84 115 .314 .410 .542 .952 166
2015 59 10 11 2 0 2 11 0 1 9 12 .186 .315 .322 .637 81
Generated 4/27/2015.

I've fretted in the past about his health. Yesterday, I noted that this is the worst hitting streak of his career. (I was wrong, it wasn't; keep reading.) What's wrong?

Is This Unusual?

No. McCutchen is a slow starter. April is, by far, his worst month of the season. Here are his career totals:
MonthGABRH2B3BHRRBISBCSBBSOBAOBPSLGOPS
April/March14053379139321176727965102.261.347.420.767
May1344917715623619602667287.318.406.505.911
June15661010719648102110827568127.321.394.536.930
July14655290170368258518767106.308.382.538.920
August155573991652942480241479109.288.377.478.855
Sept/Oct16759910617134724732110103127.285.398.486.883
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 4/27/2015.

At this point in his career, McCutchen has played about a full season's worth of games in each month. His April numbers are roughly 25% worse than his overall figures. He's a slow starter.

This year, as you can see, after 18 games, he's got a .186/.315/.322 slash line, giving him a .637 OPS, which is 19% worse than the National League average (OPS+ of 100 is 100% of the league average, so his 81 is 19% below league average). He's never started this slowly before. But during his MVP year of 2013, on the morning of April 30, he'd hit .203/.225/.319 over his prior 18 games, a .544 OPS--worse than his performance so far this season. So a wretched 18-game streak in Apirl isn't unprecedented. 

Looking at all the 18-game periods over his career, his .186 batting average this year is his worst since April 2011, his .315 on base percentage is his worst since September 2014, and his .322 slugging percentage and .637 OPS are his worst since August 2014. It's been a bad start to the season, but certainly not his worst 18-game streak, nor unusually bad for him. 

Still, when something like this falls at the beginning of the year, it's natural to wonder whether anything's different this year. I'll explore that next.

Is He Being Pitched Differently?

There are two rough ways of figuring out how much pitchers fear a hitter: How willing they are to throw their fastball, and how willing they are to pitch in the strike zone. Against weak hitters, pitchers will throw their fastball in the strike zone, daring the hitter to swing at it. Against strong hitters pitchers resort more to trickery: off-speed pitches that they try to get the batter chase outside the strike zone. Per FanGraphs, the five National League players who saw the greatest percentage of fastballs (four-seam and two-seam) last year had a combined .714 OPS. The five who saw the fewest had a combined .851 OPS. The five hitters who saw the largest percentage of pitches in the strike zone had a .662 OPS, the five who saw the fewest had a .779 OPS. So are pitchers going after McCutchen differently?
            % fastballs  % in zone
     2013      50.2%       48.2%
     2014      49.2%       47.4%
     2015      44.8%       46.3%
No evidence of any change. By limiting the fastballs and the number of pitches in the strike zone to McCutchen, pitchers are still treating him as a dangerous hitter.

Is He Swinging Differently?

When hitters lose plate discipline, they start swinging at pitches that they can't hit. That shows up in increased swing percentages and less contact on swings. Here are the percentage of pitches McCutchen's swung at, inside and outside the strike zone, and how often he's made contact:
             % of pitches swung at  % of contact on swings
              in zone    out zone     in zone    out zone
     2013      70.5%       23.7%       87.6%       60.3%
     2014      68.3%       23.7%       85.1%       60.4%
     2015      65.4%       20.9%       87.6%       45.5%
McCutchen's been more selective, not less, this season. He's swinging at fewer pitches. But when he does swing, he's making way less contact on pitches outside the strike zone. This year, out of 87 batting title qualifiers, he's 80th at contact outside the strike zone, near the bottom. Last year, it was middle of the pack: 46th out of 65. So that's an issue, at least so far. 

What Happens When He Makes Contact?

I've already thrown enough numbers your way, so take my word on this: McCutchen's percentage of ground balls, fly balls, and infield flies when he makes contact are in line with his prior performances. 

Three measures involving batted balls stand out, though: his batting average on balls in play (that is, all at bats that don't result in a home run or strikeout), the percentage of his fly balls that are home runs, and the percentage of batted balls that are line drives:
             BA on balls  % of FB     
               in play  that are HR   LD %
     2013       .353       12.4%     24.5%
     2014       .355       13.7%     18.7%
     2015       .191        8.7%      8.2%
Those are all pretty big changes. McCutchen's dropped from tenth in the league in batting average on balls in play (or BABIP) in 2013 and fourth in 2014 to fourth worst so far in 2015. His home run/fly ball percentage was 27th in 2013 and 17th in 2014; it's 48th this year. His line drive percentage has gone from ninth in 2013 to 54th in 2014 to last in 2015.


You know what those measures have in common? Luck. I'm not saying they're entirely luck-driven. McCutchen had a .350+ BABIP in 2013 and 2014 because he's a great hitter, not because he was lucky. Pedro Alvarez has hit over 20% of his fly balls over the fence during his career because he's got a lot of power, not because he's lucky. The Braves' Freddie Freeman leads the NL in line drive percentage over the last three years because he makes solid contact, not because he's lucky. But big variations in these measures, absent anything else, can be a matter of luck. Your swing gets a couple millimeters above the ball, and your line drive becomes a grounder. You hit a fly ball just a few feet short, and it's a fly out instead of a homer. You nail the ball but it's straight at a fielder, and it's an out instead of a hit. That appears to be what's going on with McCutchen so far.

So I'm inclined to attribute McCutchen's slow start to bad luck rather than something wrong with him as a hitter, particularly given his history of slow starts.

Next Up: The Cubs

The Pirates split four games with the Cubs last week and travel to Wrigley for three games starting tonight. Travis Wood, Jason Hammel, and Kyle Hendricks will start for the Cubs, which means the Pirates will once again be denied an opportunity to observe the Jon Lester Pickoff Move Experience. The Cubs, after dropping their last two to the Pirates, swept two games against Cincinnati (one game was postponed) over the weekend. 

The Cubs' best offensive performers have been veterans. Shortstop Starlin Castro (.329) and first baseman Anthony Rizzo (.328) are 1-2 in batting average. Rizzo also leads the club in runs (14), walks (12), on base percentage (.481) and OPS (.963), while Castro leads in hits (23) and RBI (11). But the focus is on the youngsters:
  • Right fielder Jorge Soler (23) is hitting .257/.321/.414. He's third on the club in runs scored with nine and second in homers with two. 
  • Third baseman Kris Bryant (23) is hitting .333/.476/.455 since being called up. He's batted cleanup for the Cubs since his April 17 callup.
  • Second baseman Addison Russell (21) hasn't really gotten untracked yet, as he's 3-for-22 with no walks and 12 strikeouts since his callup on April 21.


Sunday, April 26, 2015

Odds and Ends - April 26

  • On April 14, I noted that left fielder Starling Marte had struck out in 47% of his plate appearances, the highest percentage in the National League. In the ten games since, his strikeout rate is just 18%. (The NL average for position players so far this year is 19.4%.) He's also batting .323 with a .742 slugging percentage since April 14. His problem was that he was swinging on a lot of pitches outside the strike zone (45% of pitches thrown to him outside the strike zone) and missing a lot of them (61%). He's cut down on his swings outside the strike zone (his total for the year's below 41%) and, as a result, making contact more frequently (whiffing on 52% of out-of-zone pitches year to date). Looks like he started the year over-aggressive but has things together now.
  • The Pirates' offense remains a sore spot. They're batting .223 (11th in the league) with a .275 on base percentage (13th) and .364 slugging percentage (10th). Their OPS of .639 is 13th in the National League, 12th when adjusted for PNC Park. The only positions at which they're getting above-average offensive performance (measured by park-adjusted OPS) are catcher and second base. Center fielder Andrew McCutchen's got a .175/.294/.316 slash line--this is the worst 17-game streak of his career, I'm pretty sure [UPDATE 4/27: Nope, not at all. Watch you search terms! But pretty bad]; are we sure he's not hurt?--and last year's other top performer, third baseman Josh Harrison, is slashing .221/.264/.382. The team's been kept afloat by its starting pitchers, who have a 2.87 ERA (second best in the league), 1.16 walks and hits per inning pitched (third), and a 23.5% strikeout rate (second), 
  • No, Mark Melancon's velocity hasn't returned yet. But he's pitched in each of the last three games, collecting saves in each. His average cut fastball velocity: 89.8 mph Thursday, 88.7 mph Friday, 88.2 mph Saturday. (All figures from Brooks Baseball.) Recall that he's never averaged below 90 mph, even for a month, over his career. His recent success suggests that he's substituting guile for speed, but I don't know whether that'll last. If he struggles, the Pirates have plenty of depth, with lefty Tony Watson (3.00 ERA and zero walks in 11 appearances), righty Jared Hughes (2.89 ERA, 11/2 strikeout/walk ratio), or flamethowing Arquiimedes Caminero (98.8 mph average fastball velocity, second in the league to Reds closer Aroldis Chapman) probably 1-2-3 in the closer depth chart behind Melancon.
  • The Pirates' next series is against the Cubs. I'll hit that up tomorrow. The Cubs are the only National League team the Bucs have played this year with a winning record; they went 1-2 against the 12-6 Detroit Tigers in interleague play.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Next Up: The Arizona Diamondbacks

This could get interesting.

The last time the Pirates played the Diamondbacks it was last August 3. Pittsburgh lost, 3-2, in ten innings. But the game was notable because Andrew McCutchen left the game after tying the game with a sacrifice fly, 2-2, in the eighth inning. That was the last time he played until over two weeks later, on August 19.

The reason for his exit on August 3 was this play on August 2:

The day before, Ernesto Frieri hit Diamondbacks star Paul Goldschmidt in the hand with a pitch, breaking a bone and ending Goldschmidt's season. I don't think Frieri hit Goldschmidt intentionally--at the time, he had only a vague sense of where the ball was going once it left his hand--but there's no doubt that Goldschmidt was (and remains) the big star on a weak Diamondbacks team. So by baseball's childish you-hit-my-star-I'll-hit-yours ethos, McCutchen was due to be hit, I suppose.

Hit, maybe, but not drilled in the back by a 95 mph fastball. A pitch like that can, and did, cause injury. As I pointed out, the Pirates lost the next game as McCutchen left early. Including that game, they were 5-10 until McCutchen returned to the lineup on August 19. Five of those losses were by just a run. Remember, the Pirates finished two games behind the Cardinals. Three more wins and they'd have started a best-of-five Divisional Series with a well-rested Gerrit Cole in Los Angeles instead of starting Edinson Volquez, who got shelled, against the San Francisco Giants and their bionic lefty, Madison Bumgarner, in the wild card game. So, yeah, it's not likely, but it's possible that Randall Delgado's fastball to McCutchen's ribs wrecked the Bucs' postseason.

(Incidentally, this is why I really disliked Arquimedes Caminero hitting Ryan Braun with a pitch last Saturday after McCutchen was hit earlier in the game. Tell me how that was any different from what Delgado did to McCutchen last year, other than the resulting injury.)

Anyway, this could give the series more weight than your typical late April series between an 8-8 team (Pittsburgh) and an 8-7 team (Arizona).

The Diamondbacks had the worst record in the National League last year. So far this year, their hitting's been middle of the pack: In the 15-team National League, they're sixth in batting average, seventh in slugging percentage, and eighth in on-base percentage. Goldschmidt has led the way, batting .296 and pacing the club in homers (5), runs (13), RBI (16), and slugging (.611). Center fielder A.J. Pollock leads the club with a .358 batting average and .417 on base percentage, and outfielder Ender Inciarte has hit .310, though without much else in the way of walks or power. At the other end of the spectrum, four regulars are batting .220 or worse: second baseman Chris Owings (.220), catcher Tuffy Gosewich (.191), 2B/3B Aaron Hill (.158), and shortstop Nick Ahmed (.136). One of the more intriguing position players is Yasmany Tomas, signed to a six-year, $68.5 million contract over the winter and apparently before anybody determined whether he could catch baseballs. He was sent to the minors during spring training but called up on April 15. He's had three singles in seven plate appearances, appearing in one game as a third baseman and four as a pinch hitter. 

On the mound, they're seventh in starting pitcher ERA but 13th (4.20) in reliever ERA, with more blown saves (2) than saves (1). The best starter has been 22-year-old rookie Archie Bradley, who has a 2-0 record and a 1.45 ERA. The Bucs will miss him. They'll go against Josh Collmenter (1-2, 3.38 ERA) tonight, Rubby De La Rosa (2-1, 6.00 ERA, acquired via trade from Boston over the winter) tomorrow, and Jeremy Hellickson (1-2, 4.58 ERA, acquired via trade from Tampa Bay over the winter) on Sunday.

How to Beat the Shift

Pirates outfielder Gregory Polanco bats and throws left-handed. Like many left-handed batters, he tends to pull ground balls over the the right side of the field, between first and second bases. Here's a spray chart from FanGraphs of his batted balls since he was called up last season. The green dots are grounders. See all the ground balls on the right side of the field?
As a result of these tendencies, teams often employ a shift when Polanco's batting, with the shortstop standing on one side or the other of second base and the second baseman between first and second, leaving the third baseman alone on the left side of the infield. As I wrote back in January, the 2015 Bill James Handbook notes that shifts reduce the shifted batter's batting average by 30 points. 

There are two solutions for shifts. One is to bunt against them. Here's a pretty good example: 

You don't see a lot of bunt doubles.

The other way to beat the shift is to hit to the opposite field, i.e., a left-handed hitter hitting to the left side of the infield or a right-handed hitter hitting to the right side of the infield. Here, for example, is the spray chart for Giants outfielder Nori Aoki:
You won't see teams shifting against Aoki; he hits the ball all over the place. But he's the exception. Most players pull their grounders. For example, here's Pirates second baseman Neil Walker, who's a switch hitter. When he faces a right-handed pitcher, he bats left, and pulls grounders to the right: 

And when he faces a lefty, he bats right, pulling grounders to the left:

The point is, it's not easy for a batter to change his ways and stop pulling. There's a natural tendency for grounders to go the pull field. Going the other way is hard.

This brings us back to Polanco. As you could see from the chart at the top of this post, he tends to pull grounders. He came up in the seventh inning against the Cubs, one out, game tied at 4, runners on first and second. He ran the count to 3-2. Then Cubs lefty Phil Coke (note that Polanco has a career .180 batting average against lefties) threw a 96 mph fastball up in the zone (pitch number 8 in the chart below):


The Cubs were shifting against Polanco. Here's how the defense looked as the pitch came to the plate. That's first baseman Anthony Rizzo off the bag at first, second baseman Addison Russell between second and first, and shortstop Starlin Castro just to the left of second base. The runner at second, Josh Harrison, is behind the umpire, but you can see that he's farther from second than Castro, the shortstop. The three infielders are bunched to the right side of the infield, expecting Polanco to pull the ball over there. Third baseman Jonathan Herrera isn't even in the picture, as he's close to the bag to prevent a double and also to deny Harrison an easy stolen base.

And here'w what Polanco did: Grounder to just about the exact place the shortstop Castro would be playing if he weren't shifting. Opposite field single to left, Harrison scores, 5-4 lead for the Bucs that held up. THAT'S beating the shift. (Here's the video of the play; unfortunately, it can't be embedded into this post.) 






Thursday, April 23, 2015

Today's a Getaway Day. This Could Be a Problem.

There's a subtle change in major league schedules this year. On getaway days--i.e., the day that one or both teams must play a game and then fly to a new city for a game the following day--the starting times are earlier. For example, today the Pirates (game tomorrow in Phoenix) host the Cubs (game tomorrow in Cincinnati) at 12:35 PM, the Giants (game tomorrow in Denver) host the Dodgers (game tomorrow in San Diego) at 12:45 PM, the Phillies host the Marlins (game tomorrow in Miami) at 1:05 PM, the Tigers host the Yankees (game tomorrow in New York) at 1:08 PM, and the Mets host the Braves (game tomorrow in Philadelphia) at 1:10 PM. I can't find a copy of last year's schedule, but some of those starting times are earlier than last year. Thursdays are big for getaways, so it's a good afternoon to clear your schedule of meetings and have your computer set to mlb.tv or whatever you prefer for watching games on your employer's dime.

There's a problem, though, with today's Pirates game, per MLB.com Cubs beat writer Carrie Muskat:



(Accuweather calls for a high of 48 with sun at PNC Park today, so presumably the snow will have melted by gametime.)

This sort of thing inevitably leads to fans asking why early-season games are played in northern cities with dome-less stadia. Why not move games out of Pittsburgh, Detroit, Chicago, Minnesota, New York, Boston, Denver et al to the warm climates of Texas, Arizona, Florida, and California, and the ballparks in Milwaukee, Seattle, and Toronto that have retractable roofs?

The answer is, as is so often the case in baseball and in life, money. Opening Day is a big deal, but other than that, April and May games are duds in terms of attendance. The weather is often lousy, kids are still in school, families aren't on summer vacations. The Pirates' average attendance was about 23,000 in April and 25,500 in May. It was north of 30,000 every other month. No team wants a lot of April/May games on its schedule, for good reason. So fans and players will have to endure weather like this morning's.

This is also why articles saying that baseball's in trouble because average attendance in April is below the prior year's seasonlong average by x%. That's always going to be the case, because April attendance is the lowest of the year. The right way to look at it to compare attendance per game per stadium, given an equal number of games in 2014 and 2015. That's what baseball-reference.com does here, and the conclusion is that attendance this year is up slightly.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Trouble in the Shark Tank: Another Year, Another Struggling Closer

Mark Melancon, whose experience swimming with sharks off the New Zealand coast prior to the 2013 season led to the "Shark Tank" nickname to the Pirates bullpen, graduated from eighth-inning setup man to closer last season. That occurred because the Pirates' 2014 closer, Jason Grilli, had problems out of the gate. He blew three saves in April, wound up on the disabled list, came back in May to save three games but blew another save and got a loss in June, resulting in a trade to the Los Angeles Angels. 

Grilli's a fastball-slider pitcher. Here's a chart of his pitch velocities, by pitch type by month, through the day he was traded last year:

Look at those red dots along the bottom. That's the average velocity of his slider by month. It was 82.6 mph in one game in March 2014, 82.8 mph in April, 83.0 mph in May, 83.1 mph in June. The year before, it was 84.4 in April, 83.8 in May, 83.3 in June. In 2012, it was 83.3, 83.3, and 83.8 in April-June. So he lost about a mile per hour. Batters hit .286 with a .571 slugging percentage when they made contact with his slider to start 2014. He got swings and misses on 15% of his sliders, and strikes on 59% of them.

By contrast, in the first three months of 2013, batters whiffed on 23% of his sliders, of which 72% were strikes. Batters went 7-for-46 (.152 batting average), all singles (so they slugged .152 as well), when they made contact against the pitch. In the first three months of 2012, he got whiffs on 20% of his sliders, strikes on 67%, and batters compiled an .088 batting average and .294 slugging percentage against the pitch. 

Long story short, Grilli lost effectiveness in 2014 because his slider, an extremely effective pitch in 2012 and 2013, became much more hittable, in part due to a decline in velocity. His fastball lost effectiveness too, without a significant drop in velocity, so I'm not suggesting the slider tells the whole story. But it's worth noting that a drop in velocity can presage problems for a pitcher.

Now, Melancon. I touched on his loss of velocity last week. Travis Sawchik of the Pittsburgh Tribune looked into it in more detail. First, the velocity picture. 



Melancon has two primary pitches: a cut fastball (the red triangle) and a curve (yellow squares). His curve velocity so far this year is 79.8 mph. It's been an 81-82 mph pitch for him historically. Worse (because curveballs aren't fast pitches), his cutter is averaging below 90 mph this year. It's never been below 92 mph for him, in any month, at any point in his career. 

Less velocity has resulted in less success. Here are the numbers for Melancon's cutter from April 2013, April 2014, and April 2015:

  • April 2013: 76% strikes, 11% swing-and-miss, .180 batting average on contact, .282 slugging percentage on contact 
  • April 2014: 70% strikes, 14% swing-and-miss, .231 batting average on contact, .231 slugging percentage on contact
  • April 2015: 73% strikes, 6% swing-and-miss, .333 batting average on contact, .667 slugging percentage on contact

The curve hasn't been as effective, either:
  • April 2013: 67% strikes, 26% swing-and-miss
  • April 2014: 71% strikes, 29% swing-and-miss
  • April 2015: 56% strikes, 12% swing-and-miss
Look at the decline in whiffs. Batters were getting fooled by the cutter a fair amount and the curve a lot in 2013-14. He's getting fewer than half as many swinging strikes on them this year. He's not fooling batters.

Why is this? Well, in Sawchik's thorough analysis, he notes that Melancon's release point--the point in his delivery where he releases the baseball toward the plate--has moved. He's letting go of his pitches about two inches higher than last year. That's a lot. Here are the release points for his cutter from 2012 to 2015: 6.43 feet, 6.44 feet, 6.35 feet, 6.52 feet. As Sawchik points out, that's odd. So maybe his problem's something mechanical, and therefore fixable. Call me a pessimist, but I'm inclined to believe the dark side of this 2013 FanGraphs article by Bill Petti, that a loss of velocity in April is an (admittedly weak) indicator of injury, though, again, as Sawchik points out, an injury usually results in a lower release point. In any case, Melancon's doing something different, and that something's made him much less effective.

Last night's loss was tough. The Pirates gave up a run in the first, came back to take a 2-1 lead, immediately surrendered two more runs, and were behind 4-2 in the sixth when they scored three to take a 5-4 lead. The Cubs pulled even in the top of the seventh, but the Pirates scored three in their half of the inning with a dramatic two-out bases-loaded double by Jung Ho Kang. They were leading 8-6 when they handed the ball to Melancon. But while there may be something wrong with Melancon, it's worth noting that the 2015 Pirates are 6-8 after 14 games, just one game worse than the 2013 and 2014 wild card teams. And last night was Melancon's first blown save of the season. By April 21 last year, Grilli had already blown three. It's still only April.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Next Up: Chicago Cubs

The Pirates have now completed four three-game series: two with Milwaukee and one each with Cincinnati and Detroit. The Brewers and Reds are generally expected to be National League Central also-rans, while the Tigers are--what's the opposite of also-rans? Rans?--in the American League Central. True to form, the Reds and Brewers occupy the last two positions in their division, and the Tigers have the best record in baseball.

Keeping with the Central theme, the 6-6 Pirates now host the 6-5 Cubs for four games. This could be the start of a pretty lively rivalry. They're both young teams. The average age of Cubs batters (weighted by at bats plus games played) is 27.3, second-youngest in the National League, with the Pirates just behind at 27.7, tied with the Padres for third. Pirates pitchers (weighted by 3 times games started, plus games plus saves) are fifth youngest at 28.9, with the Cubs at the league average of 29.3. Both teams should stay pretty young, as their farm systems are stacked: ESPN's Keith Law rates the Cubs No. 1 and the Pirates No. 7. And, after a long, long period of ineptitude--excluding the Houston Astros, who are now in the American League, the Pirates or Cubs have been last in the National League Central in each of the past ten seasons--both teams are poised to compete for a wild card and, if the Cardinals falter, the division. After years of one team or the other (or both) being punching bags, the two teams (both of which are data-savvy) are now positioned to be rivals at the top of the division.

That doesn't mean they're identical. The Cubs' estimated payroll of just under $113 million is 14th in baseball and the highest in the division. The Pirates, at $83.5 million, are 23rd in baseball and last in their division. The Cubs made a big splash in the free agent market over the winter, adding left-handed starter Jon Lester for $155 million over six years (or, depending on a team option, $170 million over seven). The biggest move by the low-budget Pirates was re-signing free agent starter Francisco Liriano for $39 million over three years. Going forward, the Cubs have more money to burn, while Pirates fans worry about second baseman Neil Walker, first baseman Pedro Alvarez, and closer Mark Melancon departing as free agents after the 2016 season. The Pirates farm system includes some top-notch pitchers, including Jameson Taillon, Tyler Glasnow, and Nick Kingham. The Cubs' top prospects are all position players, suggesting that the team may spend some of its available cash on free agent pitchers next winter.

And there's Kris Bryant. The No. 2 pick in the 2013 amateur draft, Bryant was Baseball America's No. 1 rated prospect entering the season. He batted .425 with nine homers in 40 at bats in spring training, but was sent down to the minors to start the year, ostensibly to work on his defense at third (which remains weak) but actually to preserve a year of control for the Cubs. In any case, he was called up last Friday and has batted .300 with a .500 on base percentage in three games since.

Fun fact about Kris Bryant: He is 23 years, 106 days old. He has three career hits. At a similar age, Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper had...well, we don't know, because Harper won't be 23 years, 106 days old until 2015. He's got 368 career hits, and he's more than nine months younger than Bryant. That says something about both of them.

The Cubs will start Jake Arrieta, Travis Wood, Jason Hammel, and Kyle Hendricks in the series, which means they'll miss Lester, robbing Pirates fans of the opportunity of seeing pickoff attempts like this:

and throws to first on comebackers to the mound like this:


So far this season, the Cubs hitters have a .227/.316/.372 slash line, ahead of the Pirates' .222/.281/.355 across the board. Several hitters are having nice, if not noteworthy, seasons, and the only batter to have struggled a lot is second baseman Arismendy Alcantara, who's batting .077 with no extra-base hits and strikeouts in 34% of plate appearances, the eighth-highest rate in the league among batters with 30 or more plate appearances.

Cubs starting pitchers have a 4.52 ERA, fourth worst in the league, nearly a run and half worse than the Pirates' 3.07. The Cubs' bullpen ERA of 2.65 is ahead of the Pirates' 2.94. Among the starters, Arrietta (1-1, 1.98 ERA) and Wood (1-1, 2.31 ERA) have started the year much stronger than Hammel (1-0, 5.11 ERA), Hendricks (0-0, 6.10 ERA) and Lester (0-2, 6.89 ERA).