Monday, August 3, 2015

Next Up: The Chicago Cubs

The Cubs haven't played the Pirates since the two teams met over ten dates in April and May, with the Cubs taking four. The last time they met was on May 17, at which time the Cubs were in second in the National League Central, while the Pirates were 18-20, tied with the Reds for third. Since that date, the Pirates have the best record in baseball, 43-23, while the Cubs are tied for sixth best, 36-31. So they've both played well, though the Pirates have played better. Entering play today, the Pirates are in line to be the National League's first wild card team. The Cubs, who've won five straight, are tied with the San Francisco Giants for the No. 2 wild card, four behind the Pirates. It's not exactly the pennant drive, but the three games starting tonight at PNC Park could have post-season consequences.

How Are They Doing Lately? Over the past 30 days, the Cubs have a 15-11 record, which is an unimpressive-sounding seventh best in the National League, but they're only percentage points behind the 14-10 Mets and Phillies (tied for fifth), a game behind the 16-10 Cardinals (fourth) and 15-9 Dodgers (third), and a game and a half behind the 16-9 Pirates (second) and 15-8 Giants (first). They've compiled a decent number of wins, though the presence of the Cardinals and Pirates ahead of them illustrates how tough the National League Central is this year. They've scored 3.7 runs per game over the period, the fifth fewest in the league, while giving up 3.9 runs per game, the sixth most. Does that sound lucky, a winning record despite giving up more than they've scored? Well, it is, but they're not alone: The Pirates have scored 4.3 and given up 4.4 over the past 30 days. So neither team has played as well as its record would indicate. The Cubs made a couple minor deals at the trade deadline, adding starter Dan Haren (whom the Pirates will face in his Cubs debut Wednesday) and reliever Tommy Hunter.

What's Going Right? The starting pitchers have a 2.99 ERA over the last 30 days, fourth best in the league, with the highest strikeout rate and sixth-lowest walk rate. They've induced the highest rate of ground balls and the second lowest rate of hard contact in the league.

What's Going Wrong? When the Cubs' strong starters leave the game, the bullpen takes over, and it's struggled over the last 30 days. Its 4.64 ERA is third highest in the league, and they've blown five saves (second most). In fairness, they've probably been a little unlucky as well, as a league-leading 32% of baserunners have scored and they've allowed a batting average on balls in play of .325, well above the league average of .299. Neither of those figures are likely to persist.

The offense has been bad. They've hit .222 with a .342 slugging percentage over the last 30 days, both worst in the league, and their .303 on base percentage is fifth worst. They've struck out in 24% of their plate appearances, third most in the league, making contact on just 75% of their swings, the lowest rate in the league.

Who's Hot? Every Cubs starting pitcher has an ERA of 3.00 or lower over the past 30 days except Jason Hammel (whom the Pirates won't face) and Dallas Beeler (whom Haren's replacing). The Pirates will go against the team's two best starters tonight and tomorrow, Jon Lester (1.98 ERA, 43 strikeouts and four walks over his last 36.1 innings) and Jake Arrieta (2.08 ERA, 37 strikeouts in 34.2 innings). First baseman Anthony Rizzo leads the Cubs in home runs with five and RBI with 16 over the past 30 days, though his batting average, on base percentage, and slugging percentage are all below his full-year averages. Center fielder Dexter Fowler has walked in nearly 20% of his plate appearances, helping him compile an outstanding .416 on base percentage. Rookie catcher-left fielder Kyle Schwarber, recalled from the minors on July 17, has been the team's most consistent hitter, with a .320/.433/.540 slash line in 17 games.

Who's Not? Several Cubs hitters have been run-of-the-mill mediocre, but two have been notably bad. Shortstop Starlin Castro is batting .144/.179/.167 over the last 30 days, with two extra-base hits, two unintentional walks, and 21 strikeouts over 24 games. Third baseman/All-Star/Rookie of the Year candidate Kris Bryant is batting .165 with a .284 on base percentage and has struck out in nearly of third of his plate appearances over the past 30 days. The Cubs have operated sort of a bullpen-by-committee this year, but over the past 30 days, Hector Rondon (1.26 ERA, four saves, five holds, 15 strikeouts and two unintentional walks over 14.1 innings) has clearly outshone Jason Motte (three saves, one blown save, two holds, 5.23 ERA) and Rafael Soriano (a free agent signed by the Cubs in June, the Nationals' closer much of last year, 6.35 ERA in six games). 

What's the Outlook? The Pirates have a better record than the Cubs this year, have scored more runs, and given up fewer. However, they face two of the best starting pitchers in the National League over the next two nights. Taking the series two games to one would be an accomplishment, but dropping two of three would be neither a big surprise nor a panic signal.

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