Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Next Up: The Chicago Cubs

      St. Louis   89  54  ---
      Pittsburgh  86  45  2.5
      Chicago     82  60  6.5

All three teams are going to the postseason. According to FanGraphs, the odds of the Cardinals and Pirates reaching the postseason are 100%, and the Cubs are at 99.3%. (The National League is really boring this year; other than the Cards, Pirates, Cubs, Mets, and Dodgers, no team has even a 1% chance of making the postseason, per FanGraphs.) But how they get there is still up in the air. By the end of play Thursday, the Cardinals, who open a three-game set against the Brewers tonight, could be in first or second. The Pirates, whose first of four games with the Cubs started shortly before I hit the "publish" key, could be in first, second, or tied for second with the Cubs. The Cubs could be in third or tied for second. The first place team will open a Divisional Series at home, in all likelihood. The second place team will host the third place team for a one-game wild-card play-in, then, after a day's rest, travel to a Divisional Series, most likely against the NL Central's first place team. Long and short of it, this could be a pretty important three weekdays in September for determining the postseason for the three NL Central teams.

How Are They Doing Lately? Over the past 30 days, the Cubs have a 15-12 record, tying them with the Nationals for the fourth best record in the league after the Mets (20-7), Dodgers (17-9), and Pirates (18-10). They've scored 5.3 runs per game, fourth most in the league, one slot ahead of the Pirates at 4.7. They've allowed 4.8 runs per game, tying them with the Mets for the sixth most (or the ninth fewest); the Pirates, at 3.6 runs allowed per game, have given up the third fewest. 

What's Going Right? The team's tenth in batting average (.250) and ninth in on base percentage (.321) but they have the second highest slugging percentage in the league, .479, over the past 30 days. That's because they're second to the Mets in home runs and tied for second in triples. There's a lot of swing-and-miss in the Cubs lineup--they've struck out in 27% of their plate appearances over the past 30 days, easily the most in the league, and they have the lowest rate of contact on swings--but when they hit the ball, they hit it hard, with the third-highest rate of hard contact and the highest rate of fly balls becoming home runs. The starting pitchers' 3.89 ERA over the last 30 days is the fourth-best in the league, with the highest strikeout rate and the second-lowest walk rate. However, as I'll discuss in the Who's Hot section, a lot of that has been one guy.

What's Going Wrong? When the Cubs' starters leave the game, the bullpen takes over. Cubs relievers have a 5.20 ERA over the past 30 days, the third highest in the league. Their strikeout and walk rates have been OK but they've allowed the third highest rate of home runs per nine innings in the league. There's been some bad luck mixed in--batting average on balls in play and baserunners stranded are driven to a degree by good fortune, and the Cubs bullpen's allowed the highest batting average on balls in play and the lowest strand rate over the past 30 days--but the bullpen's clearly not as good as the starting rotation.

Who's Hot? Jake Arrieta, who'll start Wednesday night's game, has been pretty unhittable over the last 30 days: 0.24 ERA, 23 baserunners and 41 strikeouts over 37 innings. The reset of the rotation...not so much. Tuesday afternoon's starter, Jason Hammel, has been legitimately bad (6.04 ERA over the past 30 days, with six homers, nine walks, and 30 hits over 25.1 innings), and the other two starters, Jon Lester (Tuesday night) and Kyle Hendricks (Thursday afternoon) have ERAs north of 4.50. So the success of Cubs starters has been largely the work of Arrieta, though Hendricks and Lester have both been somewhat unlucky. Closer Hector Rondon has a 2.00 ERA, seven saves, and eleven strikeouts in nine innings over the past 30 days.

Kris Bryant, mired in a slump the last time the Pirates faced the Cubs, has been on fire, with a .324 batting average, .373 on base percentage, and .627 slugging percentage, with eight homers and 26 RBI over the past 30 days. Center fielder Dexter Fowler leads the club with a .393 on base percentage from the leadoff spot, along with a .546 slugging percentage. Corner outfielder Chris Coghlan has a .299/.386/.584 slash line, and Starlin Castro, who was the team's shortstop at the start of the year but now has been limited to part-time duty at second, is at .359/.369/.594.

Who's Not? Several Cubs hitters have been feast-or-famine over the past 30 days. Left fielder Kyle Schwarber has eight homers but a .174 batting average and .288 on base percentage over the past 30 days. First baseman Anthony Rizzo has six homers, a .198 batting average, and a .302 on base percentage. Shortstop Addison Russell also has six homers, but a .241 batting average and .281 on base percentage. So they've made outs when you can keep them in the park. As for the bullpen, As for the bullpen, no reliever with ten or more innings pitched has an ERA below 4.35. 

What's the Outlook? This should be a fun four games. Obviously, the goal here is to keep the Cubs hitters from leaving the yard, and getting to Chicago's bullpen. It's be great to make up more ground on the Cardinals, mired in a 3-9 slump, but splitting the four games may be all the Pirates can get.

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