Friday, May 13, 2016

Next Up: The Chicago Cubs

First one of these of the season! Let's get right into it.

How Are They Doing Lately? They dropped two straight to the Padres. The Cubs suck.

OK, just kidding. Put it this way: The Pirates are tied for the tenth best record in baseball and the fifth best record in the National League. They are second in their division. But the trail the first place team in their division, the Cubs, by seven games. In the National League East, the fourth-place Marlins are closer to first than the Pirates are. In the National League West, the last-place Padres are closer to first than the Pirates are. In the American League East, the last-place Yankees are as close to first as the Pirates are. In the American League Central, the fourth-place Tigers are only half a game further from first than the Pirates are. In the American League West, the last-place Angels are only a game farther from first than the Pirates are.

The Cubs have the best record in baseball. They're scored the most runs per game. They've given up the fewest. They've scored, on average, three more runs per game than their opponents--no other team's outscored by more than 1.7--and, based on their run differential, they should be a game better than their 25-8 record. They've been really, really good. Don't take my word for it - Rob Arthur of FiveThirtyEight and Dave Cameron of FanGraphs concur. And, of course, the Cubs swept three games at PNC Park a week and a half ago by a combined score of 20-5.
What's Going Right? Over the past 30 days, they're sixth in the league with a .263 batting average and .430 slugging percentage but first in on base percentage at .367. They've walked in 13% of plate appearances, by far the most in the league, and struck out in only 19%, the fourth lowest. They're last in the league at generating ground balls and swinging at pitches outside the strike zone. They're disciplined and good. On the mound, over the last 30 days, their starters' ERA of 2.06 is the best in the league by far, and the starters have the league's fourth highest strikeout rate, third highest ground ball rate, third highest rate of soft contact allowed, and the lowest rate of both hard contact and home runs as a percentage of fly balls. They've been a little lucky, allowing an unsustainably low .256 batting average on balls in play and an unsustainably high 82% of baserunners left stranded, but even with average figures, they'd be good.

What's Going Wrong? When the starters are going as well as the Cubs' have, there's a limited need to go to the bullpen--Cubs relievers have pitched the fewest innings in the league over the past 30 days--but Chicago's bullpen's been mortal, with a 4.20 ERA, sixth highest in the league, hurt by a high walk rate (13%, highest in the league) and too many fly balls leaving the park (18%, third highest). Cubs relievers have only five saves over the past 30 days, tied for the second fewest in the league, but that's more a reflection of the team's margin of victory, which doesn't create save opportunities.
Who's Hot? Oh, everybody, more or less. The team's getting above-average offensive performance from all four infield positions and left and center field. Three of the five starting pitchers have an ERA below 2.00 over the last 30 days (the Pirates will face all three) and the other two, John Lackey and Kyle Hendricks, are at 2.76 and 3.10, respectively. Closer Hector Rondon has been pretty untouchable over the past 30 days, allowing four hits, one run and no walks while striking out fourteen over ten innings.  

Who's Not? Over the last 30 days, backup catcher David Ross, pressed into service by an injury to Miguel Montero, is hitting .179/.300/.359, but with very strong defense. The biggest bust has been free agent signee Jason Heyward, batting .205/.307/.250 and still looking for his first home run of the year. The relievers other than Rondon has had either a high ERA or peripherals (high walk and/or home run rates) that suggest that their ERAs should be higher.
What's the Outlook? In the Cubs series of May 2-4, the Pirates never led, not even for an inning, as they were mowed down by the Cubs' bats and starters Jason Hammel, Jake Arrieta, and Jon Lester. This time, they travel to Chicago, and they'll face...Hammel, Arrieta, and Lester. Am I expecting another sweep? No, but I'm not optimistic. The Cubs are good.

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