Top Play (WPA): Marlon Byrd’s three-run homer in the third inning off of Dan Haren was the top WPA play of the game (.226). It gave the Giants a 5-1 lead at the time, which was more than safe with Madison Bumgarner on the mound. After allowing an RBI double to the heating up Starlin Castro early, Bumgarner dominated the Cubs through six, allowing just the one run and striking out 12. If there was any positive for the Cubs offensively, it was that Bumgarner threw enough pitches to force him out of the game after six, but then again, it takes at least three pitches for a strikeout.
Bottom Play (WPA): Haren’s strikeout in the second inning with a man on second and one out was technically the bottom WPA play of the game (-.040). It wasn’t Haren’s offensive day that really killed the Cubs chances of winning, though. His pitching, to be frank, wasn’t great either. This outing, which included the Byrd homer and four earned runs, really underscored the Cubs’ continuing weakness at the back end of their rotation. Haren was acquired with the hope that he could lock down a spot that had rotated between Travis Wood, Tsuyoshi Wada, and Dallas Beeler for most of the season, but so far he has not been able to fill in effectively. Haren’s ability to go deep into games was lauded in Miami—he went six innings or more in nine of his last t10 starts for the Marlins. But in five starts as a Cub, today was the first time he made it through the sixth, and this is likely only because Maddon was saving the bullpen for this weekend’s series against Los Angeles. So far in five starts as a Cub, Haren has pitched only 25 2/3 innings with an ERA of 6.62. And it probably is unrealistic to expect Haren to get much better—his cFIP before the game was 118, and it might be even higher after today’s start. Even with some offensive injuries and defensive struggles, the back of the Cubs’ rotation continues to be the most glaring weakness on this roster.
Key Moment: Kyle Schwarber made a throwing error in the third inning that would come back to bite the Cubs. With one out, Nori Aoki took off for second base, and Schwarber fired the ball into centerfield. Aoki was able to take third, and he then scored on a slow Matt Duffy grounder through a drawn-in infield to give the Giants a 2-1 lead. Prior to today, Schwarber hadn’t played catcher since August 6th, which didn’t necessarily cause the misfire, but certainly didn’t help avoid it. So while Haren wasn’t good, the makeshift Cubs defense didn’t help matters much either, and it underscores the importance of playing a clean game when matched up against a pitcher as dominant as Bumgarner.
Trend to Watch: The trend to watch for today is the Cubs’ current lineup construction and its fallout. Joe Maddon has had to be very creative and flexible with his lineup the last few days, a result of injuries to Jorge Soler and Dexter Fowler, and the paternity of Addison Russell. Castro has been inserted into the lineup on a regular basis once again, Chris Denorfia is becoming a nearly everyday player, Kyle Schwarber led off on Wednesday, and Kris Bryant is playing outfield. On one hand, this is a testament to the flexibility of the current Cubs roster, and on the other hand it underscores how much the Cubs lineup misses guys like Soler and Fowler. Fowler should hopefully be back soon (maybe as soon as Friday), but there are a few trends and questions that we should watch in the coming days:
- Outfield defense: Fowler and Soler might not be gold glovers, but they at least are playing their primary positions in the outfield. The current crop of Cubs outfielders are not, and it shows. Denorfia missed a fly ball that looked catchable in centerfield on Wednesday, and Chris Coghlan made a similar mistake in right soon after. Kris Bryant actually looked pretty good out in right and center field Thursday, but if he moves to the outfield, he leaves a pretty big offensive hole at third base. But keeping him at third means (for now) playing a regular outfield of Schwarber, Fowler/Denorfia, and Coghlan, which is pretty pourous to say the least.
- Offensive fallout: This is why Jonathan Herrera and Matt Szczur started today against the lefty Bumgarner. In the Cubs’ current situation, they have to decide between having a decent defense and starting a deep offensive lineup—they can no longer do both. This problem is mitigated a bit if Castro’s recent offensive turnaround is real, but the Cubs cannot rely on that for now. So, for the first time this year, I will direct your attention past the major-league club and to Iowa, where Javier Baez is heating up.
- Javy Baez: If Bryant does move to the outfield during Soler’s absence, they are going to need to find some offense at third base. Baez, right now, looks like a pretty attractive option. Since returning from a wrist injury on July 23, he has OPS’d .928, with five homers and a strikeout rate of only 21.9 percent. He’s been even better over the past two weeks. Since August 15th he has maintained a 12-game hitting streak, with multi-hit games in eight of those 12. Even more importantly (and suggestively), he has started playing more third base since the injury to Soler. So keep an eye on how Baez does at Iowa over the next few days—I’d be surprised if he isn’t here by September 1st.
The Cubs should get healthier in the coming days, and if anyone can manage this unorthodox roster, it’s Joe Maddon. How he and the front office balance these questions in the coming days should be interesting to watch, though.
Coming Next: The Cubs will now move onto Los Angeles, where the matchup will not get any easier. Jason Hammel will face Clayton Kershaw tomorrow, as the Cubs will get another chance to beat a dominant left-handed ace. The Giants will actually be rooting for the Cubs in this series, as they are only 2.5 games behind the Dodgers in the NL West. The Cubs will likely stack righties again against Kershaw, who is second in MLB DRA Pitcher WARP with 5.92. He trails only teammate Zack Greinke, who the Cubs (luckily) will miss in this series. Additionally, Kershaw’s cFIP of 63 trails only Chris Sale’s 61 cFIP among starters, meaning that Kershaw should be 37 percent (!) better than league average going forward. It would be silly not to expect lots of strikeouts, but hopefully the Cubs can work some counts, hit some balls hard, and force Kershaw out of the game earlier than planned.
Hammel, for his part, will look to build off his last start against Atlanta, in which he went 6 1/3 innings, striking out eight and allowing only two runs. He has struggled a bit in August, but his 3.35/4.00/89 cFIP line still suggests that he should be a very solid starter going forward. It would be good to see Hammel go deep into this one—the bullpen (which allowed four more runs today) could use a rest. Also worth noting: both Adrian Gonzalez and Yaisel Puig left Thursday’s game against the Reds with injuries, so if they are out, the Dodgers’ lineup will become that much less menacing for the weekend series. The beginning to this road trip has been a little disappointing, but a win against Kershaw could turn it around in a hurry.
Lead photo courtesy of Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports