It’s already been a very eventful month for the Cubs, so much so that it might be hard to believe that it’s still only April. Sitting at 14-5, and firmly in first place in the NL Central division, the Cubs will now see their division rivals from Milwaukee for the first time this season. The Brewers come in for a mid-week three game set, and they look to reverse course after losing two games of a three game series to the Phillies at Miller Park over the weekend.
From BP Milwaukee’s editor-in-chief, Nick Zettel, here’s a look at how the Brewers are shaping up right now: “The Brewers head into Lakeview after an underwhelming week, having split a home-and-home with the Twins and awakened the Phillies offense over the weekend at Miller Park. Despite their 5-7 record over their last 12 games, one can look for an improved offense from the Milwaukee Nine, a group that scored 54 runs over that timeframe. Chris Carter, Scooter Gennett, and Ryan Braun are the most productive leaders of the offense, but the entire team jumped into the scoring during Sunday’s series finale. The Brewers’ strange combination of a struggling rotation and excellent high leverage bullpen should give the team a chance to gut out wins with a newly productive offense. In Chicago, the Cubs will probably see Jimmy Nelson, Taylor Jungmann, and Zach Davies, which means that their bats will be zoning in on a trio of arms looking to post “rebound” starts.
Jungmann is an especially important pitcher to watch in this series, as the organizational arm has yet to flash his brilliance that he showed throughout most of his 2015 rookie campaign. Specifically, Jungmann has morphed into a fastball/curveball pitcher, which BrooksBaseball shows as unfavorable to the righty’s breaking pitch:
Batters are swinging less frequently against the pitch, and therefore making more contact. Worse yet, Jungmann’s change up is even less effective, giving batters a chance to square up on an 85 mile per hour treat. One shouldn’t hold their breath that Wrigley in April will be the place for these pitchers to improve.”
The series opener tonight features Kyle Hendricks, muse for quite a few pieces here and a surprisingly effective fifth starter, and Jimmy Nelson for the Brewers. Hendricks has thus far begun to put together a respectable season, and he continues to rely not just on his changeup that has been documented here
before, but also a sinker that Brooks Baseball describes as a “worm killer
,” and one that yields a lot of ground balls. We know by now that Hendricks is not going to blaze any pitches past anyone, but his two most used pitches—the changeup and the sinker, which have combined for over 80 percent of his pitches so far this season—have proven effective enough for him to produce two quality starts to begin the season before his four-run, 5 1/3 inning outing against the Cardinals on April 20.
Like Hendricks, Nelson is effective in forcing ground balls when his sinker is clicking, a pitch he has gone to about 50 percent of the time thus far this season. Otherwise, he employs a four seam fastball that has been sitting just under 94 in 2016. Nelson has had a rather solid season in the early going, even with a somewhat rough outing against the Twins last week when he gave up four runs on 10 hits (a game the Brewers went on to win anyway).
On Wednesday night, we’ll see Jake Arrieta for the first time since his no-hitter in Cincinnati last Thursday night. Arrieta is verging on mythical status at this point, and while it might be more compelling to ruminate on his underwear modeling, he’s poised to continue a winning streak that goes back to last July. Arrieta has decreased use of his four seam fastball since last July (drop off from nearly 10% of the time in July 2015 to 2.7 percent of the time in April 2016), and increased use of his sinker. In June 2015, he went to the sinker just under 35 percent of the time, but he’s up to just about 60 percent in April of this year. Arrieta’s counterpart on Wednesday is Jungmann, and as Zettel pointed out earlier, he’s worth keeping an eye on, as he has yet to show his best in 2016.
In the last game of the series, a Thursday matinee, it’s a matchup between Jon Lester and Zach Davies. Lester has started 2016 off on a very different note than he did in April 2015, with four straight quality starts, including a 10 strikeout day against the Rockies on April 17. His velocity on his sinker and cutter is up, and he’s walking fewer runners and stranding more through those first four starts. Davies has four pitches, but goes to his sinker and his changeup most often. His sinker isn’t particularly fast (comes in at just about 90), but he has a particularly sharp curveball that can force a lot of flyouts, when he chooses to use it.
What to Watch For
We have the top and the bottom of the division in this series, and while the Brewers hold some promise of hope under new leadership, their competitive days are realistically some time away. On paper, this should be a series in which the Cubs build on their success thus far and increase their lead in the division. That said, the Brewers have seen production from the likes of Ryan Braun that means that they should not be summarily dismissed for these three games.
It was nice to see Tommy La Stella step up so significantly on Sunday while spelling Dexter Fowler in the leadoff spot. Fowler has the highest WARP in baseball so far (1.7), so he’s not sitting out again for a while. However, La Stella probably deserves a few more looks in this series. Kris Bryant has been impressive in left, and this provides a nice opportunity for La Stella or Javier Baez to get a start at third.
Anthony Rizzo has not yet had a day off, and though he is reliable for nearly every game in a regular season, I’d keep an eye for either Ben Zobrist or Baez to get a start at first at some point, and possibly during this series.
Jason Heyward is taking off. His first two weeks of April were prototypical Heyward, but in his last 5 games, he’s hit safely in each one, and he’s had multiple hits in 3 of those games. He’s elevated his batting average from .179 to .260 in that stretch, and he has yet to hit a home run this season. I thought it would happen in Cincinnati over the weekend, but perhaps even as the weather cools in Chicago this week, he’ll hit his first Wrigley home run in a Cubs uniform.
The Cubs are on CSN and 670 AM at 7:05 tonight, WGN and 670 AM at 7:05 on Wednesday night, and for the series finale they’ll be CSN and 670 AM at 1:20 pm. All times CST.
Lead photo courtesy Jeff Hanisch—USA Today Sports.