Series Preview: Cubs at Brewers, May 17-19

Until now, the Cubs have had it about as good as any team in baseball, schedule-wise. It’s one reason for their early success. Their home slate has been marred by bad weather, but they have played a fairly weak aggregate set of opponents, and a combination of two postponements and a few clustered off days has kept the roster fresh and easy to manage.

Starting Tuesday night in Milwaukee, that begins to change. The Cubs got the day off Monday, but will now play three against the Brewers, then head out to San Francisco for the weekend. The final game of that series will be on Sunday Night Baseball, meaning that the team will leave town sometime after 10 PM Central time—and travel straight to St. Louis overnight, for a Monday night game at Busch Stadium. It’s road trips like these that make a 27-9 team glad of their banked wins, although the Cubs will certainly aim for a winning trip.

If they want to realize that goal, it has start with at least a series victory over the lowly Brewers. Since their trip to Chicago at the end of April, Milwaukee has played 8-9 baseball against a strange sequence of opponents: the Marlins and Angels at home, the Reds and Marlins on the road, and then the Padres at home. Monday was their only off day since the rainout April 27 at Wrigley Field. Despite the much worse records of the Astros and Twins, only the Reds and Braves have posted a worse third-order winning percentage than the Brewers’ .341 so far this year. Though new GM David Stearns has the organization pointed in the right direction, and though I believe they’re already better than they have seemed early on, the Cubs are much better than the Brewers, and are fresh right now. If this series goes poorly, the whole road trip might as well.

Probable Pitchers

Tuesday: Kyle Hendricks v. Chase Anderson

Cubs FIP leader Kyle Hendricks (2.51, though we should note that Jake Arrieta, John Lackey, and Jon Lester all have lower cFIPs, so don’t get carried away) will take the ball in the first game of the set, and attempt to continue his dominance of the Brewers. In seven career starts, Hendricks has a 1.49 ERA against Milwaukee. He’s yet to allow a home run to a Brewers hitter. In 42 1/3 innings, he’s fanned 34 of 160 batters faced, and walked six.

Now, these aren’t (all) the same Brewers Hendricks has faced in the past. If anything, though, they might be more vulnerable to his approach and his skill set than ever. They remain a heavily right-handed lineup, which bodes ill for any unit tasked with attacking Hendricks. Since the start of 2014, 43 pitchers ages 27 and younger have thrown at least 250 innings. Only three (Clayton Kershaw, Jacob deGrom, and Julio Teheran) have allowed a lower OPS to right-handed batters than Hendricks’s .585.

More bad news for the Brewers: Hendricks has the second-highest ground ball rate among 113 qualifying pitchers this season. That’s bad for the Brewers, in particular, because their offense has the fourth-highest collective ground ball rate in MLB this season. Batted-ball splits interact the same way platoon splits do, so when a ground-ball pitcher faces a ground-ball hitter, the pitcher has the edge.

And here’s the knockout punch: two-strike swing rate. The Brewers swing less often in two-strike counts than any other team in baseball—a league-low 54.5 percent of the time. Through Sunday, they had 132 looking strikeouts this season, and no other team in MLB had as many as 100. If any pitcher can be expected to take advantage of that, it’s Hendricks, who throws 40.8 percent of his two-strike pitches in the strike zone, eighth-highest of 129 qualifying pitchers. Hendricks can’t be expected to give up one run over six innings every time he faces the Brewers, but he has a genuine advantage over their lineup.

Chase Anderson has been as bad as Hendricks has been good so far in 2016, with a 6.02 FIP and 119 cFIP. He’s only struck out 27 of his 161 batters faced this season, and he’s walked 13. More troublesome, though, is his tendency to get squared up, hard, by opposing hitters. Seventeen pitches thrown by Anderson this season have resulted in batted balls with an exit velocity of at least 100 miles per hour and a launch angle between 15 and 35 degrees. Only Adam Wainwright has allowed as many, and only Chris Young has allowed more such hits on a per-pitch basis. Despite an intriguing changeup and the addition of a promising cutter to his arsenal, Anderson is hittable. The Cubs could have a field day against the right-hander. He’s a reverse-split guy, though, so don’t expect to see Tommy La Stella squeezing into the lineup. Both Jorge Soler and Javier Baez could start, the latter especially because of Hendricks’s ground-ball proclivity and the Brewers’ right-handedness.

Wednesday: John Lackey v. Jimmy Nelson

One vital objective for the Cubs during this series ought to be keeping the bullpen fresh for the two series thereafter, when they run into the tough offenses of the Giants and Cardinals. John Lackey’s start will be a key there. He’s already made four starts of at least seven innings this season, and even on nights when he’s been lit up (in Arizona during the first week of the season, and in Cincinnati later in April), he’s been able to chew up some innings.

The first time through the order, Lackey has attacked opponents with his fastball, using his four-seamer over half the time, barely showing his changeup, and going to his sinker to put some hitters away with two strikes. The second time through, the changeup becomes a key pitch for him against left-handed batters, while he leans heavily on his slider against righties. By the third trip, he’s throwing his slider over a quarter of the time, blending in his curve, and becomes less predictable with regard to his use of four-seam heaters and sinkers. The Brewers have a lot of flaws offensively, but impatience isn’t one of them. Lackey won’t get as many early swings from them as from most of his opponents to date. He’ll hope that ability to adapt and modulate his approach as he turns over the lineup card will allow him to work around that.

The Brewers will send their ace to the mound to oppose Lackey. Jimmy Nelson throws hard (up to 96 miles per hour, though he sits at 94 a bit more comfortably). He has both a sinker and a four-seamer, and whereas he had long favorted the former, he mixed them pretty evenly in 2015. So far this year, though, the sinker is back in the driver’s seat, and it can be really nasty, boring in on right-handers and dipping plenty. Unfortunately, he has a tendency to either pound the zone over the course of a start, but groove a few pitches and get knocked around, or get a little loose in terms of command and walk himself into trouble. He issued four free passes when he faced the Cubs on April 26, and although two of the three runs the Cubs scored against him were unearned, they had good at-bats. In a start last May, Nelson fanned 11 Cubs and walked only one—but let up three homers and lost anyway.

Thursday: Jason Hammel v. Junior Guerra

When Jason Hammel was at the height of his powers last June, he was throwing his slider over 40 percent of the time, and it was a lights-out pitch. Then he suffered a hamstring injury in early July, and his season went off the rails. He threw his slider less and less often, and hitters mashed both his four-seam fastball and his sinker. They just had to wait for him to get behind in the count or into a bad position, then pounce on pitches he inevitably (and unintentionally) elevated.

This season, Hammel is back in that familiar first-half groove. He has not only cranked the slider up to its former frequency (and to perhaps unprecedented levels of effectiveness), but worked hard to develop his curveball into a legitimate weapon to keep hitters off the slider—and everything else he throws. Last season, he couldn’t throw the pitch for a strike, usually burying it in the dirt, so even as he tried to use it in lieu of his lost slider late in the season, opponents spat on it. This year, it’s a different story. He’s gotten some looking strikes with it, but hitters are also swinging at it more, a sign that they’re having a harder time reading the pitch out of his hand. That’s also leading to more ground balls when batters do get their lumber on the ball. Hammel might still stumble in the second half; he’s never had a full season of uninterrupted effectiveness. He’s truly a more complete pitcher, though, and maybe that counts for something.

Junior Guerra gets the nod for the Brewers. A former catcher and first baseman in the Braves’ system, Guerra took to the mound a decade ago, but slogged his way through years in the Mexican League to become a 30-year-old rookie only last year. The White Sox tried him as both a starter and a reliever last season, mostly in the high minors, with mixed results: he fanned 105 in 83 1/3 minor-league innings, but was knocked around in three brief MLB appearances. Now the Brewers are giving him a full-fledged shot to join their rotation. Through three starts, he has a 4.00 ERA, with 13 strikeouts against five walks. He throws a mid-90s fastball, and throws it a lot, and the rest of the time, he mixes a cutter in the mid-80s with a slider that averages about 82 mph. It’s high-intensity, at times, but it’s not especially nuanced or sexy.

What to Watch For

The new-look Brewers will work the count, swing for the fences, and get aggressive on the bases when the opportunity arises. Jonathan Villar is especially notable in that last respect. They’re a subpar defensive team, so the Cubs would do well to put the ball in play and force the issue there. Milwaukee sluggers Jonathan Lucroy and Ryan Braun are both the hitters to handle with caution, and the ones Cubs fans might want to keep an eye on: it’s not inconceivable (though it’s certainly not likely, per se) that the Cubs could have interest in one or both as the trade deadline nears.

Most of all, watch the uniforms. The Brewers have not only brought back their brilliant ball-and-glove logo in full force, but now sport a deep blue and yellow-gold home jersey that might well be the best in baseball. They’re young, they’re talented, and even though they play pretty ugly baseball, they’re beautiful. It will be nice to bask in their reflected sartorial glory for a few days, before the Cubs head to San Francisco and have to face the Giants’ cream and pumpkin-orange ensembles. Blech. Brutal.

Broadcast Info, Game Times

Each of the first two games of the series start at 7:10 Central, with Tuesday’s game on CSN Chicago and Wednesday’s on WGN. Thursday is a 12:40 start on CSN, after which the team will fly West. If they do so with at least two games in hand, they’ll feel good about the start to their road trip.

Lead photo courtesy Benny Sieu—USA Today Sports.

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