In our last series preview, Matt Trueblood made a good observation: There is no such thing as a soft schedule. But with the Cubs just coming off an 8-2 homestand at Wrigley Field and then hitting the road for six of nine contests against the worst team in baseball while missing their ace pitcher in the series, after taking two of three from a team that was expected to be one of the worst teams in baseball (they’re still under .500) … that all might be considered the softer side of the schedule.
After a travel day yesterday, the Cubs will now be hosted by the 17-42 Atlanta Braves for a three game set. This will be the Cubs final go round with the Braves at the soon-to-be vacated Turner Field, as the Braves are expected to open their new stadium,
PublicFund SunLife Park, in 2017.
The Cubs are currently perched at the top of the standings in the majors while the Braves dwell in the basement, but the Cubs currently have the second highest TAv in the NL at .288 (just behind the Cardinals) while the Braves currently own the worst TAv at just .237.
On the pitching side of things, the Braves’ third-worst ERA in the NL pales in comparison to the Cubs’, who currently have the best ERA among starting staffs in the majors—not just the NL.
This series should prove entertaining if anything, due to the sheer disparity of talent between these two clubs, and the fact that the Braves are currently 6-27 at home. Let’s take a look ahead to the upcoming match ups.
Friday: Jason Hammel vs. Bud Norris
Don’t look now (since it’s still the first half)—but Jason Hammel currently has the third best ERA on this staff behind the exceptional Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester. His 2.14 ERA has even eclipsed the impressive performance of John Lackey this season (2.63).
Hammel had a bit of a scare a couple of outings ago when he left his start against the Dodgers with a right hamstring cramp, but didn’t end up missing his next start the Diamondbacks. In that outing against Arizona at Wrigley Field this past weekend, Hammel only allowed two earned runs, while giving up a home run and walking two. The walks allowed were not completely unusual for Hammel, as he currently has a BB/9 of 3.43 on the season, and he also struck out six batters during the outing. Overall, nothing seemed too out of the ordinary for him. Fingers crossed, though. One can’t help but flinch hearing Hammel had any sort of issue, no matter how minor, with his hamstring—especially when getting off to such a dominant start.
The Braves will be sending pitcher Bud Norris to the mound to make his seventh start of the season. Norris has done a bit of decent work out of the bullpen so far, but currently holds a 7.48 ERA as a starter (5.28 overall). Home runs are a major Achillies heel for Norris, who is posting a HR/FB rate of 13.6 percent, and with a 4.70 BB/9 rate this season. The Cubs should refrain from swinging at a lot that Norris has to offer (not that they are a swing-prone lineup), unless it’s one of those mistake pitches Norris so often leaves right over the middle of the plate. Feast away, then.
Saturday: Jake Arrieta vs. Matt Wisler
It’s hard to believe that the two games the Cubs lost on their brilliant 8-2 homestand last week were both days that Jake Arrieta had the ball. It’s also hard to believe that in one of those games, the one that garnered Arrieta the first loss on his 2016 record, he had a season-high 12 strikeouts.
Arrieta has been prone to give up a few more walks this season, and even surrender a few earned runs (he gave up three in his last outing along with those 12 Ks), but he still has a staff best ERA of 1.80 and is dominating opponents across the board. The Braves currently have the second highest swing rate in the NL at 48.3 percent, so look for Arrieta to induce a ton of whiffs against this lineup, who also have the fourth highest swinging strike rate in the NL.
Arrieta will face Braves starter Matt Wisler, who has a 3.98 ERA this season, matched with a 4.23 FIP. Wisler’s biggest weakness is that his groundball rate is just 37 percent, while also allowing a ton of fly balls that can easily get out of the park—something he learned in his last start against the Dodgers in which he allowed three home runs over just four innings of work.
Wisler has recently upped his slider usage in favor of less fastballs. His fastball sits around 93 mph, and Wisler often leaves it high in the zone or right down the heart of the plate, while his slider goes for a ball around 43 percent of the time. So look for the Cubs to take advantage of all of that in the form of walks, and hard contact—even a few longballs perhaps.
Sunday: Jon Lester vs. ??
With a brilliant 2.06 ERA on the season so far, Jon Lester has been the pitcher that the Cubs expected to see when they signed him in the offseason of 2014. He’s been dominant, pitching seven innings or more in half of his starts on the season, including a complete game just two starts ago at Dodger Stadium. Lester has a K/9 of 8.92 this season, and has already put together three 10 strikeout starts and struck out nine batters in his last outing at Wrigley Field.
Lester will look to continue his reign against enigmatic Braves pitcher Not Yet Announced.
What To Watch For
After coming off a slow stretch, Anthony Rizzo gotten off to an incredible hot start in June, posting a slash line of .455/.520/.773 so far this month.
With a 12 percent walk rate and a weaker pitching staff on deck for the series, look for Rizzo to get on base with his patient approach at the plate, and square up mistake pitches these starters (and relievers) may be more prone to letting get away from them.
Albert Almora, who was recently called up to join the Major League club in light of Jorge Soler’s injury, gathered his first Major League hit on Wednesday against the Phillies, but I doubt the fun will stop there. Look for Almora to continue to make a few more splashes defensively and offensively in this series.
Though the starting pitching has been dominant, I’m interested in monitoring Hammel’s next outing after the hamstring incident: was it a blip on his radar or an indication of an issue resurfacing?
The Phillies pitching left the bats of this Cubs lineup dormant in the last series, which is the one thing that the Phillies have going for them. Fortunately for the Cubs, quite the opposite is true of the Braves—so look for the offense to surge and the starters to keep dominating against this Braves lineup. Again, best pitching staff in the majors matched up with the worse offensive club in the NL (according to TAv) should prove to be a fun series if you like watching the Cubs club the ball with authority.
Friday’s game will begin at 6:35 CT and can be found on CSN Chicago and 670 The Score. Saturday’s game will be an afternoon start at 3:10 CT, and can be found on MLB Network, CSN Chicago, and 670 The Score. Sunday’s game will be a 12:35 CT start, and can be found on WGN and 670 The Score.
Lead photo courtesy Jake Roth—USA Today Sports.