Many things went into the Cubs’ four-game sweep of the Nationals at Wrigley Field last month. Their offense was sizzling, they came up with an effective (if unorthodox and, tactically speaking, questionable) salve for the burn Bryce Harper had inflicted upon the rest of the league to that point in the season, and whereas the Nationals had to face both Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester, the Cubs missed Stephen Strasburg. In light of the fact that the final game of that series ended with a Javier Baez walkoff home run, even home-field advantage needs to be mentioned as one reason for the sweep.
None of that will work in the Cubs’ favor this time around, at least not in the same way. Lester and Arrieta each pitched in Atlanta this weekend, and will miss this series. Strasburg will face off with Jason Hammel in the final game of this set. Harper had batted .266/.372/.649 in 27 games prior to that series in Chicago, but is hitting .242/.385/.374 since the Nationals rolled out of Wrigley Field that Sunday. That might sound like a potential source of encouragement for the Cubs, but it’s a trap. The Nationals have scored more runs per game (4.87) since that series than they had averaged going into it (4.44). Ryan Zimmerman, who was so phenomenally bumfuzzled that walking Harper virtually every time he stepped to the plate didn’t hurt the Cubs much that weekend, has batted .247/.321/.559 since leaving town. Anthony Rendon had a miserable first month, but started to show signs of life during the series at Wrigley (drawing a few tough walks and launching a solo home run), and since then, he’s batted .317/.408/.538. If anything, the Nationals club the Cubs will encounter at Nationals Park this week is even more formidable than the very good one they beat so handily a month ago. Meanwhile, if anything, the Cubs are weakened, with Jorge Soler and Tommy La Stella on the shelf, Ben Zobrist and Dexter Fowler no longer superhuman, and Addison Russell mired in a deep funk.
The Cubs’ schedule gets really tough, starting right here and going at least through the All-Star break. They will need to play well just to win more than they lose over the next month, including this series.
Monday: Kyle Hendricks v. Max Scherzer
When last the Cubs and Nationals squared off, it was John Lackey who drew a matchup with Scherzer, a kind of zombies vs. cyborgs thing. This time, it’s more of a robot v. cyborg thing, with Kyle Hendricks hoping to bring his ruthless efficiency to bear upon that greatly improved Nationals offense. On May 5, he faced 22 Nationals batters. Harper had two walks and a line-drive single to right field, but of the 19 other plate appearances Washington took in six innings, the only successful ones were a Michael Taylor double and a Danny Espinosa hit-by-pitch.
Hendricks used his changeup and four-seam fastball to defy the scouting report on him in the early innings, leaning on them fairly heavily and going away from the sinker that tends to be his primary weapon. Then he went to that pitch the second time through the batting order, and induced a lot of weak contact. He kept the ball down, and got a bunch of ground balls for the effort. In 87 pitches thrown, though, he got only five whiffs, so the Nationals weren’t as fooled by him as some teams have been. He’ll need to find a way to miss more bats this time, or he won’t enjoy the same success.
Scherzer gave up seven runs at Wrigley Field last month, largely because he couldn’t keep the ball in the park. La Stella and Anthony Rizzo each homered against him, and Zobrist homered twice. Peculiarly susceptible to power for such an otherwise dominant hurler, Scherzer has given up seven home runs in six starts since then. He’s also fanned 61 of 171 batters faced, though, pinning his ERA down to 2.58 over that stretch. The Cubs have 16 home runs since the start of June, and need to unleash that kind of power on any mistakes Scherzer makes in order to win.
Tuesday: John Lackey v. Gio Gonzalez
Lackey keeps eating innings and racking up strikeouts at a career-high rate, and his curveball usage continues to trend upward, toward a five-year high. When he dominated the Nationals (11 strikeouts) in May, he did it not only with a lot of hooks, but with a bunch of sinkers, making the pitch almost his primary fastball, ahead of his four-seamer. As Kris Bryant and Rizzo noted after Lackey shut down the Cubs in the playoffs last year, one of the frustrating things opponents must overcome when they face Lackey is his ability to give very different looks and take very different approaches from one start to the next. He might adjust by switching to a slider-heavy attack this time around, or he might go after the Nationals’ biggest collective weakness, and throw a lot of changeups. While Washington is one of the best offenses in baseball against most pitch types, several of their batters scuffle against good changeups. Lackey has thrown his change unusually infrequently this year, and unusually hard, but that might simply indicate that he’s using the pitch more sparingly to keep hitters from reading it well. If he thinks it will confound the Nats’ expectations, he might ramp up his reliance on changing speeds in this contest.
Over his last four starts, Gonzalez has faced 104 batters, fanned 31, and walked only six. However, he’s also been barreled up a lot, allowing five home runs and a .908 OPS, posting an 8.34 ERA. He’s battling diminished velocity and a pair of secondary pitches that he doesn’t seem to manipulate as well as he used to, but he remains a solidly above-average starter. He’s particularly tough on left-handed hitters, and in fact, a few years after seeming to be a reverse-split guy, Gonzalez now sports a traditional platoon split—even a somewhat wider one than usual. It’s possible the Cubs will run out a lineup that night featuring Albert Almora, Jr., Matt Szczur, and David Ross to combat the Washington lefty.
Wednesday: Jason Hammel v. Stephen Strasburg
In an usual 4:05 ET getaway day game, the Cubs will face Strasburg, the best starting pitcher they’ve encountered since either Madison Bumgarner, on May 22, or Noah Syndergaard, last October. The former No. 1 overall pick has a fastball that runs well into the high 90s, and uses it often. He’s used it a bit less often this year, however, to make room in his arsenal for a slider that he’d toyed with early in each of the last two seasons, but which now looks like a permanent club for the bag. That’s contributed to a strikeout rate of 32.0 percent this season, the highest since his truncated rookie season in 2010. Strasburg is a true ace, and the extension he signed earlier this season will keep him at the front of the Nationals’ rotation for the foreseeable future, barring injury.
“Barring injury” is the trap door there, of course. Strasburg already has a Tommy John scar, and only has one full season without time lost because of an injury under his belt. He’s thrown 103 pitches per start this season, a staggering increase from an average of 94 pitches per start over the last four years. He crossed the (admittedly, arbitrary) 100-pitch mark 49 times in 115 starts over those four campaigns. He’s done so 10 times in 13 starts this year. That’s started to wear on him a little as the calendar has turned to June, and he’s allowed seven earned runs in two starts this month (despite fanning 20 of 49 batters faced). With Strasburg, the only weakness is the same one Scherzer has—a vulnerability to the long ball. The Cubs will have to hit at least one or two to beat him.
If anyone can understand Strasburg’s struggles to dominate over a full season, or his need to avoid shouldering too heavy a workload early on, it’s Hammel. His career ERA before the All-Star break is 3.92, but after the break, it’s 5.15. The split has been especially pronounced over the last four years, with his 2012 and 2013 campaigns shortened by second-half injury trouble, and his 2014 and 2015 seasons marred by brutal second halves.
Hammel’s response to this problem: an increased, altered dedication to conditioning this past offseason. He’s also changed as a pitcher, though, ratcheting up his slider usage to an all-time high, but also working his changeup and curveball into more viable extra options. Last time he saw the Nationals, he was fighting his command of both his slider and his sinker, leading to his highest usage of the curveball all year, but also to four walks and a fairly flat five-inning outing. He might try to make that work for him, this time around, by using the slider and sinker much more, and the curve less. Of course, that strategy will only work if he has a feel for those pitches on Wednesday that he lacked on May 7.
What to Watch For
Series between the Cubs and Nationals are fast becoming opportunities for broadcasters and pundits to gush over Harper and Bryant, and that might eventually get old, but for now, it’s perfectly palatable. Just at the moment, these two are among the most interesting players in baseball. Harper’s prolonged slump has only pulled him down to a .336 TAv for the season, and Bryant lags only a bit behind him there, at .332. If you had to handicap the NL MVP race right now, you could do much worse than taking Bryant and Harper and giving the other guy the field.
Even a month into his return to the realm of mere mortals, Harper strikes fear into everyone. Of the 123 batters who have seen at least 850 pitches this season, Harper has seen a lower percentage of opponents’ pitches pass through the strike zone than all but four. He’s walking a ton, because he both lays off pitches outside the zone and takes a selective approach within the zone, but he’s not driving the ball all that consistently lately. That .374 slugging average over the last month’s worth of games isn’t an aberration, at least not entirely. Harper’s average exit velocity over that span is 89.3 miles per hour, good for 92nd of 150 qualifying batters over that span.
Meanwhile, even as Bryant marks a pace for 40 home runs, even as he puts the MVP in his cross-hairs (having won, in consecutive seasons, the Collegiate Player of the Year, Arizona Fall League MVP, Minor League Player of the Year, and NL Rookie of the Year awards), Bryant seems to intimidate no one. He ranks among the 20 percent of qualifying batters who have seen the fewest pitches in the strike zone, but not among the bottom 15 percent. He’s fiercely aggressive (only Jonathan Schoop, Adam Jones, Corey Seager, and Maikel Franco swing at a higher percentage of pitches in the zone), but unusually good at laying off junk, for a hitter with that kind of approach. He makes pitchers pay when they throw him strikes, and he takes his walks when they don’t. One might expect him to see a much lower frequency of good pitches to hit, given his obvious talent and prodigious power. Maybe pitchers see his relatively low rate of contact within the zone, his 199 strikeouts from 2015, and his overlong arms, and think the best way to attack him is to keep pounding the zone, avoid falling behind, and hope for weak contact. I suspect that’s the case, or at least that the explanation lies closer to that than to the possibility that opponents are simply underestimating him. Maybe it’s even the right way to go after him; we certainly don’t know for sure that Bryant is achieving his full potential.
Still, it’s strange, and it makes for strange and misleading phenomena that color any effort to break down Bryant’s numbers. For instance, entering Sunday’s game, Bryant had walked just once and been hit once in his last 50 plate appearances. He had 18 strikeouts in those 50 trips. Yet, he also had four doubles and four homers over that span, and an overall batting line of .271/.300/.604 in the sample. That’s thoroughly bizarre, and not reflective of the kind of hitter Bryant is. It’s just the shape his production has taken, given the way pitchers have approached him lately.
That one walk, by the way, was a historic one. It was an intentional walk late in Saturday’s blowout Cubs win, when the game was already out of hand, and it didn’t need to happen. It did, though, and when it did, Bryant’s pursuit of one small slice of history died. That was the first time anyone had ever intentionally walked Kris Bryant in the Major Leagues.
No player as good as Bryant has ever gotten this far into his big-league career without drawing an intentional walk. It’s not even close. Bryant owns, for the moment, the fourth-best TAv for any player over his first two seasons since the start of the Expansion Era in 1961. Other players of similar production over the same stretch: Frank Thomas (intentionally walked in his 64th career game), Albert Pujols (in his seventh career game), Yasiel Puig (fifth game), Mitchell Page (seventh), Jose Abreu (second game, twice). You get the point. Bryant’s first intentional free pass came in his 210th career game.
Harper wasn’t intentionally walked until his 148th game, a week or two into his second season. Now, though, he’s one of baseball’s most feared hitters, and the fear doesn’t abate even when he’s struggling. Bryant doesn’t get the same treatment, even when he’s hitting well. Bryant has often hit in front of Rizzo, of course, which discourages putting him on, but the broader fact that he doesn’t get pitched as carefully as one might expect certainly stands. It will be fascinating to watch the two Vegas kids during this series, including and especially the way they respond to whatever approach the other side takes against them.
Broadcast Info, Game Times, Etc.
Monday night’s game will be on ESPN, for those outside the Chicago market, and on CSN Chicago for the locals. On Tuesday, MLB Network (and MLB PLUS, for those who love StatCast and can watch online) will carry the game, but it will also be on ABC 7 in Chicago. Both contests start at 6:05 CT. Wednesday’s 3:05 CT tilt will be on WGN. Then the Cubs will have Thursday off, as they make their way home for a crucial pair of series against the Pirates and Cardinals.
Lead photo courtesy Caylor Arnold—USA Today Sports.