Series Preview: Cubs vs. Cardinals, August 11-14

Near the end of June, and a couple of weeks before the All-Star break, the Cardinals swept the Cubs at Wrigley Field. The Cubs were flailing in the deep waters then, at the nadir of their 2016 season; they subsequently dropped series versus the Reds, Mets, and Pirates, plus a makeup game versus the Braves. At the end of the series with the Cardinals, the Cubs stood 9.5 games ahead of St. Louis for the division lead. Their lead eventually dwindled to 6.5 games, enough of a gap for signifying daylight to peek through, still, but in the context of the Cubs’ dominant 2016, a little too close.

A month and a half later, and the Cardinals stare down a 12-game chasm in the standings as they roll into Wrigley Field once again. The dog days are upon us, the Cubs have been streaking since the break, and, on Tuesday, they were the first team in MLB to reach 70 wins. All things point up for the Cubs—awkward Tommy La Stella situations aside—and most things trend downward for the Cardinals, who have recently placed Michael Wacha on the DL and stare down Los Angeles and Miami in the Wild Card standings. It’s going to be a fierce series, as the Cardinals claw for their spot in the playoffs against their Midwestern rivals, and as the Cubs hope to watch the rest of the National League playoff races in their rearview mirrors (of their undoubtedly cool sports cars, those wild and carefree dudes!).

Probable Starters

Thursday: Jon Lester vs. Carlos Martinez

After a pair of rough starts to begin July, Jon Lester has rebounded and delivered the type of consistently excellent outings that we have come to expect from the veteran lefty. His last three starts have featured seven, seven, and eight strikeouts, respectively, and his ERA has dipped to 2.93. After allowing home runs in six consecutive starts from June 18th to July 18th, including three games of multiple home runs allowed, Lester has cut down on walks (one in his past two starts, totaling 13 innings), and home runs (one in his past three starts).

Lester’s DRA sits .60 runs above last year’s mark, but he’s just about in line to replicate last season’s impressive 4.9 pitching WARP. His home run per fly ball rate is up significantly, at the highest percentage of his career, and his walk rate is at its highest since 2013, but his solid strikeout rate and groundball percentage have lead to continued success.

Martinez’s season has resulted in a 3.29 ERA and 3.88 DRA, similar to Lester, but he’s struck out appreciably fewer hitters this season, nearly five percent fewer than last season’s solid 24.9 percent. His cFIP, a predictive stat, portends a close to league-average rest of the season for Martinez, disappointing considering the young pitcher’s impressive first full season in 2015.

The bottom-feeding Braves handed Martinez his ass last time out, touching him up for seven runs, including two homers, over five innings. That followed a pedestrian start in Miami versus a more formidable Marlins lineup, but it appears that Martinez is scuffling a bit. With the Cardinals losing ground in both the NL Central and the Wild Card races, it remains to be seen whether Martinez will spur St. Louis to a triumphant stretch run, or whether he will flag as the season wanes and his innings pile up. Following his shoulder injury that ended Martinez’s 2015 just prior to the playoffs, innings and stress must be on the mind of Cardinals’ brass.

Friday: Jake Arrieta vs. Adam Wainwright

Thursday’s matchup is exciting: a fireballing righty versus an in-and-out lefty, young blood versus old bulldog, but it pales in light of Friday’s pitchers. It’s a reigning Cy Young winner versus an ace in his twilight in a Friday matinee.

Arrieta has faced a similar path to Lester recently. Several June and July starts featured an Arrieta far from his best, walking many hitters (on the way to an unseemly 8.8 walk percentage, up three percent from last season) and failing to get deeper than the fifth inning most times out. In his last start versus Oakland, he garnered his first victory in over a month, scattering three hits over eight innings and giving up nary a run.

Arm slot has been a bit of a problem for Arrieta this season, a symptom of mechanics out of whack. His arm has appeared more consistently up and toward the third base side, and his foot has, at times, landed before his arm has crossed his body—a mechanical sin for a pitcher who fires across his body. He has also modified his pitch selection in 2016: more sinkers, fewer sliders. Whereas his percentage of sinkers in last year’s historic second half sat around 50 percent this season it’s been between 55 and 65 percent, and his sliders have dropped from around 30 percent of his pitches to 15 to 20 percent. Perhaps his selection is a function of getting behind more often in counts, considering his skyrocketing walk rate, but it’s a bad sign, whether a cause or a product.

Arrieta’s Cardinals counterpart has faltered this season as well, an acutely disappointing successor to his injury-shortened 2015. Wainwright’s 4.34 ERA is the worst of his career, save his two-appearance cup of coffee in 2005, as is his 4.56 DRA. The rate stats quite don’t tell the story of Wainwright’s poor season. 18.7 percent strikeouts, 6.2 percent walks, groundballs in line with his career rate… Wainwright has simply failed to put together good outings, despite an average-ish defense behind him. Wainwright has allowed harder contact this year than in years past, so that is perhaps a signifier of trouble, but his lack of success leaves a lot to explore.

Saturday: Kyle Hendricks vs. Luke Weaver

Luke Weaver is making his MLB debut on Saturday. The 22-year-old Weaver pitched in Rookie ball as recently as last season, and has made 12 Double-A starts and one Triple-A start this season, so he’s as green as major-league starters come. Baseball Prospectus‘s scouting report from last year read thusly:

Weaver is quite polished for a player in High-A ball, as is to be expected from a former first- rounder out of a major college program. He doesn’t have an ideal starters frame that appears to be built to eat innings, but his velocity comes out easy and his mechanics are sound enough t o prevent any concern. The fastball/change-up combination will be his calling card, and the pitches look identical with similar arm action, release point and movement. The curveball is currently inconsistent, but it could become a third average pitch, especially against right- handed hitters. 

Weaver’s fastball and changeup duo is reminiscent of the man toeing the rubber opposite him: Kyle Hendricks. Hendricks is the surprise Cy Young candidate of 2015. His 3.56 DRA and 2.8 WARP belies an ability to induce soft contact and to keep hitters off balance, savvy pitching from the 26-year-old. His 2.17 ERA is second to the injured Clayton Kershaw, ahead of National League luminaries like Bumgarner, deGrom, Arrieta, Syndergaard, Strasburg, and Scherzer. His WHIP is a sterling 1.02, and he has two complete games, including a shutout, under his belt. His changeup dazzles, his fastball baffles. Get on board, baby, Hendricks is here.

Sunday: John Lackey vs. Mike Leake

The series culminates with the battle of NL Central Division free agent pitching acquisitions. John Lackey has been solid in his debut season for the Northsiders, if not spectacular. Against Oakland, he twirled eight innings of one-run ball, punctuated by six strikeouts. He’s been brilliant for a month, after a rough patch echoing those of his rotation-mates, and every start of his has reached six innings since the end of June, important innings-eating considering the Cubs’ mutable bullpen. His sparkling 1.05 WHIP nips at Hendricks’s heels, but he has surrendered home runs more frequently than at any point in his career.

Mike Leake is fine. He has been fine, and he will continue to be fine. His 4.79 ERA is less than fine, but his 4.17 DRA is close to fine. His .263 TAv allowed is fine, his walk rate is actually good, and his strikeout rate is boring. Mike Leake is boring.

What to Watch For

The three Cubs profiled most recently here at BP Wrigleyville: Ben Zobrist, Jorge Soler, and Willson Contreras. (I encourage you to read those three pieces—they are very good).

Zobrist, after a poor week after the All-Star break, has hit torridly of late. He’s been ensconced in the outfield, with the emergent Javier Baez stealing his infield starts, and he’s slugged his way to a .333/.433/.474 line since the beginning of the Milwaukee series on July 22nd. While homerless for a month, he’s added six doubles in his last 48 plate appearances, scoring seven runs and driving in eight.

Soler has his safely in the four games in which he’s appeared since coming off the disabled list. He socked two homers in the Oakland series and added two more hits in the first game versus the Angels, but playing time will be more difficult to come by with Zobrist getting outfield starts and Baez snagging at-bats. Still, he looks good, and while he might sit versus the tough right-handers the Cardinals are throwing in the first two games, he should start at least once over the weekend.

Game Times and Broadcast Info: Thursday night’s game begins at 7:05 CDT, on Comcast SportsNet. Friday and Saturday begin at the tried and true 1:20, both on ABC-7 locally. The national game, as is often customary with Cubs-Cardinals weekend series, is Sunday night on ESPN, a bizarre 7:08 start.

Lead photo courtesy Jeff Curry—USA Today Sports.

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