Series Preview: Cubs vs. Reds, September 30-October 2

If a Series Preview is written for a 100-win team on the last weekend of the regular season and everybody is looking towards the postseason, does it really exist?

After all, the division has been clinched. The league’s best record is all sewn up. The season’s closing weekend is a final victory lap for what could end up being the franchises’s most successful regular season since 1910. They will bring this rollicking six-month party to a close on the banks of the Ohio River, where the Cubs will take on the last-place Cincinnati Reds for a three game series, starting Friday night. The Reds are coming off a four-game split in St. Louis, where they put a slight dent in the Cardinals postseason hopes.

While they have been respectable since the All-Star break (34-36), this is a 92-loss team, masquerading, according to some metrics, as a 100-loss team. Entering the weekend, the Reds own the NL’s fourth worst run differential and the worst third-order winning percentage in all of baseball. The Reds pitchers, as you might have heard, rank among the worst in league history. As Neil Paine wrote with damning, unambiguous prose over at FiveThirtyEight, the 2016 Reds pitching staff ranks as the “the worst ever — and the only one in history that would have been better off being stocked with replacement-level players instead.” The team has already set a major league record for home runs surrendered in a season (251 and counting). They own the league’s worst walk rate, and the team FIP is nearly three quarters of a run higher than the next closest NL team. The staff’s win leader (Dan Straily) owns a 4.49 DRA and 4.85 FIP. The team’s saves leader (Tony Cingrani) possesses a 5.51 DRA and a 1.46 WHIP.

One positive for the Reds, if one exists in a dreadful season, is that the offense has not been awful, but just decidedly mediocre. Among NL teams, they rank between eighth and twelfth in most every offensive category. Just four Reds position players have been worth at least two wins, according to bWARP (for comparison, the Cubs have nine), and three have a .416 slugging percentage or higher. Joey Votto is doing Votto-like things (.321/.433/.542, 5.6 bWARP). Adam Duvall is finishing a breakout season offensively (69 extra base hits and .263 ISO). Otherwise, like mentioned above, it is a fairly listless, middle-of-the-road offense.

So, here we are folks: one more series to break down. While irrelevant to the standings, there’s plenty to watch. Besides, as much as we all eagerly (see: nervously) await the playoffs, why not drink in the entirety of the greatest Cubs regular season in modern history? Keep reading a few inches below!

Probable Pitchers

Friday: Jake Buchanan vs. Josh Smith

As Carrie Muskat noted, the series opener will likely be a bullpen game, with right-hander Jake Buchanan getting the start. He’s making his second start for the Cubs after posting a 4.85 ERA and 1.36 WHIP in 18 starts at Triple-A Iowa. Buchanan is primarily a sinker and curve pitcher, who does not overwhelm with velocity (17.2 percent strikeout rate this season).

Despite making 32 appearances in 2016, this will only be Josh Smith’s second start. The right-hander, who owns a 5.32 FIP this season, picked up a loss against the Cubs out of the bullpen last week. That day, he throw a season-high 31 fourseam fastballs. Smith has been ineffective with both his primary pitch (the fourseamer, .474 slugging percentage) and his primary secondary pitch (slider, .451 slugging percentage).

Saturday: Jon Lester vs. Tim Adleman

Lester looks to put the finishing touches on a superb campaign, as he can win 20 games for the first time in his career, and set career-bests in WHIP and ERA. He will not crack his top three seasons in DRA and FIP, but this could go down as his signature season.And hey, if you want to get a head start on the postseason preparation, last year I spent a few thousand words on Lester’s remarkable postseason consistency. The basic takeaway: his postseason numbers are impressive not because they are otherworldly, but because they so closely mirror his regular season production. Happy (re) reading!

Adleman has finished the season strong, posting a 3.99 ERA and 0.99 WHIP in five September starts. Last week, the right-hander held the Cubs to two earned runs on five baserunners and five strikeouts in 6 1/3 innings pitched. That day, Adleman threw a season high 22 curves, but during this solid season-ending stretch, he’s riding his fourseam fastball (.171 slugging percentage). With two strikes, he jumps his fourseam usage to just about 50 percent.

Sunday: Kyle Hendricks vs. Robert Stephenson

Like Lester, Hendricks will get one more opportunity to bolster his Cy Young case. In four excellent September starts, he’s picked up his strikeout pace (28 percent, after 22 percent through the season’s first five months). During the month, Hendricks has reduced his fourseam and sinker usage, while increasing his change and curve rates. With two strikes, he’s been going to his change nearly 50 percent of the time. It will be interesting to see if the trend continues in to the postseason. Hendricks has been solid against the Reds this season in two starts, allowing two earned in 12 innings pitched.

Stephenson is finishing up a rough rookie season. The right-hander has made it into the fifth inning in just four of seven starts, and has struggled no matter the numbers at which you look (6.43 DRA, 6.72 FIP, and 1.55 WHIP). In five September starts, Stephenson has allowed eight home runs, including one against the Cubs in 3 2/3 rough innings last week at Wrigley.  He goes primarily to his fourseam fastball (64 percent), but with two strikes, mixes in a curve at 30 percent.

What to Watch for

Despite the essentially meaningless three-game set, the franchise and several players could reach some pretty impressive milestones this weekend. Sure, some of them might be far fetched, but what’s the harm in pondering what might be? With three wins, the Cubs will match their 104-win total from both 1909 and 1910. As mentioned above, Lester can win 20 games for the first time in his career, and with nine strikeouts and 2 1/3 innings pitched, he can post his fifth season of 200 strikeouts and 200 innings pitched. Anthony Rizzo, with two extra base hits, will set a new Cubs single season record for extra base hits by a left handed batter. With six runs batted in, Addison Russell would give the Cubs three players with at least 100 RBI’s.

Broadcast Channels, Game Times

All start times are Central Standard Time 

After this series, it’ll be national broadcasts that don’t end until the early morning hours. Until then, Friday’s opener can be found on CSN, with first pitch scheduled for 6:10. Saturday’s contest can also be found on CSN, with a mid-afternoon affair SCHEDULED for 3:10. The series and regular season finale moves over to WGN and a 2:10 start time. Enjoy the final stress free (relatively) games of 2016!

Lead photo courtesy Scott Rovak—USA Today Sports.

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