Well! It’s finally the actual day. There’s been a lot of previewing and a lot of anticipating and a lot of planning, and today, we get to actually watch some baseball get played. Let’s get right to it.
Jon Lester (202.7 IP/2.44 ERA/3.10 DRA) vs. Johnny Cueto (219.7 IP/2.79 ERA/3.54 DRA)
It’s a good thing that the Giants had to send Madison Bumgarner up against the Mets on Wednesday, there’s no doubt of that. But quietly, Johnny Cueto was nearly as good in 2016.
DRA seems to think Cueto benefited from some home run luck, but the difference between the two is slight. He might not have the fun backstory of dating his doppelganger and wrestling steers or whatever, and he might not have the same history of dominant playoff performances, but Cueto is a very formidable opponent. Plus, he’s not a demonstrated hothead, so the Cubs’ backup plan of having Javy Baez and Jorge Soler flip their bats after every pitch until the starter implodes in fury will have to wait until Game 3.
Cueto has fully five pitches he can deploy against the Cubs, per Brooks Baseball: a fourseam fastball and a sinker, both of which top out around 93, a high-80s cutter, a mid-80s slider, and a low-80s changeup. So while Cueto is a righty, he hasn’t run much of a platoon split for his career, and actually has struck out lefties at a higher rate (though he’s also walked more of them).
Finallly, Cueto was a workhorse in 2016, averaging nearly seven innings per start, the third-highest figure in baseball among qualified starters and the highest in the NL. The playoffs are a different beast, however, and while Bumgarner showed on Wednesday that a pitcher can conceivably go deep into a game, even if it means facing some batters three or even four times, that’s the exception rather than the norm. The Giants bullpen is certainly not a point of strength, so a lot of this game might swing on whether the Cubs can bump Cueto out relatively early, or if he can shoulder some of the load that would otherwise fall on the Giants.
Lester is Lester: very good and incredibly predictable. This game is a bit of a immovable object/unstoppable force thing, as a result: the playoffs are notably unpredictable, so it’s of course possible that Lester doesn’t do his normal thing. His normal thing, however, is just really solid excellence, which I’m sure you know by now. Two things are worth pointing out, however. One, the Giants lineup is pretty lefty-heavy, and they’ve performed worse against southpaws as a result (.708 OPS, vs. .737 against righties). Lester also has a pretty broad repertoire, if not as broad as Cueto, but he does have a somewhat pronounced platoon split for his career: his K-BB% against lefties is 18.1%, compared to 13.5% against righties, so while the Giants have some formidable hitters, Lester would seem to be entering this game with an advantage.
The other thing that comes up whenever one thinks about Lester and playoff starts are stolen bases. That’s not gonna be something he can get away from for a long time. That reputation, however, has seemed to outpace reality. By swipe rate (BP’s metric taking all factors into account to determine how much more often batters ran on a given pitcher than they did against everyone else), Lester ranks 43rd out of 75 qualified pitchers, actually slightly below average. Despite never throwing over to first (or doing something like this when he does), Lester varies his timing to the plate enough to keep runners from going on him. Compare that to the Giants opponent on Wednesday, Noah Syndergaard, who has the highest swipe rate in the league for 2016, and who gave up an incredible 48 stolen bases in the regular season. A much juicier target than Lester, it would seem, but on Wednesday, the Giants only attempted two steals (both by Denard Span) and only succeeded with one. This isn’t a particularly speedy lineup, so it’s unlikely it ends up being an issue for Lester.
What to Watch For
The Giants have some real good hitters, most notably Buster Posey (.289 TAv), Brandon Belt (.316), and Hunter Pence (.304). Behind those three, however, they have a lot of decent-but-not-great players, which is how they ended up with 715 runs scored this year, good for 19th leaguewide. Some of that is due to the park in which they play, undoubtedly, but this isn’t a lineup like the Cubs’.
When you compare the two starters, it’s plausible to imagine these two teams being evenly matched. When you add in the lineups, it’s a little harder. You know all about the Cubs, and about the depth and skill of this lineup (and bench). It’s a lineup that made scoring runs feel inevitable nearly all year long. The playoffs are different than the regular season, and anything can happen in a single game. But the Cubs have three players whose TAvs in 2016 were nearly equal to or higher than the TAv of the Giants’ best hitter–Dexter Fowler (.312), Anthony Rizzo (.334), and Kris Bryant (.350)–which is the single best reason to feel confident about today’s game.
The playoffs means late starts, unfortunately, with first pitch tonight at 8PM CST. It’ll be televised on FS1, and available on 670 The Score and ESPN Radio. You’ve made it! Congratulations. Now the fun stuff finally begins.
Lead photo courtesy Jerry Lai—USA Today Sports.