What you need to know:
Eddie Butler made his debut for the Cubs today, and it was a good one. All Butler did was surrender two hits, strike out five, and walk three over six shutout innings, a welcome change from the Cubs’ incumbent starters of late. And yet, Butler’s performance was overshadowed a bit by his batterymate.
In my opinion, Willson Contreras was the player of the game until the last out of the ninth inning. On offense he smoked two solo homers in his first two plate appearances. And in the seventh inning, he showed off his rocket arm while the outcome of the game hung in the balance. After Carl Edwards Jr. gave up a homer to Grichuk and dealt two free passes, including the second walk to Dexter Fowler, who represented the tying run, Contreras picked Fowler off first base to escape a jam (2.88 on the Leverage Index). He managed to besmirch his otherwise glorious day with a dumb, unnecessarily hard throw over Rizzo’s head on a dropped third strike in the ninth inning.
Add to that a solo homer from Tommy La Stella, a poised ninth inning from The Wadebot, and this was a rare solid all-around performance for the Cubs other than Contreras’ silly throw.
Everyone expected the story of the game would be Eddie Butler and his first start for the Cubs. As Zach Bernard and I previewed this morning, Butler’s success will largely depend on his ability to generate swinging strikes, as he struck out a relatively poor 16 percent of batters faced last season, and just 13 percent of batters faced in AAA this season. Opposing Butler tonight was Cardinals’ starter Mike Leake, who is an effective MLB starter with a similarly low 17 percent strikeout rate. Leake survives with a walk rate of just 4.5 percent and a groundball rate of 53 percent. If Butler can match those numbers, I think he’s got a chance.
And tonight Butler looked quite good, if a little wild at times. He faced 23 batters and struck out five of them for a 21 percent strikeout rate, often by elevating his fastball when ahead in the count, a strategy that would seem effective as his four-seamer touched 96.8 mph in the 1st inning. Butler threw his slider at an average of 91.6 mph according to Statcast, which is interesting because Statcast clocked his slider at an average of 87.5 mph in 2016. So maybe Butler added a cutter to his arsenal? Or Trackman at Busch runs a little hot? Those are my best guesses as a number of Butler’s harder “sliders” recorded by Trackman appeared to have similar horizontal movement to a slider but with higher velocity. Also, I have a hard time believing Butler is throwing a slider above 91 mph because few other pitchers throw true sliders at 91 mph, and at least one of those dudes is called “Thor.” So on this night, Eddie Butler looked like a guy who could stick.
If only Willson Contreras could play every game at Busch Stadium. In the second inning, Contreras showed off his oppo power with laser over the wall in right with an exit velocity of 109.5 mph. Unsatisfied with that, Contreras eliminated a Mike Leake sinker for his second homer with an exit velocity of 114 mph to left center. So those are the two hardest-hit balls of his career, and that’s fun. Oh, and BP has him 3rd in catcher runs above average… just stop making stupid throws to first on dropped third strikes that should end the game. Crimey.*
The night got off to an interesting start. Joe Maddon initially had Kris Bryant in right field, but had to scratch Bryant just before the game with gastrointestinal issues, replacing him with Jon Jay. Maddon always sticks to his rule against players “soiling themselves on the field.” Shortly thereafter, in just the second inning, Maddon removed Jay from the lineup with back spasms and replaced him with Tommy La Stella. Everyone knows that St. Louis-style pizza sucks, so I assume these lineup machinations stemmed from some crappy St. Louis pizza getting Bryant too sick to play and triggering a biblical violent dry heave from Jay that left back spasms in its wake. Tommy La Stella hit a homer though, so everything went according to plan.
Top WPA Play (+.118): Contreras’ first home run off Leake.
Bottom WPA Play (-.094): Contreras’ errant throw on a dropped third strike to Kolten Wong that allowed a run to score, brought the Cards to within a run, and brought to the plate the dreaded Matt Adams as the winning run.
*Editor’s Note: I’m not sure this is a real saying, but this word is somehow in between all of “cripes,” “blimey,” and “crikey,” all of which would have made sense here. So we’re leaving it.
Lead photo courtesy Scott Kane—USA Today Sports