What you need to know:
Jackson Stephens, a 23-year-old pitcher making his MLB debut, barely outdueled Eddie Butler this afternoon—more with his bat than his arm. In the fourth inning, Stephens delivered a two-out, bases loaded single that gave the Reds a 4-3 lead. They didn’t give it back.
Stephens battled through just five innings and was hit hard at times, but the three runs he allowed and the eight strikeouts he gathered were disappointing results for the Cubs against a pitcher who has a 4.97 ERA at Triple-A this year. The Cubs again failed to come through with runners on base today, and ended up leaving six men on the basepaths, while hitting into two double plays with men in scoring position.
The Cubs are now halfway through the season, and, well, you know how it’s been. They are 40-41.
Eddie Butler‘s results coming into today’s game were, somewhat counterintuitively, some of the best of any Cubs’ starter this year. Before today, Butler had a 3.71 ERA, a FIP of 4.30, and a league-average opponent TAv of .260. These results are further bolstered by what he did at Iowa before being called up: he posted a 1.17 ERA and a 1.11 WHIP at that level in 30+ innings this year. These are the hallmarks, on the surface, of a very solid rotation starter.
But also, before today, Butler had shockingly bad peripherals based on Baseball Prospectus’s pitching stats. His DRA (Deserved Run Average) was 7.03, he had a WARP (based on DRA) of -0.7 on the season, and he had a cFIP of 112, which suggests that he will be 12 percent worse than a league-average starter going forward. The reasons behind this actually aren’t too hard to divine. In a career of very (very) limited success, Butler has a career-low groundball rate of 45 percent in 2017 and a near career-low strikeout rate of just 5.4 K/9. But even though he is giving up way too many flyballs, he has somehow only allowed a HR/9 innings rate of 0.6.
This is simply not sustainable, especially since he is giving up exit velocities that are about three miles per hour higher than average (92.2 mph). His low BABIP of .259 points to this fact as well. In addition, his 4.56 BB/9 rate is barely lower than his strikeout rate. Some of the expected regression occurred today. While Butler still avoided giving up any homers, there were several near-misses, and he gave up four runs (including one on a bases-loaded walk) in just 3.2 innings today. His ERA now stands at 4.18, and, unfortunately, it seems more likely to go up than down in the second half. Butler has not yet really turned himself around, and the Cubs should not rely on him being a solid rotation piece going forward. In fact, I would expect him to be demoted once Kyle Hendricks is ready to rejoin the rotation.
Now for just the tiniest bit of positivity. The Cubs are now halfway through the season, so it seems like as good a time as any to check in on their higher order win percentages. Their record through 81 games is 40-41, but—before today’s game—their third-order win percentage is two games higher at 42.4-37.6 (.530). This measure, which takes run differential and quality of opposition into account, is still second in the division (behind the Cardinals instead of the Brewers). But it does show that this team, as much as they have underperformed, has also been a bit unlucky. The Cubs are better than they’ve shown, but how much better still remains to be seen.
Top WPA Play:
Willson Contreras hit a long two-run home run to left-center field in the third, giving the Cubs a 3-0 lead (+.185).
Bottom WPA Play:
Pitcher Jackson Stephens singled to center in the fourth inning, scoring two runs, giving the Reds a 4-3 lead, and knocking Eddie Butler out of the game (-.219).
Lead photo courtesy David Kohl—USA Today Sports