What You Need To Know: The Cubs again produced a stellar offensive performance, putting the Cubs out to a 4-0 lead on a René Rivera grand slam in the bottom of the 2nd. After Lester surrendered 2 home runs to make it 4-3 and the teams exchanged runs, the Cubs opened up the floodgates in the 4th inning and then again in the 8th. The combination of Wilson and Koji surrendered 3 runs in the 7th to make it 11-7, Carl Edwards Jr. gave up two more in the 8th, and Duensing and Davis combined to give up 3 in the 9th. What seemed like it would be a fairly comfortable victory came down to the final out and required all of the Cubs’ offensive output.
Next Level: In his first start coming off the DL, Lester was a bit rocky, navigating through a 32-pitch first inning and proceeding to give up 4 runs in the ensuing 5 innings. It is not unusual for starters to struggle in their first starts post-DL, so that element is not disconcerting. What is disconcerting is that the start fits into larger trends of his 2017 season. He has the highest HR/9 of his career, and his curveball and changeup are less effective that at any point in his career. He has been throwing his cutter (28.90 percent vs. 23.40 percent) curve (7.75 percent vs. 5.52 percent), and changeup (13.68 percent vs. 12.60 percent) more this season than last season, at the expense of his fourseamer (38.68 percent vs. 47.46 percent). Batters are swinging at fewer of his pitches, driving up his walk rate (the highest it’s been since 2013) and forcing him to throw more pitches in the zone.
As a result, hitters have a higher ISO against all his pitches, particularly his curve and changeup, which have grabbed the strike zone at a higher percentage than his other pitches this season.
In today’s start, Lester’s hitting outshone his pitching, which should never be the case. Though he only walked one batter, he threw 92 pitches in 5 innings, including 32 in the first inning. He also allowed three home runs, two of which came on his fourseamer and one on his changeup. All three were fairly close to the middle of the zone, falling in line his tendency to pitch more in the zone this season, something he cannot effectively mask, particularly with a reduction in velocity. If Lester is going to continue his career tendency to pitch well in September and through October, he first needs to break some of these trends.
Luckily, the offense more than bailed Lester out today (as it has frequently done for the team’s middle-of-the-pack pitching), continuing its recent trend of obliterating opposing pitching and solidifying the Cubs as the best second-half offensive team. Doing the bulk of the legwork today were Javier Baez and Anthony Rizzo. Baez has been building a pretty solid offensive stat line in the second half of the season, already beating his home run total for the first half (11 to 10) with the one hit hit today, while adding a double for good measure. Coupled with his remarkable defense, Baez is making the most of his increased playing time at second base during Russell’s DL stint. Meanwhile Rizzo added a bases-clearing triple in the 4th to make it 8-4 Cubs. The first baseman has an OPS of 1.270 over the past two weeks and 1.088 over the past month, making him one of MLB’s best second-half hitters.
Top Play (WPA): After Lester magicked his way out of a bases loaded situation in the 1st, René Rivera opened up the scoring in the 2nd with a grand slam off Luke Sims. (+.222)
Bottom Play (WPA): In the 3rd inning, Freddie Freeman hit a 2-run homer, scoring Ozzie Albies to make it 4-2 and instill in the Braves the fleeting notion that they could perhaps come away victorious. (-.120)
Lead photo courtesy Dennis Wierzbicki—USA Today Sports