Series Preview: Brewers @ Cubs | Disciples of Uecker

Disciples of Uecker

We'd like to go to the Playoffs, that would be cool.

70 days have passed since the Brewers and Cubs last met at Miller Park, and their series at Wrigley Field will introduce a new set of faces to Brewers fans. In case you haven’t followed the Cubs’ roster development, they used a series of midseason trades and roster moves to check out some new arms and introduce a couple of top prospects to their batting order.

May 30-June 1 August 9-11
E. Bonifacio (2B / 3B /CF) C. Coghlan (LF)
J. Lake (LF / CF) J. Baez (2B)
A. Rizzo (1B) A. Rizzo (1B)
S. Castro (SS) S. Castro (SS)
N. Schierholtz (RF) L. Valbuena (3B)
L. Valbuena (3B) J. Ruggiano (RF)
C. Coghlan (LF) A. Alcantara (CF)
W. Castillo (C) R. Sweeney (RF)
J. Baker (C) W. Castillo (C)
M. Olt (3B) J. Baker (C)
D. Barney (2B) C. Valaika (3B)

Arismendy Alcantara and Javier Baez are solidifying a Cubs batting order that is beginning to resemble the contending Dream Team envisioned by the Cubs braintrust of Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer. Given the stunning haul in the Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel trade, the Cubs will be able to convert a handful of shortstops around their diamond, potentially starting a top prospect (or former top prospect like Starlin Castro or Anthony Rizzo) at all eight positions around the infield and outfield. Such a situation should be terrifying to NL Central fans, for a recently-approved Wrigley Field renovation plan and pending TV contract will give the Cubs ample revenue to address their pitching concerns. If you thought the NL Central was cramped in 2013 and 2014, just wait until 2015.

Brewers (118 G): 512 RS / 478 RA
Cubs (116 G): 451 RS / 498 RA

One straightforward way to judge the 2014 Cubs is to note that their offense is significantly below average — currently, the club is around 30-to-35 runs below average with their bats. Notably, their pitching staff is significantly better than their arms, which may be surprising simply because the Cubs have already used nine starters and traded away two of their very best arms.

Last Series:
Brewers: Series Victory vs. Dodgers
Cubs: Series Loss vs. Rays

Throughout the season, fans and analysts have squinted as much as possible to make a .500 team out of the Cubs. If one isolates just the right games, the Cubs look like a surprisingly solid club. In fact, the Cubs might even look as good as the Brewers, if one isolates their records into “thirds”:

Months Brewers Cubs
March-May 33-23 (231 RS / 216 RA) 20-33 (207 RS / 216 RA)
June-July 27-26 (240 RS / 226 RA) 25-29 (205 RS / 242 RA)
August 5-4 (41 RS / 36 RA) 5-4 (39 RS / 40 RA)

During a couple of seasons under the watch of Dale Sveum, the Cubs did not win as many games as one might have expected (given some of their talent and run differential), and once again, this is the case with the 2014 Cubs. According to their run differential, the 2014 Cubs could be as strong as a 74-win club, which means their competitive seasons should not be far in the distant future. Unfortunately, the Cubs have lost a disproportionate number of one-run games, and they haven’t been great in blowouts, either.

During the first third of their season, the Cubs’ 207 RS / 216 RA differential was inflated by four gigantic victories — the Cubs won four games by at least seven runs, eating 46 RS / 12 RA of their differential. It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that a 161 RS / 204 RA club went 16-33. The opposite holds true for June and July, when three awful losses inflated the Cubs’ differential; if one subtracts 3 RS / 35 RA from three games, one can see how a 202 RS / 207 RA club went 25-26. The same exercise can help show why the Brewers are quite a good club; really, six losses have destroyed their run differential, taking 14 RS / 66 RA of the club’s runs balance. Isolating those games, the Brewers are 65-47 with a 498 RS / 412 RA differential.

If it feels like you’re watching a great Brewers club, you are: the club’s bats average 4.45 RS / G outside of their blowout losses, and their pitchers have only allowed 3.68 runs-per-game when those six terrible losses are subtracted.

Team Overall Blowouts One-Run Other
Brewers 65-53 16-13 17-15 32-25
Cubs 50-66 13-17 13-19 24-30

One can squint as much as they like, but the Cubs are having a rough year any way it’s sliced. Most fittingly, isolating their Baseball-Reference blowouts and one-run games, the Cubs are 24-30 while scoring 183 and allowing 191 runs. One might still expect the Cubs to have a better record than 24-30 in those games, until one finds that the Cubs are also 14-22 in two-or-three-run games. So, when the game is within four runs (not quite a blowout, and not a save opportunity), the Cubs are 10-8.

This should help to explain why the Cubs have the record they do, despite their run differential. If one looks hard enough, they can find a 10-8 club when the game is not really close, but not really a blowout. Unfortunately, such “in-between” games comprise a small percentage of the season (15.5%), so those one-run, two-run, three-run, and blowout games will leave a lasting impression on a club’s record.

Yovani Gallardo (1-1, 30 IP, 13 R (26 K / 8 BB / 4 HR), 2 quality starts in last 5 GS) @ Jake Arrieta (1-2, 32.3 IP, 18 R (30 K / 9 BB / 1 HR), 4 quality starts in last 5 GS)
Wily Peralta (5-0, 33 IP, 7 R (24 K / 10 BB / 3 HR), 4 quality starts in last 5 GS) @ Kyle Hendricks (3-1, 34.3 IP, 9 R (21 K / 8 BB / 2 HR), 4 quality starts in 5 GS since July recall)
Kyle Lohse (2-2, 29.7 IP, 14 R (16 K / 10 BB / 3 HR), 4 quality starts in last 5 GS) @ Tsuyoshi Wada (1-1, 27.7 IP, 11 R (25 K / 9 BB / 2 HR), 2 quality starts in 5 GS since July recall)

As mentioned above, the Cubs have started nine pitchers thus far, which is quite a few given that August just started (and the Cubs front office continually acquires replacement starters. Jacob Turner is the latest buy-low “flyer” claimed by Jed Hoyer). Currently, the Chicago Tribune reports that the Cubs front office and management have not discussed Turner’s role, although it wouldn’t necessarily be shocking to see the club slot Turner into their rotation (the question would be, “What to do with Edwin Jackson?”). Anyhow, the Brewers will have faced (at least) seven different Cubs starting pitchers when this series is all said-and-done, which is a testament to the Cubs’ “buy-low” rebuilding pitching ideology.

This series, the Brewers face rebuilding arms Jake Arrieta, Kyle Hendricks, and Tsuyoshi Wada. According to BaseballAmerica, Arrieta was once one of the Top Five prospects in the Orioles system, but he already seemed to be somewhat of a reclamation project by the time the Cubs acquired him in their Scott Feldman trade. Wada was also a member of the Orioles system, although the former nine-year Japanese Pacific League veteran never translated his $8 million contract into an MLB appearance with Baltimore. Finally, Hendricks was a Rangers farmhand acquired by the Cubs in their Ryan Dempster trade. Although Hendricks was not necessarily a highly ranked prospect in either the Rangers or Cubs systems, BaseballAmerica honored Hendricks with “Best Control” honors in the Cubs organization. His emergence could be a relevation for the Cubs’ 2015 rotational construction.

The Brewers send two of their organizational arms against these Cubs rebuilding arms, one a longtime Franchise starter, the other an up-and-coming power sinker artist. Franchise Pitcher Yovani Gallardo makes his first start against the Cubs in 2014; the veteran boasts a 3.12 ERA and 8-3 record against the Cubs in his career (notably, his stats are rather balanced between Miller Park and Wrigley Field, where Gallardo is 4-1 with a 3.21 ERA in nine starts). Sinkerballer Wily Peralta will also look for his first win of the year against the Chicago, although the Brewers’ young power pitcher already has two losses against the Lakeview Nine. Finally, Kyle Lohse will look to build on his June 1 shutout. During that outing at Miller Park, Lohse staggered his slider, curve, and change up, shifting from 25 sliders to 13 curves and 8 change ups. One might expect Lohse to shift that balance once more, or rely on his slider even more heavily to beat the Cubs at Wrigley.

Mike Fiers (1-0, 8 IP, 1 R (5 K / 1 BB / 1 HR), 1 quality start since August recall) @ Edwin Jackson (1-2, 26.3 IP, 17 R (20 K / 7 BB / 3 HR), 1 quality start in last 5 GS)

Is Edwin Jackson a replacement pitcher? It’s been three years since his last midseason trade, although Jackson experienced a stretch of five years in which he played for six teams (despite posting 996 slightly-better-than-average innings). Jackson was always the type of arm whose hard fastball and slider would be desired by some contending club, and his innings-eating track record makes him a rotational necessity for just about any MLB club. After pitching a perfectly average season for the 2012 Washington Nationals, Jackson was 27 runs below average for the 2013 Cubs. He’s already reached that level through 131.7 innings in 2014.

If one looks at Jackson’s 0.80 FIPRatio in Chicago, one would have arguably expected Jackson to allow 55 fewer runs (which conveniently accounts for his below-average performance). However, since working in Chicago, Jackson’s line drive rate sky-rocketed; in 2013, his rate of line drives jumped from 16% to 20%, and this year, that’s climbed to 24%. Even in front of a moderately-efficient defense (which the Cubs employ), it is difficult to expect a team defense to prevent hits on that type of contact. An increasing fly ball rate while working in a division with some solid home run parks is also not a welcome development for a starting pitcher. Jackson has seemingly combined both hard contact and more flyballs with the Cubs, although ultimately these issues are ultimately reflected more in his total hits allowed than his home run rate.

I ask the replacement question simply because Jackson faces a replacement starter for this series. Fastballer Mike Fiers made a triumphant return to the Brewers rotation at Miller Park, throwing his rising fastball and cutter approximately 85% of the time (according to MLB GameDay). This is the Fiers we fell in love with in 2012, locating his fastball without a care, and throwing that sucker on demand. When Fiers locates his fastball, this must make his curveball that much stronger; even without strong velocity, that high-rising fastball seems to be a perfect foil for Fiers’s soft curve. Together, Fiers can make an abbreviated case to start for the Brewers, or even as an improbable member of the late innings relief corps when Matt Garza returns. Be it in the rotation or the bullpen, an effective, dominant arm would be a welcome addition to our contending Milwaukee Nine.

Baseball-Reference. Sports Reference, LLC., 2000-2014.
BaseballAmerica. BaseballAmerica, Inc., 1999-2013.
BaseballProspectus. Prospectus Entertainment Ventures, LLC., 1996-2014.
MLB Advanced Media, LP., 2014.
Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times cited as linked.

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