August 2007

The Cubs somehow won last night, despite an ineffective Ted Lilly and a rookie southpaw on the mound for the opposing team. The win, combined with St. Louis’ loss to the Astros, leaves the Cubs up 2 1/2 games over the Brewers and three up over the Cards. They are, it seems, in the driver’s seat.

What does the rest of the season hold in store? A whole lot of the Reds, Astros, and Pirates, that’s what. The Cubs will play each of those teams six times over the next month, three at home and three on the road. This sounds like a good thing since none of those clubs is very good, except that the Cubs are currently sporting a 13-17 record against those three clubs combined. This is disturbing, and should make any Cubs fan a little anxious about the next month.

Besides those three teams, the Cubs will face the Dodgers four times, the Cards five times, and the Marlins three times. The games against the Cards are extremely important, but it’s not necessary to go 4-1 or 5-0 for the Cubs; they just need to prevent the Cards from doing so. As for the Dodgers, the Cubs lost two of three to them in late May, but they could have easily swept the boys in blue: the two losses were both one run games, and the first of those losses came as a result of “bad” Bob Howry and Will Ohman combining to give up four runs in the bottom of the 8th to put the Dodgers up 9-8. The second loss in that series was an extra inning loss. As for the Marlins, they swept the Cubs back in May in Wrigley.

So what to expect in these last 30 games? It’s very hard to predict this far in advance, since injuries and starting pitching matchups will go a long way towards deciding the outcome of games, but I think it’s possible to make a conservative estimate:

Cards: 3-2

Astros: 3-3

Reds: 3-3

Pirates: 4-2

Marlins: 1-2

Dodgers: 2-2

That’s a 16-14 record over the last month, which would leave the Cubs at 84-78 for the year. That’s a very conservative estimate: the Cubs could easily go on a roll and finally start beating up on some bad teams, winning 18 or 20 of 30.

What I want to point out is this: if the Cubs do go 16-14, the Brewers would need to go 18-11 to tie them, 19-10 to win out. The Cards, assuming they lose three of five to the Cubs, would need to go 18-9 in their other 27 games to tie, 19-8 to win out. The teams play each other three times, too, so it’s pretty likely that one streaking team would knock out the other. The Cubs, in other words, probably just need to avoid tanking to win the division. If they go 16-14–which seems like sort of a bad record, given the teams they have to play–either the Brewers or Cards would have to play great ball over the last month to catch them. And who do they have to play? Well, both play a lot of games against the Reds, Pirates, and Astros, but the Cards have to face Philly at home and Arizona on the road, and the Brewers have to face the Padres at home and Atlanta on the road. In other words, they’re going to have a tough time going 18-11 or 18-9. All the Cubs need to do is NOT TANK. Play mediocre ball, and they probably win.


Ted Lilly vs. some guy (Manny Parra) the Cubs’ hitters have never seen before? I smell a Cubs defeat.

Lilly was crap in his last start against the Brewers, and I sort of expect the same tonight.  Let’s just hope the Astros, currently up 2-1, can hold off the Cards.

The Brew Crew will have Sheets starting tonight.  I can look at the numbers, but I’m pretty sure they’ll indicate that the Cubs have a better chance of winning than the Brewers do.  Add to that the fact that Sheets will probably be rusty, and I have to predict a Cubs win

It seems that Cubs bloggers have been saying that every series is big since about mid-June.  This series against the Brewers actually is big.  Huge.  A Cubs sweep would all but eliminate the Brew Crew; a Brewers sweep could push the Cubs back into third place.  The good news, I guess, is that even losing two of three would leave the Cubs in first (though perhaps in a tie with the Cards), so it’s not essential to win the series.  It is essential to avoid a sweep, though, and I believe the Cubs are in good shape to do that.  Why?  They have their three best starters going.

Tonight’s game pits Rich Hill against Jeff Suppan.  Hill has faced the Brewers three times already this year.  He dominated them in his first start of the season, then pitched two pretty bad games against them on April 24th and June 29th.  Kevin freaking Mench kills him, and Prince Fielder has done pretty well, too.  Ryan Braun only has two at-bats against Hill, and he’s struck out and singled.  Hill doesn’t give up a lot of base hits, but he is susceptible to the long ball, making the homer-happy Brewers a terrible match-up for him.  I’m almost certain he’ll give up at least one homer tonight; the key will be making sure that no one’s on base when it happens.  His April 6th start is a good template for the best-case scenario tonight: Hill went seven innings, giving up just one solo homer, walking no one, and striking out six.  Suppan, for his part, has started twice against the Cubs this year.  He beat Hill on April 24th and got beat around by the Cubs in Milwaukee on June 6th.  In his career, Suppan has struggled against Jacque Jones, Derrek Lee, and Felix Pie, but he’s handled most of the other Cubs pretty well.  I hope Pie gets the start in center tonight, especially since Soriano might not be running all that well.  It’s hard to predict the outcome of this game since Hill’s success depends so greatly on whether or not he can keep the Brewers in the park.  The wind could be a huge factor.  I’m going to predict a Brewers win, but it could easily go either way.

Given that Ben Sheets’ status is up in the air, it’s impossible to analyze the pitching matchups in the final two games in the series.  I know it might sound crazy, but I won’t be all that upset if Sheets does make a start rather than Claudio Vargas.  There will undoubtedly be some rust as he hasn’t made a start since July 14th, and the Cubs have handled him pretty well even at full strength this year.  Then again, they’ve killed Vargas.

The key to this series, as far as I’m concerned, is Z.  Will he throw another stinker, or will he return to his July form?  If he does the latter, I don’t see the Cubs losing to the Brewers in that second game regardless of who starts for the Brew Crew.  I think the odds are good that the Cubs win one of the other two games and take the series.  If Z throws a stinker, though, I think the Cubs lose the series.

This is a summary of the extremely lame prediction I’ve made: the Cubs will win one of the outer games of the series, and the second game will be decided by whether Z is “good Z” or “bad Z.”   Let’s hope it’s the former.

I think that the lineup tonight, given the Cubs’ history against Suppan, should be:

Soriano LF

Theriot SS

Lee 1B

Ramirez 3B

Jones RF

Pie CF

DeRosa 2B

Kendall C

Hill P

I just hope that Pie and Jones are in CF and RF.

Last night was yet another tough-luck no decision for Rich Hill. He went seven innings, giving up two runs on six hits while striking out 10. He looked good pretty much the whole night; the runs he gave up resulted from some hits being bunched together, and some different bounces could have easily led to him giving up one or no runs. The Cubs, however, could not get to Barry Zito, and the game went into extras. The Cubs, aided by a Rich Aurilia error, scored two in the top of the 10th and then held on for the win.

The Cubbies have a great chance to get the series sweep tonight. Big Z will be opposing Matt Cain, a pitcher with even worse luck than Rich Hill. Cain, despite his low ERA (3.78) and decent WHIP (1.316), is 5-13. The Cubs beat the crap out of him on July 18th, but his career numbers against most of the Cubs’ hitters are actually pretty good. Zambrano has handled the Giants pretty well save for Randy Winn and Ryan Klesko, but color me skeptical that those two are going to be able to beat him today. I’m predicting a Cubs sweep.

The series against the D’Backs is an important one, as the Cubs get to test themselves against a team that may very well be headed to the playoffs. The D’Backs won the series in Chicago, with their only loss to the Cubs coming in a game started by Brandon Webb on July 20th. The Cubs are lucky: they miss Webb during this trip. The matchup on Friday night is Sean Marshall versus Micah Owings. Marshall pitched well against the D’Backs earlier this year, but that’s his only experience against them. Owings struggled through four innings against the Cubs on July 21st; that’s his only appearance versus the Cubs. This is a really hard game to predict based on the pitching matchup, but I’ll try to do so anyway: I’m going Cubs.

Saturday night’s game will pit Ted Lilly against Yusmeiro Petit. Petit dominated the Cubs on July 22nd, giving up no runs in six innings of work. Lilly has only faced a few of the Diamondbacks, and he’s been so-so against them, on the whole. I’m going to have to predict a D’Backs victory.

The starters on Sunday will be Jason Marquis and ex-Brewer Doug Davis. Both starters have decent track records against the lineups they’ll probably be facing, so I’ll give Davis the home-field advantage and predict a D’Backs win.

These predictions are made with very little confidence, since none of these games present a clear mismatch. The second game appears to be the most predictable, but one has to remember that Petit’s great start against the Cubs in July is just one data point; he could totally crap out against them this time. The Cubs could easily sweep this series, and they could easily get swept; I get the feeling that these will be close games.

Cole Hamels and Rich Hill are very similar: both are lanky lefties (Hamels is 6 foot 3, 175; Hill is 6 foot 5, 205) in their first full season in the majors who pitch for decent teams. Hamels, though, has earned a lot more attention and accolades, including a spot on the 2007 All-Star team. Part of this surely has to do with age: Hamels is just 23, and thus qualifies as a phenom, while Hill is already 27. Even correcting for that, though, the general perception seems to be that Hamels is simply better, or at least has been this year. Is that true? Let’s look at their away numbers for this year (I’ll ignore home stats as a crude correction for ballpark effects):

Hamels: 92 IP, 3.42 ERA, 2.05 BB/9, 9.29 K/9, 1.17 HR/9

Hill: 82 1/3 IP, 3.83 ERA, 2.84 BB/9, 9.18 K/9, 1.53 HR/9

It seems that Hamels is better, yes, but not by much. The main difference is that Hill is more susceptible to the home run ball.

I’d like to do something now, something very dangerous and somewhat questionable. I want to subtract Hill’s May 22nd start at San Diego from his line and then do the comparison to Hamels again. Now, I know that this looks like a form of the old “if you ignore his bad starts, he’s really good!” selection bias game, but I don’t think it is. You see, I really believe that Greg Maddux, Hill’s mentor with the Cubs, picked up on something in Hill’s delivery that was tipping his pitches and relayed it to the Padres. Hill has faced the Padres twice this year, and he’s given up seven homers in nine innings. Now, if this were the Mets or Brewers, I wouldn’t be surprised. But the Padres? They’ve hit 119 homers all year, so that means that, in nine total innings, they hit 6% of their homers for the year so far off of one pitcher. It’s not an open-and-shut case, but I find the evidence compelling. So what happens if we subtract that start from Hill’s road line?

Hamels: 92 IP, 3.42 ERA, 2.05 BB/9, 9.29 K/9, 1.17 HR/9

Hill: 76 1/3 IP, 3.54 ERA, 2.83 BB/9, 8.96 K/9, 1.18 HR/9

Wow. Pretty much the same guy. Hill walks more people and strikes out fewer, but they’re pretty much the same.

I think Hamels, due to his youth, will probably have a better career than Hill. But right now, I think their differences are pretty minute.  So where’s the love for Hill?

I will no longer even attempt to predict the outcome of Cubs games, at least not until they stop playing like crap. The Cubs got swept by the crappy Astros, and will now have three soft-tossing lefties–and Jason Marquis!–starting against the Rockies in Colorado. And if that weren’t bad enough, Aramis Ramirez may be hurt! Yay!

A week ago at this time, the Cubs were tied for first place; since then, though they’ve only lost one game in the standings, it seems as though their playoff chances have decreased dramatically. They probably haven’t, unless Ramirez ends up missing lots of time; I’ve written before about how the loss of Soriano probably won’t make too much of a difference. It certainly feels like their chances have plummeted, though, and sometimes, as a fan–even a thinking fan with access to lots of stats, that’s what matters.

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