April 2008


It is time to face the Brewers.  Some thoughts:

1) Lou is smart to skip Hill and only throw righties against the Brew Crew; they kill lefties.

2) Ben Sheets is good against the Cubs, but he also hasn’t pitched in 11 days and is coming off a mild injury.  The Cubs should be patient and try to work deep counts to get him out of the ballgame ASAP so they can face the craptacular Brewers pen (it should be noted that this strategy is always a good one, but it should be particularly effective tonight given Sheets’ injury and time away from the mound).

3) Cubs fans don’t understand statistics and, as a result, are eternally optimistic about their team.  Brewers fans are better-informed, but have such a gigantic chip on their collective shoulder about their team’s smaller payroll, smaller city, and smaller fanbase that they come off as petty (see also this), whiny, or just plain pathetic.  These are gross generalizations, of course—both websites I linked to have things of worth on them—but they generally hold true.

4) Ryan Braun is posting a healthy .587 OPS against righties this year.  He’s also only walked four times all year!  Way to go, Ryan!  Seriously, though, he was due for a letdown this year: he posted a .361 BAbip last year and pounded lefties to the tune of a 1.480 OPS (!!!).  The prescription for beating Ryan Braun is simple: don’t let any lefties pitch to him.

5) Gallardo=good.  That Z/Gallardo tilt on Thursday should be a good one.

These are by no means original thoughts, but they are thoughts nonetheless, and assembling them together allows me to procrastinate.  But alas, work calls.  Let’s go Cubs!

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There are two things about Aramis Ramirez that have always amused/intrigued me:

1) His consistency. In his four seasons with the Cubs, he’s OPS+’d 138, 135, 126, and 129. His walk percentages (percentage of plate appearances resulting in a walk) have been 8.1 %, 6.9 %, 7.6 %, and 7.7 %. His strikeout percentages have been 10.2 %, 11.9 %, 9.5 %, and 11.8 %. He is pretty much the same guy every year.

2) His weird hitter profile. He’s essentially a contact hitter with power: he doesn’t walk or strike out too much, and he hits homers. Guys who do all three with regularity—Jim Thome, Ryan Howard, even Derrek Lee—are pretty common, but Ramirez, while not one-of-a-kind, is a rare breed.

This year, Ramirez seems different: he looks more patient at the plate. But is he? Let’s look at some numbers (note: I started this entry on 4/23 and finished it on 4/24, so some numbers are through Tuesday’s game and some are through Wednesday’s):

ARam 2008 BB %: 14.0 %

ARam 2008 K %: 12.9 %

So his K % is a little up, and his walk percentage is WAY up. That would indicate that he’s seeing more pitches per plate appearance, and, sure enough:

ARam 2008 P/PA: 4.02; ARam career P/PA: 3.69

Wow. Aramis is seeing about a third of a pitch more per plate appearance, which is pretty significant. Also significant: the pitches he’s taking seem to be almost all balls: his strike % (percentage of pitches that are strikes, either swinging, looking, or foul, including out-of-zone pitches swung at) is down to 60 % from his career average of 64 %, but his looking strike percentage (percentage of strikes that are looked at) is the same as his career average.

Perhaps most notable, Ramirez’ contact percentage (percentage of balls swung at that are hit) is down 8 % from last year to 76 % (his career average is 80 %): he’s not hitting the ball as often as in the past. But when he does hit it, it’s going in the air more: he’s only hit 29.4 % of his balls in play on the ground, while his career percentage is 37.3 %.

What does this all mean? Probably nothing, given the sample size, but there’s the off chance that Ramirez has tuned his batting eye, allowing him to lay off more pitches, get better hitter’s counts, and take bigger swings in those counts, leading to more walks, more balls hit hard in the air, and more swings and misses. This will be an interesting thing to watch as the season goes on.

UPDATE: This is really weird: given that Ramirez has seen more pitches and seems to be laying off balls, you would think he’s gotten himself into good hitters counts more often than in the past and then done damage in those counts.  However, this is not the case.  Ramirez has actually done better in pitchers counts—his OPS in PAs that start with a strike is 1.094, as opposed to .777 in PAs that start with a ball.  This is, of course, a small sample size effect.

So I’m not really sure what’s going on.  We really just need to wait until Ramirez has has a few hundred plate appearances before we can start to determine whether he’s changed his approach.

I read an interesting article in The Hardball Times the other day which discusses, among other things, the predictive power of a good start to the season.  I’m not going to talk about that article here, but I will say that I like the way the author, Brandon Isleib, breaks up the 162 game season into nine 18-game chunks; it’s a nice way to think about the season.

The Cubs just completed their first 18-game chunk in grand fashion, obliterating the Pirates by a score of 13-6 on Sunday.  They went 12-6 in their first chunk, and, for the most part, looked good doing so.  Unlike last year’s success, which was largely driven by consistent starting pitching, this year’s success has been the product of phenomenal hitting: the Cubs are currently 2nd in the NL in runs, first in batting average, first in OBP (!!!!!!!!!!), second in walks (!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!), and first in doubles.  It does not take a genius to figure out that the Cubs’ offensive prowess is not sustainable; every single Cub regular save Soriano and Pie is beating his preseason projection and/or career average and will almost certainly fall back to earth.  The fall won’t be as bad as if the Cubs’ success were entirely built on BAbip luck, however; guys like Fukudome and Lee and Soto will still take their walks, even if Ramirez and DeRosa start walking less.

Some of the falling back to earth may occur in the next 18-game chunk, in which the Cubs will face the Mets (2 games), Rockies (2 games), Nationals (3 games), Brewers (3 games), St. Louis (3 games), Cincinnati (3 games), and Diamondbacks (2 games).  There’s nine games in that stretch versus legitimately good teams (12 if you count St. Louis, which I don’t), and the Reds aren’t terrible, either.  Luckily, the Cubs miss Johan Santana (although the prospect of a Santana/Zambrano matchup makes me a little giddy), and hopefully they’ll miss Brandon Webb or Dan Haren.  If the Cubs can pull off a 10-8 record in this next chunk, I’ll be happy.

What do the rest of the chunks look like?  A quick preview:

CHUNK 3: 1 vs. Arizona, 4 vs. San Diego, 3 vs. Pittsburgh, 3 @ Houston, 3 @ Pittsburgh, 3 vs. LA, 1 vs. Colorado

CHUNK 4: 3 vs. Colorado, 3 @ San Diego, 4 @ LA, 3 vs. Atlanta, 3 @ Toronto, 2 @ Tampa Bay

CHUNK 5: 1 @ Tampa Bay, 3 vs. White Sox, 3 vs. Baltimore, 3 @ White Sox, 4 @ SF, 3 @ St. Louis, 1 vs. Cincinnati

CHUNK 6: 2 vs. Cincinnati, 3 vs. SF, <All-Star Break>, 3 @ Houston, 3 @ Arizona, 4 vs. Florida, 3 @ Milwaukee

CHUNK 7: 1 @ Milwaukee, 3 vs. Pittsburgh, 3 vs. Houston, 3 vs. St. Louis, 3 @ Atlanta, 3 @ Florida, 2 vs. Cincinnati

CHUNK 8: 1 vs. Cincinnati, 3 vs. Washington, 3 @ Pittsburgh, 4 vs. Philadelphia, 3 vs. Houston, 3 @ Cincinnati, 1 @ St. Louis

CHUNK 9: 2 @ St. Louis, 3 @ Houston, 3 vs. Milwaukee, 3 vs. St. Louis, 4 @ New York, 3 @ Milwaukee

Some observations: Chunk 4 and Chunk 9 appear to be the toughest chunks.  Chunk 4 could be particularly brutal: I don’t consider any of those teams bad, and the Cubs never seem to do well at Petco.  I’m not sure how to feel about the Cubs ending the season with a seven game road trip against two teams they could be battling for playoff spots: on the one hand, “their fate will be in their own hands,” as hacky TV dudes like to say.  On the other hand, their fate will be in their own hands, and they are the Cubs.  What I’m hoping for—what all Cubs fans are hoping for, I think—is that the Cubs have the division wrapped up by that last road trip, and the Mets have their division wrapped up, making those games meaningless.  Not likely, though: what are the chances the Cubs can be at least eight games ahead with seven to go?  The nightmare scenario: the Cubs go into New York up a couple games over the Brewers, get swept (or beaten three out of four), travel to Milwaukee tied for the division lead, and lose on the last day of the season.

This may all seem ridiculous given that it’s April and the Cubs are 12-6, but look at the name of this blog; it’s never too early to get ready for the turning of the knife.  The more ready you are, the less it hurts.

All that being said, go Cubs!

I heard Pat and Ron mention today that through completion of yesterday’s (4/18) games, the Cubs had seen the most pitches per plate appearance (P/PA) of any team in the majors this year. I frankly couldn’t believe this, so I looked it up: it’s true! The Cubs have seen 3.95 P/PA, the most in the majors. This is wonderful news, though I doubt that the Cubs will maintain their lead in this category all year: part of the rise can be attributed to a few players (Ramirez, most notably) taking more pitches than they have in the past, and they’re probably bound to return to their old ways. Still, some of the rise is real, attributable to guys like Fukudome and Soto taking a lot more pitches than their predecessors at their respective positions. Fukudome sees 4.60 P/PA, which is simply astounding.

Not surprisingly, the Cubs have been taking a lot more walks this year than in years past. The offense as currently constructed impresses me with its versatility: there are three legitimate 30+ homer guys, three (or four) fast guys, and two super-patient guys (Lee and Fukudome). This is team that gets on base, hits for power, and can steal some bases and play “small ball” if absolutely necessary. If Ted Lilly can find his freakin’ 2007 form, the Brewers will have a tough time keeping up (especially if Ben Sheets is really hurt).

I wrote a few weeks ago about four things the Cubs need to do to be a great (i.e., 90+ wins) team. I didn’t rank those things in any order, but looking back it seems clear that one of those things is probably necessary for the Cubs to be a merely good team: namely, Lilly and Hill need to collectively come close to their performance from last year. So far, they have fallen far short, and that, more than anything else that has happened on this young season, makes me worry. I have to wonder if Lilly is nursing an injury since his velocity is down from last year; in Hill’s case, I suspect the problem is largely mental (and perhaps a bit mechanical). Of the two, I’m actually more confident in Hill’s ability to get back on track, though of course the Cubs seem to be dead set on preventing him from doing so.

There are, of course, some encouraging things about this Cubs team: the offense looks like it will be solid (i.e., at least league average), perhaps even good (i.e., top five in league, with Soto, Fukudome, and DeRosa providing nice support for the “big boys.” Theriot still sucks, of course, but his numbers so far are low even for him—he’ll improve. The bullpen also looks to be fairly solid, and will certainly improve as Howry finds his form. All of these good things, however, will probably be for naught if Hill and/or Lilly can’t find themselves soon.

The Reds come into town tomorrow for a three-game set that will feature the following pitching matchups:

Tuesday: Fogg vs. Dempster

Wednesday: Harang vs. Zambrano

Thursday: Volquez vs. Lilly

Circle Wednesday, kids: that’s a hell of a matchup. It is not, however, a new one, as Z and that ugly fat dude faced off FOUR TIMES last year! The Reds won all four games, but perhaps the Cubbies can start to turn that trend around. Still, a betting man would favor the Reds. The current Cubs have a collective 1.003 OPS off of Fogg, so let’s call the first game of the series a Cubs win. No Cubs have batted against Thursday starter Edinson Volquez, so the Reds will definitely win that one. Projection, then: Reds win the series, 2-1.

EDIT: Apparently ESPN was wrong yesterday: Harang goes tonight and Fogg goes tomorrow night.  I’m still betting on a 2-1 series win for the Reds.

Lou is apparently considering swapping Hill and Marquis in the rotation this time around so that Hill would face Philly on Friday and Marquis would face Pittsburgh tonight. ¿Qué? Without even looking at the numbers, let me make the following observations:

1) Hill is a flyball pitcher, and Philly’s ridiculous lineup/ballpark don’t suit his style. Marquis, on the other hand, is a groundball pitcher, and will probably be equally bad in either ballpark.

2) Why mess with the rotation at this point in the season?

OK, now the numbers: Marquis, somewhat predictably, has not been very good in his career against the Phillies’ starters, with the important exception of Jimmy Rollins, whom he OWNS. The current Phillies roster’s cumulative career numbers against Marquis are .285/.372/.397. The bright spot? He’s only given up two homers to the group in 151 ABs, one to Jayson Werth and one to Pat Burrell. What about the Pirates? Well, a couple of early-season starts last year excepted, they’ve hit him hard. Bay, McLouth, and Doumit in particular have had great success against Marquis. The roster’s cumulative line is .259/.325/.524, and they’ve hit nine homers in 147 ABs. To summarize: the current Pirates roster is just as good against Marquis as the current Phillies roster, and probably a bit better.

As for Hill, he’s done well against the Pirates in his short career: the current roster has posted an anemic .218/.287/.308 line against him in 89 PAs. What about Philly? As you may have guessed, they’ve pounded him to the tune of a collective .230/.319/.590 line, including six homers in just 61 ABs.

I can’t really figure out what Lou is thinking: this is a situation where common sense tells you not to switch them (Hill=flyball=not good at Philly, etc.) and where the stats confirm that call. He must be thinking something along the lines of this: “Hill is a better pitcher, so why waste him against a crappy team; let’s put him against the better team and put Marquis against a team that’s not as potent offensively.” But that thinking is flawed: a team’s offensive potency is an average over the collection of pitching it faces, just as a pitcher’s numbers are an average over the hitters he faces. Generally speaking, you want a better pitcher facing a better team, but in this case, Marquis is a better pitcher against the Phillies given their ballpark configuration, etc., while Hill is the better pitcher against the Pirates. Can someone from the NBA come in and explain matchups to Lou?

At some point in the near future, opposing teams are going to “figure out” Fukudome and he will have to make some adjustments, but until then let’s enjoy his sensational play.  I was a little worried that if Fukudome struggled to start the season, the right field bleacher morons bums would let him have it and make the problem worse, a la Jacque Jones in ’06.  Now, however, the opposite will probably happen: even if Fukudome struggles mightily, his fantastic play early in the year will earn him the benefit of the doubt (and support) of Cubs fans the world over.

Tomorrow’s game pits Z against Brandon Backe.  What’s gonna happen?  Consider the following:

1) Z sucks on 5 days’ rest

He’s 22-21 with a 4.70 ERA on 5 days’ rest; on 4 days’ rest, he’s 49-25 with a 2.65 ERA.

2) Carlos Lee tees off on Z

He’s hitting .366/.422/.780 lifetime off of the other Big Carlos.  Yikes.

On the other hand, consider these facts:

1) Rammy likes him some Backe

.357/.400/.571 lifetime (17 PAs).

2) Brandon Backe is Brandon Backe

He walks almost as many as he strikes out.  He can’t stay healthy.  He’s not, um, good.  At all.

So, on paper, tomorrow’s game favors the Cubs.  Zambrano, even on an extra day of rest, is better than Backe, and the Cubs should be able to beat him.  They will probably lose 10-8.

Side note: Backe can hit.  His lifetime numbers are a Theriot-esque .241/.298/.391, and he has two career homers.  So we have the pleasure of seeing 17 starting players (that is, everyone but Theriot) who can hit tomorrow (16 if Ausmus starts).

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