Look Ahead


Here we are again: the Cubs down 1-0 in the NLDS and looking extremely tight and nervous.  The situation is arguably worse this year, as the Cubs are sending to the mound in Game 2 a man who has had nothing his last couple times out.  Let’s pretend that Carlos hasn’t been crappy lately; what do the numbers say?

Game 2: Zambrano vs. Billingsley

Martin, Ethier, and Kemp have eaten Zambrano for lunch in their short careers, but the sample sizes are small.  Still, this is troubling.  Zambrano’s two starts against the Dodgers this year:

May 28th in Chicago: 8 IP, 6 H, 1 R, 4 BB, 3 K, W

June 7th @ L.A.: 6.2 IP, 13 H (!!), 7 R, 1 BB, 6 K, L

All together: 14.2 IP, 19 H, 8 R, 5 BB, 9 K, 1-1

So one pretty good start and one bad start, both pre-Manny.

What about Billingsley versus the Cubs?  Let’s forget career stats and just look at this year:

May 26th @ Chicago: 6 IP, 4 H, 2 R, 2 BB, 7 K, L

June 5th in L.A.: 5 IP, 7 H, 4 R, 3 BB, 8 K, ND

All together: 11 IP, 11 H, 6 R, 5 BB, 15 K, 0-1

Neither pitcher really excelled in his starts against the opposing team this year, though Billingsley’s strikeout total is impressive.  This is probably a better matchup for the Cubs than Lowe, but that’s not really saying much.

Were Zambrano pitching at the top of his game, I’d be optimistic about tonight; however, given his recent performance, I have a bad feeling that this one will get out of hand early.  The Cubs will probably put more than 2 on the board against Billingsley, but it won’t matter if Z craps the bed.  As Cubs fans, all we can hope for is that our mercurial faux ace pitches like he did earlier in the season.

One last thing: if the Cubs do lose tonight, they will have a better chance of reeling off three straight to win the series than they did last year after falling behind 0-2.  The Dodgers will likely have a tough time with Harden even if he’s not completely on his game, and Lilly matches up very favorably with either short-rest Lowe or whatever guy the Dodgers select to pitch Game 4.  However, the most probable road to a series victory obviously begins with a win tonight.

The 2008 Cubs exceeded almost everyone’s expectations and won a whopping 97 games.  Despite Fukudome’s second half vanishing act, the beginning of the end of Derrek Lee (or maybe just an off year?), and an injury-plagued season for Soriano, the Cubs offense led the NL in runs scored, OBP, SLG, walks, and doubles.  Despite losing last year’s # 3 starter Rich Hill early in the season, the pitching staff managed to finish second in the NL in runs allowed and first in strikeouts.  If you’ve been watching the Cubs all season, you know how this happened: on offense, the Cubs got tremendous contributions from mid-May pickup Jim Edmonds, 2B/RF Mark DeRosa, and rookie catcher Geovany Soto, which more than offset some decline in production from the “big boys” (Lee, Ramirez, Soriano); pitching-wise, Ryan Dempster exceeded all reasonable projections and had a great season, Rich Harden provided 71 innings of unhittable-ness, and Carlos Marmol struck out 114 in under 90 innings.

The Cubs offense, unlike the other NL playoff squads, is not built around a few core guys; instead, it is solid all the way through, featuring six players with 20+ homers this year.  Of the regulars, only Jim Edmonds finshed with an OPS over .900 (and only if you disregard his abysmal Padres numbers), but four other Cubs—Soto, Ramirez, DeRosa, and Soriano—finished with an OPS between .850 and .900.  This is, in short, a very balanced lineup.  The bench is decent: Reed Johnson can mash lefties, Mike Fontenot posted an OPS of .909 in over 280 PA, and Henry Blanco is as capable a backup catcher as one could hope for.

Besides Demspter and Harden (and playoff odd man out Jason Marquis), the Cubs rotation features the mercurial Carlos Zambrano and the homer-prone Ted Lilly.  Both had pretty good years overall, but they are currently headed in opposite directions: Lilly has posted a 3.65 ERA in his last nine starts, while Zambrano has a 7.48 ERA over his last nine starts, despite having thrown a no-hitter during that stretch.  Zambrano is perhaps the Cubs’ biggest question mark headed into the NLDS.

The Cubs are generally healthy right now, though there are a few concerns.  Geovany Soto injured his hand recently, and after resting for a few days, he had to be pulled from his return game in the middle of an at-bat.  Though the injury is not going to keep him from playing in the NLDS, it could make him less effective at the plate.  Mark DeRosa also injured himself recently, but claims that he will be back in time for the start of the NLDS.  Zambrano is not injured, really, but he is almost certainly hurting, and, outside of the no-hitter, it has rendered him totally ineffective lately.  As mentioned previously, this is probably the Cubs’ biggest concern right now.  Harden has mysteriously suffered from a lack of both control and velocity in his last few starts, but has somehow remained effective.  He is truly impressive: a pitcher with A+ stuff who also happens to have an A+ mind for pitching.

All in all, the Cubs can’t be too displeased with the state of their team as they enter the NLDS against the Dodgers.  It’s tempting to wish that Zambrano and Harden were pitching as well as they were in late July—it’s hard to imagine any team beating the July 28-31 Cubs—but it’s also easy to imagine the Cubs coming into this series with one or more of their regulars out for the season.  Now what’s in store for Game 1?

Game 1: Dempster vs. Lowe

Let’s not kid ourselves: Derek Lowe owns the Cubs.  His two starts against the Cubbies this year:

May 28 @ Chicago: 7 IP, 4 H, 0 R, 2 BB, 5 K, ND

June 2 in L.A.: 8 IP, 5 H, 1 R, 1 BB, 3 K, W

Of the current Cubs with a significant number of plate appearances against Lowe, only Derrek Lee has hit him well, and that success all came before this year.  The Cubs will have a tough time scoring off of Lowe.

As for Dempster, it’s tough to accurately gauge his effectiveness against the Dodgers’ hitters due to his changed style and repertoire on the mound this year.  Looking at career stats probably isn’t too helpful given his transformation; how has he done this year?  Well, his two starts against the Dodgers went like this:

May 26 in Chicago: 7 IP, 7 H, 1R, 3 BB, 3 K

June 5 @ L.A.: 5.1 IP, 5 H, 3 R, 2 BB, 1 K (NOTE: I actually saw this game in person—good game, but my $7 margarita was a tad weak.)

Good run prevention, but the peripherals—5 BB and 4 K in 12.1 IP—are not good, and both these starts were pre-Manny.

Look: just like last year against Brandon Webb, the Cubs are the underdogs in Game 1.  In addition, the Cubs are starting a pitcher in Game 2 who has posted a 7.48 ERA over the last two months against a guy (Chad Billingsley) who has more strikeouts than innings pitched on the year.  In short, we are set up for, if I may coin a phrase, certain impending disaster.  There is no doubt that the Cubs are the better team; there is also no doubt that they could easily get beaten each of the next two games.  It wouldn’t even be a surprise.

So what’s my pick?  Well, I think that the Cubs will somehow find a way to win against Lowe, but I think Zambrano will be bad, sending the series to L.A. tied.  I don’t think the Dodgers have a chance against Harden given that most of them haven’t seen him, and I think Lilly, pitching in a ballpark that hides his only glaring weakness, his proclivity to give up oodles of homers, will be magnificent.  So: Cubs in 4.  And if the Cubs should happen to lose both games at home, I still like their chances to bring it back to Chicago given the Harden/Lilly combo that would be going in L.A.  And if the Cubs win both games in Wrigley?  Forget it—Dodgers are DONE.

Today, Lou brought in Chad Fox with the bases loaded in a tie game.  Yesterday, he used Marmol to pitch the 9th in a 5-run game.  WTF?

This is a big series.  Luckily, the Cubs miss Brandon Webb, but they do have to contend with Dan Haren today and Randy Johnson, who kills the Cubs, on Sunday.  The Cubs have their three best starters going: Lilly today, Dempster tomorrow, and Z on Sunday.  Let’s win a friggin’ series, huh?

Seeing Randy Johnson’s name listed in the schedule got me to thinking: when he gets into the Hall of Fame, which cap will he wear?  It turns out that good arguments can be made for the Mariners and for the D’Backs, though I would tend to lean towards the D’Backs.  Johnson won more games with the Mariners (130) than he has with the D’Backs (109 and counting), but he compiled a lower winning percentage (.637 to .673).  But we all know wins are a stupid stat; what about VORP?

Unfortunately, I do not know where to find historical VORP data for free; if you do, please leave a comment.  I can look at the PRAR (pitching runs above replacement) numbers for Johnson, adjusted for all time.  Johnson put up a total of 706 PRAR during his tenure with the Mariners; so far, he has accumulated 684 with the D’Backs.  Interestingly, if we look at PRAA (pitching runs above average), Johnson’s D’Backs totals surpass his Mariners totals by a wide margin (235 to 170).

What can we conclude from all this data?  Well, probably what any reasonably observant baseball fan already knows: that Johnson has probably pitched at a higher level with the D’Backs, but that he spent more time with the Mariners.

Looking at the all numbers, and making some reasonable assumptions about what Johnson will do in the future, it seems obvious that he should go in as a Diamondback.  This is disappointing to me since I don’t really like the D’Backs, and not just because of the 2007 playoffs: they seem to me a bland franchise with a fickle fanbase (5th lowest attendance/game in the NL last year despite having a good team) and bad uniforms.

But what if Johnson’s career were to end today (or, more likely, Sunday)?  I think it’s obvious that he should still go in as a Diamondback, seeing as his performance level has been higher with them and the counting numbers are in the same ballpark for the two teams, but would the win-obsessed powers-that-be in the Hall see things this way and look past the 20-game disparity in win totals?  I suspect that they would end up putting a D’Backs cap on him, but not for the right reasons: VORP and PRAA mean nothing to them (probably), but Cy Youngs (4 as a D’Back vs 1 as a Mariner) and postseason success (the 2001 World Series MVP award) do.  So regardless of what happens to him in the future, Johnson will probably be the D’Backs’ first HoF inductee, and he should be.

 

That was the first “kick in the balls” loss I’ve seen this year, ladies and gentlemen. That hurt. Many more to come, I’m sure; let’s just hope the Cubs can deliver some painful blows of their own to opposing teams.

Are the Cardinals for real?

NO. NO. NO. IF YOU ARE WORRYING ABOUT THE CARDINALS, STOP. THEY ARE A FLUKE.

How can I be so sure?

1) Schedule

The Cards have been playing craptacular teams all year. They have only played 5 games against teams at or above .500; in contrast, the Cubs have played 11.

2) Fluky Pitching

By “fluky,” I don’t mean “low BAbip.” The Cards’ pitching staff has a BAbip against of .275, only a few points lower than the Cubs’ .278. What I mean by fluky is “not giving up nearly as many home runs or walks as you would expect given the personnel.” The Cardinals rank first in the NL in walks allowed and third in homers allowed. That’s nice, but given the personnel on the pitching staff, is it sustainable? No. Wainwright is legit, and Piñeiro may in fact be a Dave Duncan reclamation project success story. But Wellemeyer? Looper? No no no no no. They will regress. It will hurt.

This team, especially the offense, will certainly be better than anybody expected. It appears that Ankiel was not a fluke, that Duncan is a useful platoon dude, and of course Pujols is a beast. But no matter how good Dave Duncan is, the pitchers on that staff—especially the starters—are going to start giving up more walks and homers, and their inability to strike people out at a good clip (ranked 12th in the NL as of today) will not help matters. The Cardinals might finish at .500, but they aren’t really in the same class as the Cubs and Brewers. Now for the matchups:

Tonight: Hill vs. Wainwright

The Cubs own Wainwright. OWN him. The Cards haven’t really seen much of Hill.

Saturday Afternoon: Lilly vs. Lohse

Unfortunately, this game is on Fox. Knowing how much Tim and Joe love the Cardinals, we will probably “get” to hear them on this game. Bluh. Anyway, Lilly has actually been pretty damn good against the Cards, while Lohse has sucked against the Cubs (although he did beat Lilly last year in a pitchers’ duel at Wrigley on April 15th).

Sunday Night: Marquis vs. Wellemeyer

Marquis has been so-so against his former team; most of the current Cubs haven’t seen former Cub Wellemeyer.

Look, I understand that baseball is a game of large fluctuations and surprises. The worst team can beat the best team any day of the week; I get it. All that being said, I’ll be a little disappointed if the Cubs can’t take two of three in St. Louis: two of the three pitching matchups clearly favor the Cubs (Wainwright might be a better pitcher than Hill overall, but the Cubs own him), and the third is probably a toss-up. So let’s head on down I-55 to the Gateway City and make some of the “greatest fans in baseball” cry.

EDIT: Yesterday’s game appears to have been a Pyrrhic victory of sorts for the Brew Crew.  Hate to see a good young pitcher sidelined by injury; we saw that far too many times with the Cubs, and it’s simply heartbreaking.  I hope he makes a full recovery.

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?

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