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Some other previews of the Dodgers/Cubs series, with my thoughts:

Baseball Reference: Just the facts—draw your own conclusions from the data.

Baseball Prospectus: While I agree with Christina Kahrl’s general thesis—these teams are closer in quality than they look at first glance—I think she overstates the importance of Rafael Furcal.  Before he got hurt, he was hitting at a clip far better than his career numbers, and he’s only played in four games since returning from injury.  In other words: his early season heroics were flukey, and he’s probably not yet capable of even being in a position to produce those flukey numbers given his health and the rust that he has surely gathered.  She claims the Dodgers with Furcal and Manny are almost the offensive equals of the Cubs (Sal Baxamusa says the same at The Hardball Times using Marcels projections), which seems rather far-fetched even with a fully healthy Furcal; with a rusty, possibly still-hurting Furcal, it’s total bullshit.  Also, like so many things at BP, the article is almost well-written.  Almost.

The Hardball Times:  Tim Dierkes’ preview at THT is…pretty mediocre.  He says Cubs in five, just like Kahrl.

ESPN:  I have to admit that I feel much better about the Cubs’ chances given Keith Law’s and Rob Neyer’s predictions of a Cubs victory.  Granted, they both picked the Cubs to win last year, too, but…OK, I have no rational justification for feeling better due to their picks.

Here’s the thing: if you go back and look at last year’s “expert picks,” you will find near-universal agreement that the Cubs would win.  Nate Silver, inventor of PECOTA and excellent political blogger, predicted a Cubs sweep.  Law and Neyer, as previously mentioned, picked the Cubs, as did most other ESPN analysts (with the notable exception of Jonah Keri).  The Cubs got swept, and looked horrible doing so.  This year’s Cubs are clearly better than last year’s, but the Dodgers are probably a better team at this point than the Diamondbacks were a year ago.  The point is that, as so many others have said, THIS IS A CRAPSHOOT. Even if Zambrano and Harden were pitching like they were in the middle of the summer, I wouldn’t put the Cubs’ chances to win the series above 65%; as it is, they’re probably significantly lower (though still, I believe, higher than 50%).

This is why, as easy as it is to get wrapped up in the drama of the postseason, one needs to take a deep breath beforehand and acknowledge that one’s team probably won’t win the World Series.  Even for those of us able to acknowledge that fact, there will be many—myself included—who will be deeply disappointed if they don’t win it all.  But disappointment is different from surprise; don’t kid yourself that the Cubs are “likely” to do anything.

Also: one of my favorite aspects of the postseason in any sport is trying to get myself to hate teams that I normally would have nothing against.  I tend to be quite good at quickly figuring something out that slightly bothers me about an opponent and working it up into a huge irritant.  Prior to the January 2007 Bears/Seahawks playoff game, for instance, I had never had a mean thought in my life about Matt Hasselbeck, but in the week leading up to the game I let all the talk of his efficiency and high quarterback IQ start to annoy me (this is, I realize, a very weird thing to be annoyed by; I had to really work hard to hate the Seahawks), and when he threw a pick in the 4th quarter I found myself yelling at the TV the following: “oh, not such a high quarterback IQ now, huh Hasselbeck?  Hey, that wasn’t very efficient!”

This year, however, I have no idea what’s going to tick me off about the Dodgers.  I’ve always found Manny charming, the eminently hateable Jeff Kent and Juan Pierre are on the bench, and I just can’t imagine finding something irritating about Russell Martin or Andre Ethier.  Last year, it was easy: Eric Byrnes is one annoying motherfucker, and I managed to direct so much hatred at him that some spilled into the rest of the outfield; by Game 2, I inexplicably hated Chris Young.  But where to start this year?  Where’s the seed of hatred?  I suppose I could turn my hatred towards the Dodgers’ fans, who apparently can’t be bothered to buy up playoff tickets and who only rank 12th in the majors in average percentage of seats bought per game (that is, attendance per game divided by seating capacity).  But there’s a problem with that: I’m moving to L.A. in January, and I just feel that it’s somehow psychically bad to insult a group of people (including my new boss) among whom I will soon be living.  But I’m confident that something will come up—it always does.  If I can get worked up about Matt Hasselbeck’s passer rating, I’m sure I can find a Dodger or two to hate.

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and the Cubs don’t score!  For all their offensive prowess this year, the Cubs have had a lot of trouble turning bases-loaded, no out situations into big innings.  I documented this problem earlier this year; how have things gone since then?  Well, the Cubs have had 14 bases-loaded, no out plate appearances since that post; here are the number of times they’ve scored each number of runs following those plate appearances:

0 runs: 1

1 run: 8

2 runs: 3

3 runs: 2

4 runs: 0

5+ runs: 0

On the bright side, the Cubs have managed to at least score 13 out of 14 times; however, they’re only averaging about 1.42 runs in these situations, which is actually less than their 2007-May 2008 average.  As I noted back in May, this is about a full run lower than the league-wide average for the years 1999-2002.  Though we are definitely in a different run environment nowadays, I would wager that the Cubs are still doing worse than the last couple years’ league averages for runs scored after loading the bases with none out.  For the year, the Cubs are 3/16 in these situations with one double, no walks, six strikeouts, 1 HBP, six sacrifice flies, and 18 RBI; they are posting a .188/.174/.250 line.  It’s easy to shrug this off given how well the Cubs have played overall, but let’s hope that the Cubs can start producing a little more in these situations.

I wrote a post about a month ago about Aramis Ramirez’ newfound patience this year.  At the time of the post, the Cubs had played about 20 games or so, and I posited that Aramis’ increased pitches per plate appearance (P/PA), walk rate, and strikeout rate were probably just small-sample-size artifacts.  What’s happened since then?

P/PA: Career: 3.70; 2008 as of last post: 4.02; 2008 as of now: 4.10

Walk Rate (actually percentage): Career: 6.95 %; 2007: 7.71 %; 2008 as of last post: 14.0 %; 2008 as of now: 13.7 %

K Rate (actually percentage): Career: 13.7 %; 2007: 11.8 %; 2008 as of last post: 12.9 %; 2008 as of now: 15.1 %

So what’s going on?  We obviously need more data, but the odds are certainly higher than they were a month ago that Ramirez really has changed his hitting style a bit this year, giving up some contact in favor of more power and waiting out pitchers more.  This is an interesting development that we will have to keep an eye on the whole summer.

Three somewhat unrelated things today:

1) I like Rich Hill, and not just because he’s a (relatively) young Cubs pitcher with a lot of upside. I like that he introduced the Cubs before a game on national TV last year as Kip from Napoleon Dynamite; I like that Ozzie Guillen, a piece of shit if ever there was one, called him a piece of shit. I like that he managed to survive the wrath of Cubs fans who wanted him traded ASAP in 2006 (honestly, though, he probably didn’t notice) and came back to put up a very good season last year. And I hate the way Lou and the Cubs’ staff have handled Hill this year, showing no confidence in him and seemingly setting him up to fail. All that being said, he’s not right, and the move to Iowa is probably the right one, provided it is temporary and the Cubs bring him up and reinstate him in the rotation as soon as he finds his command. His mechanics look off this year (at least they did in the couple starts I saw him make), and obviously he can’t find the plate. Better for him to start every fifth day in Iowa and find his command there without taxing the bullpen and hurting the big club. But please, Rich, figure it out quickly.

2) Whenever the Cubs load the bases with nobody out, as they did last night in the 7th inning, my significant other and I look at each other and say, “uh oh.” Why? Well, because it seems to us that the Cubs tend to score either 0 or 1 runs in these situations, and almost never any more. I decided to look into this figure out if our perceptions were right or if we were selectively remembering the disappointing rallies. Turns out we were pretty much right. This year, the Cubs have loaded the bases with nobody out 9 times, and the frequency of runs scored looks like this:

0 runs: 1

1 run: 5

2 runs: 1

5 runs: 2

That’s an average of just under 2 runs per inning. This seems a little low, but what’s “normal”? I don’t have any league-wide data for the past couple years, but Tom Tango has data from 1999-2002. For those years, teams failed to score more than one run after loading the bases with no outs just 38.3% of the time; the Cubs have failed to score more than one run after loading the bases with no outs two thirds of the time this year. It should of course be noted that this is an extremely small sample size: even small samples think this sample is tiny. We can’t conclude that the Cubs suck in these situations based on 9 events. Luckily, there is a slightly larger (but still small) sample that we can look at: the 2007 Cubs.

The 2007 Cubs were even worse than the 2008 Cubs at scoring with the bases loaded and nobody out, failing to score more than one run on 12 out of 19 occasions and coming up empty 6 times. I’ve included a little graphic below comparing the 2007/2008 Cubs’ numbers with the 1999-2002 league-wide numbers from Tom Tango’s site. Remember that we are dealing with a small sample size with the Cubs numbers and that the league numbers are from a more offense-heavy period; still, the Cubs suck.

The average number of runs scored after loading the bases with no outs for the league from 1999-2002 was 2.417; the Cubs have averaged 1.464 runs in these situations over the last two years, almost a full run lower! It’s striking how bad the Cubs are at scoring runs after loading the bases with no outs, and a look back at the games in which they’ve struggled to do so reveals a number of close losses.

This is probably just a small-sample-size fluke, but here are a couple of other explanations, some plausible and some far-fetched:

a) the Cubs feel the weight of their sad history the most in high-pressure situations, causing them to choke

b) the Cubs have been unlucky on batted balls in play in these situations (similar to small-sample-size fluke, I suppose)

c) the Cubs have been unlucky to have their weaker hitters come up in these situations.

I’m done doing research on this topic, so I have no interest in trying to find evidence to support/refute b or c above.

3) Fun fact: the Cubs have lost their last three series two games to one, but they have outscored their opponents in all three series. Pythagoras says: the Cubs will win the division.

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!

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!