If the playoffs started today, the Cardinals would not be playing. The National League wild card race appeared to be a five-team race, but the Pittsburgh Pirates and Miami Marlins have slowed, and the New York Mets, San Francisco Giants and the Cardinals look to be fighting for the final two spots. The Cardinals are currently half a game behind the Mets (equal in the loss column), and two games behind the Giants. There are only 20 game left in the regular season. The Cardinals should destroy the Cubs.
For the Cubs, this series does not have a whole lot of meaning. A narrative was built over the weekend around a Cubs sweep that would clinch the division for Chicago, but the division title is inevitable. When Chicago clinches is irrelevant. A narrative could be built up surrounding the Cardinals winning record against the Cubs and how the Cubs have more losses to the Cardinals than any other team, but these narratives do little more than give people something to talk about to fill some time or words (this paragraph is 94 words).
What this series is really about is the Cardinals desperately need to win games in order to qualify for the postseason. The Giants have a small lead and the Mets have an easy schedule. All three teams vying for the wild card have had their difficulty winning games this season, but each team has done enough to put themselves in this position. The Cardinals need to win games no matter who they are playing. The next three games just happen to be against the best team in baseball on a mission to try and win their first World Series title since after the 1908 season.
The Cubs and Cardinals are strikingly similar teams in a lot of ways. On the pitching side, Cubs starters have posted a 3.80 FIP (91 FIP-, which adjusts for park and league) while Cardinals starters have posted a 3.84 FIP (94 FIP-). Cubs relievers are at a 93 FIP- while the Cardinals are at 94 this year. On offense the team’s have posted identical .331 wOBA, when park adjusted comes out to a 106 wRC+ for the Cardinals and a 105 wRC+ for the Cubs. If you ignore defense and base running, the Cardinals and Cubs are very similar teams.
Base running and defense should actually be considered, and taking those into account helps to make up the massive gulf in the standings between the two teams. The Cubs are the fourth best base running team in MLB with roughly 13 runs above average while the Cardinals are the worst team in the National League at negative 15 runs compared to average. The Cubs have good defensive players at nearly every position.
We could point to the Cubs .253 BABIP against, which is 30 points lower than the second lowest team, and 50 points lower than the Cardinals and chalk it up to luck, but that isn’t what is happening here. Sure, perhaps some of it is luck, but most of it is defense. The difference between the Cardinals and Cubs this season isn’t pitching, and it isn’t the young Cubs hitters. The Cubs are simply much better than the Cardinals at base running and defense, and that basically explains the entire 15-game lead for the Cubs in the standings.
Kyle Hendricks makes the start tonight as he continues a stealth bid to win the Cy Young on the strength of his 2.07 ERA. Hendricks is a good pitcher, with a 3.36 FIP, but a great Cubs defense makes him look like a great pitcher. Hendricks’ FIP is more than a run higher than his ERA and much of that is thanks to a .245 BABIP, a big drop from last year’s .296 when Hendricks posted an identical 3.36 FIP, but a higher 3.95 ERA.
While there might be some evidence to suggest that certain pitchers induce more weak contact and can produce lower BABIPs that help them beat their FIP, the Cubs have five starters who have all induced a BABIP of .264 or lower this season. That’s not a special skill that all Cubs starters happen to have. That’s defense. Fortunately for the Hendricks, the rest of the Cubs starters, and the Cubs in general, they get to keep playing with that defense. Mike Leake makes tonight’s start for the Cardinals.
Tomorrow night, Jason Hammel starts for the Cubs. Hammel has been a slightly below average pitcher this season, with a 4.37 FIP. There was some talk in the offseason, that Hammel had followed the Jake Arrieta model of conditioning in hopes of avoiding a second-half slide that had hurt him in past seasons.
Hammel’s numbers in the first half have mirrored his numbers for the second, so in that way, it might have worked, but he has pitched six innings just once in his last four starts, failed to make it four innings in two of his last four, and gave up nine runs in his last start against Milwaukee. That followed a stretch of six really good starts after the All-Star Break so it is difficult to know what to expect from Hammel at this point. Speaking of, Jaime Garcia will pitch for the Cardinals.
On Wednesday, Jon Lester will pitch for Chicago in the finale in St. Louis. Lester, too, has benefited from the Cubs defense with a 3.54 FIP and 2.51 ERA, in much the same way the Cardinals pitchers received the same benefits last year. Lester has been fantastic of late, with a 2.51 FIP and 1.17 ERA over his last eight starts. He has gone at lesat six innings and given up two runs or fewer in every one of those starts. Lester has so far proved to be worth the money in his big contract that has four years and $105 million remaining after this season. Carlos Martinez will pitch for the Cardinals.
Tonight’s game is at 7:15 pm CT and will air on FOX Sports Midwest as well as MLB Network for those out of market.
Tuesday’s game is at 7:15 pm CT and will air on FOX Sports Midwest.
Wednesday’s game is at 12:45 pm CT and will air on FOX Sports Midwest and MLB Network for those out of market.