Despite starting the season 3-9 and being six games under .500 more than one-third of the way into the season, the Cardinals enter this series with the Cubs having a shot at first place in the division. The team would need to sweep to exit the weekend in first place, and the odds of that happening are about one in 15, but given where they’ve been this season, this opportunity has to be viewed as a positive development. The Cardinals should destroy the Cubs.*
*With title, .580 W% (94-win pace). Without title, .448 W% (73-win pace).
A year ago today, the Cubs clinched the National League Central division. /checks standings/ They will not do so today. With seven of their final 16 games against each other, these head to head games should prove incredibly important. But you already knew that. Going off of wRC+ and WAR (FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference and Baseball Prospectus), the best hitter in the series (Tommy Pham) and the best pitcher in the series (Carlos Martinez at fWAR, PWARP, Lance Lynn at B-ref) both play for the Cardinals.
The Cubs are still headed by Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo. The Cubs first baseman’s production is down a bit from the last three seasons, but his 137 wRC+ is still very good. His walks are down and his strikeouts are up in the second half (12% BB, 16% K) as compared to the first (14% BB, 11% K), but both are still very good. The slighly more reckless approach seems to have helped him, but it could be he just had a bit of bad luck in the first half with his BABIP, which has normalized of late.
Kris Bryant is basically repeating his MVP season of last year, but the rise in offense hurts him ever so slightly, while exchanging a few homers for walks and doubles might make it seem like he is doing worse. His RBI totals are also way down, but that could just be some bad luck with sequencing. Either that or Bryant is totally un-clutch.
Cardinals legends Jon Jay and Jason Heyward both figure to play a central role in this series. Heyward has continued his mysterious decline on offense from his Braves and Cardinals days while Jay keeps BABIPing and getting his butt in the way of enough pitches to make himself an average offensive player.
Ian Happ is the Cubs’ version of Paul DeJong, playing center field mostly with a 30% K-rate and a bunch of homers. Happ’s BABIP is considerably lower than DeJong, but Happ also walks more with his 114 wRC+ pretty similar to DeJong’s 122. Kyle Schwarber has been benched a bunch lately, but after a rough start, he has crawled his way back to average on the season as a hitter.
Javier Baez has received more playing time than anticipated this season due to an injury to Addison Russell. Baez is essentially Randal Grichuk with the bat, but with a little better BABIP this year. That plays at shortstop. Ben Zobrist is now 36 years old, and age might be catching up to him. He’s still got a good batting eye and doesn’t strike out a lot, but his power is down from last season and he’s got just a 91 wRC+.
At catcher, Willson Contreras was in the middle of a great season before a hamstring injury sidelined him a month ago. He’s now back, but hasn’t been playing everyday. Alex Avila, who the Cubs got along with Justin Wilson from the Tigers at the trade deadline, has filled in very well from an offensive standpoint despite striking out 38% of the time.
In this afternoon’s start, Cardinals legend John Lackey takes the mound for the Cubs. Lackey has not been good this year though he does have two quality starts against the Cardinals. He’s been brutalized by dingers this year, giving up 33 thus far. He hasn’t been as bad in the second half, with a 4.54 FIP and 3.67 ERA, including two good starts in a row coming against the Braves and Brewers. It’s hard to say what to expect from Lackey today other than loud curse words. He will face off against Carlos Martinez.
On Saturday, Kyle Hendricks gets the start. All in all, Hendricks has pitched pretty well this season, though not close to what he did a year ago. Strikeouts, walks, and homers are all pretty close to league average with a low BABIP that keeps his ERA about 20% better than the rest of the league. Since returning from a right hand injury after the All-Star Break has pitched better, including six straight quality starts entering the series. His velocity is still down about three mph from last year, which explains much of the drop in production. Michael Wacha will go for St. Louis.
In the series finale, the Cardinals will get another crack at Jose Quintana. In the Chicago lefty’s first home start at Wrigley, he struck out seven Cardinals, walked two, gave up homers to DeJong and Grichuk, but limited the Cardinals to three runs over seven innings. He’s had a couple rough outings, but eight of his 11 starts with the Cubs have been quality starts, providing the Cubs rotation with some much-needed stability. Lance Lynn will take the call for the Cardinals.
Today, September 15, 1:20 pm CT, Fox Sports Midwest, MLB Network
Saturday, September 16, 3:05 pm CT, Fox Sports Midwest
Sunday, September 17, 1:20 pm CT, Fox Sports Midwest, TBS
Other series of note:
Brewers v Marlins (in Milwaukee)