[Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse style]
Alight people, let’s do this one last time....
Since I last wrote a preview the Cardinals have won [checks notes]... one game. There is good news though. The Cardinals leadership have figured out the cause for all the team’s problems: It is all Willson Contreras’s fault. The new plan is to DH with Contreras and have Andrew Knizner catch behind the plate.
Contreras messaging day two, the softening:— Jeff Jones (@jmjones) May 7, 2023
"I think the question should be 'what does Contreras need to do to get behind the plate,'" Marmol said when asked about his prep for the outfield. "Let's not run in the opposite direction here."
"He will stay sharp on the things he needs to stay sharp on [behind the plate]. There are some things that need to take place in order for Willson to feel more comfortable..."— Jeff Jones (@jmjones) May 7, 2023
"That's the reality of it. Willson first needs to feel comfortable with following what we internally want him to follow, and then we have to feel comfortable with it, and then we move forward. But we're on the same page as to what the plans look like."— Jeff Jones (@jmjones) May 7, 2023
#STLCards manager Oli Marmol on Willson Contreras position switch: “One thing I want to make super clear: We’re not losing ballgames because Willson Contreras is catching.”— John Denton (@JohnDenton555) May 6, 2023
Marmol said the decision was made after meetings w/ John Mozeliak, pitching coach Dusty Blake & Contreras.
So that should fix everything. You know what they say: “if at first you don’t succeed, sow discontent within your players by call theming out publicly”. [brushes off hands] Crushed it.
So that is what the Cardinals have been up to. All this [gestures wildly] just in time for Contreras to return to Wrigley Field and take on his former team, the Chicago Cubs. The Cubs are 17-17 and are actually underperforming according to their Pythagorean record of 22-12. They are comprised of a well-rounded team of players that I didn’t realize signed with the Cubs or I forgot had played for the Cubs until just now.
Most of the Cubs starters have an FIP under 4 and ERA under 3 with a few exceptions. The rotation is led by the pitcher the Cardinals face on Wednesday, lefthander Justin Steele. Steele leads the Cubs with a 1.45 ERA and 3.19 FIP. The key to his success this season seems to be not allowing homers. His K rate is down from previous seasons to 21.8%, his walk rate has also dropped to 6.7%, and his home runs per 9 innings has dropped from a very low — especially for Wrigley Field — 0.61 in 2022 to 0.42 this season. He has done this by having one of the best 4-seamers in the league per Baseball Savant’s run value metric, which is a change of pace from last season when it had at a .312 batting average against. Comparing where he is spotting this pitch now versus then paints a pretty good picture of why it is so much more effective now.
He throws his fastball 60% of the time at around 92 mph and follows it up with slider the rest of the time. And that’s it. With these two pitches Steele has put himself in the top 4% of baseball in average exit velocity against and HardHit%.
The next best pitcher for the Cubs this season is the pitcher the Cardinals face on Monday, Marcus Stroman. Stroman has a 2.18 ERA and 3.69 FIP in just over 41 innings pitched. Much like Steele, he has also not been allowing home runs with a 0.65 HR/9. He is also stranding a bunch of runners at 86.1% left on base. Interestingly his groundball percentage is back up in the 60% range after three seasons (2019-2022, missing 2020) of it being around 50%. His success appears to have a lot to do with better pitch locations this season, particularly for his sinker, which he throws the most at 41.6% of the time. He also throws a slurve, cutter, and slider in nearly identical locations and then mixes in a 4-seam fastball and split finger for flavor, but not nearly enough to really be considered part of his arsenal.
Jameson Taillon faces the Cardinals on Tuesday and has had a bit of a reversal of fortunes as his teammates. With the caveat that he has missed some starts this season and only has 17 innings of data, so far he is striking out more than Steele and Stroman with a 27% K-rate, walking less with a 5.4% walk-rate, and has only given up 0.53 HR/9. His batting average on balls in play is .347 and his strand rate 53.4% while his groundball percentage is just 31%, which is a career low. All this adds up to a 5.29 ERA, which is the highest in the rotation and a 2.47 FIP, which is the lowest in the rotation. As for pitches, he throws a cutter and 4-seamer almost interchangeably while mixing in a sinker, curveball, and sweeper.
The Cubs offense is eighth best in the league per wRC+ at 109. It is led by Cody Bellinger with a 149 wRC+. After him is Ian Happ at 147 who is walking 17.1% of the time and getting on base a .418 clip. At 139 is Patrick Wisdom. Wisdom is striking out 36.3% of the time, but has a .358 ISO and has hit 11 homers already this season. On the base paths the player to watch out for is Nico Hoerner. Hoerner is in the 86th percentile in baseball in sprint speed and has 12 stolen bases on the season while only being caught twice. Bellinger can always steal a base — he has 9 stolen bases on the season.
On defense the Cubs are strong up the middle with Tucker Barnhart and Yan Gomes splitting time behind the plate, Hoerner at second and Dansby Swanson at shortstop, and Bellinger at center. This defense might explain how their pitchers are able to sustain low BABIP and high LOB percentages. Gomes is currently on the Injured List for a concussion, but did take batting practice on Sunday.
The relievers for the Cubs have also been quite good this season. The Cubs bullpen is fourth in baseball with 3.50 FIP and tenth in ERA at 3.56. Every pitcher looks solid with standouts Adbert Alzolay with a 2.41 ERA and 2.60 FIP in over 18 innings and Mark Leiter Jr. with a 1.13 ERA and 2.73 FIP in 16 innings. The weakest pitcher actually looks to be Brad Boxberger, who is listed as the closer on Baseball Reference. In 12 innings he has 5.9% K-BB%, a 4.50 ERA, and 6.94 FIP.
The Cubs look really good. The Cardinals are struggling. Was their 12-run offensive output on Sunday a sign of life or just a fluke on a get-away day? Are the devastating homers allowed all the fault of the Cardinals catcher? Did burning that sage dispel the curse? This series against the Cubs will be as good a test as any!
Monday, May 8 at 6:40 pm CT: Miles Mikolas vs. Marcus Stroman
Tuesday, May 9 at 6:40 pm CT: Jack Flaherty vs. Jameson Tallon
Wednesday, May 10 at 6:40 pm CT: Jordan Montgomery vs. Justin Steele