I was kind of looking forward to watching the London games. Maybe because it felt like something new. Because in a way it is. In another way, it’s just another Cards-Cubs game. Many have come before, many will come in the future. But part of me thought because it was at a new place, maybe something new would happen?
But alas, the timing could not be worse. I am previewing a series that I will not get to watch. I have to work both Saturday and Sunday. The first game is squarely in the middle of the workday for me, so no chance at me seeing it. I have to be at work at 9:30 am on Sunday, so maybe I’ll catch the first pitch. Different week, I can easily watch the Saturday game either because I’m not working or because I’m working at night.
Most Sundays in fact, I would be able to watch as well. If I’m not working, I sleep later than that normally, but I would probably get up for it. I’d probably not catch the very beginning of the game if I’m honest. Although if I was drinking the night before, I would absolutely be up by 9 am. I know it usually works the other way around. I’ll get 4-5 hours of sleep, then my body is not gonna let me fall back to sleep. Kind of annoying, would be nice if a Cardinal game was on to ease my pain.
I also wish I was in London myself, giving direct reports of the game. That would be very cool. Because that’s what separates this series from any other game, realistically, as a Cardinals fan living in America, right? Actually going to the game. I don’t think it’ll be any different watching it on TV.
The real reason this series is important is because of what follows this series. And also what came before. The Cardinals can’t fall further behind. And they follow up the Cubs series with series against the Yankees and Astros. The most likely outcome of this two-game series is a 1-1 split, which is hard to get mad at, but it still kind of feels like we need to sweep. How about this? I’m going to combine the Cubs, Yankees, and Astros: the Cardinals more or less need to go .500 against this group. The Cubs just so happen to be the easiest opponent which is why it kind of feels like they need a sweep.
The Cubs have an unbelievably good middle infield defense. Between Dansby Swanson and Nico Hoerner, they have nearly 5 WAR combined and neither are particularly good with the bat. Hoerner is a shade above average and Swanson, hot start notwithstanding, isn’t much further ahead with a 109 wRC+. They’ve also received ridiculous contributions from two players who began the year in the minors: Christopher Morel, with a 151 wRC+, and Mike Tauchman, with a 127 wRC+. Tauchman is their leadoff hitter and also his is more likely a fluke. He’s 32-years-old, has 780 career PAs, and has a .364 BABIP. Morel turns 24 in two days. Maybe he’s not a 151 wRC+ guy, but he’s someone to be worried about.
Turns out Cody Bellinger is not in fact back. He has a 105 wRC+. Trey Mancini has been bad and has completely been benched. They have three catchers, with Tucker Barnhart performing as Tres Barrera. The 45 wRC+ might have something to do with it. Yan Gomes has a 102 wRC+ and prospect Miguel Amaya has a 131 wRC+ through 16 games. Oddly, Amaya isn’t getting the bulk of starts. He’s caught two games in the last six (he did DH in another game). The normally inconsistent Ian Happ has the same wRC+ as last year. Seiya Suzuki is still not quite doing as well as expected. Wonder how long his projected wRC+ will be greater than his actual performance. (Right now there’s an 8 point difference in wRC+ between career and rest of season projection, 695 PAs into his career)
In the bullpen, former starting pitcher Adbert Alzolay has been dominant. He has just a 4.9 BB% and strikes out 27.9% of hitters en route to a 1.91 ERA and 2.55 FIP. Not sure if he’s the closer, as he only has four saves, but he has the most recent save on the team. At 32, Mark Leiter Jr. has figured something out, because he’s striking out 37.6% of hitters. Julian Merryweather has struck out a third of batters. Those are pretty much the only relievers who are more than “Just a Guy.”
Alright, let’s get to the matchups.
Saturday - 12:10 PM (Fox)
Justin Steele (2.71 ERA/2.97 FIP/4.00 xFIP) vs. Adam Wainwright (5.56 ERA/4.86 FIP/5.46 xFIP)
I don’t mean to disparage either of the two starters the Cardinals are throwing, but one reason a split should very much be welcomed is that the Cardinals have possibly the worst possible pitching matchups. The Cubs are throwing their best starters against the Cards. I’m not going to speak ill of a Cardinal legend, but the Cardinals are not throwing their best starters. I’d be more annoyed if not for the fact that the Cards follow up against the Astros and Yankees, which means these two guys are only facing them once. (Which is true for four of the five starters, granted, but I wondered if maybe skipping a start was possible, but then one of these two guys probably pitch Tuesday, and then they pitch against those two teams twice.)
Anyway, that said, Steele doesn’t look as tough as earlier in the year. No, not because he’s pitched worse lately. Because I don’t remember his stats being so reliant on not allowing homers. Look at that xFIP. Solid starter. Not anywhere close to his ERA or FIP. He has a 4.9 HR/FB%. His career is 11%. He’s not really even striking that many hitters out, with a 21.2 K%. It also helps that he’s left-handed. Sort of. You have to look at the Cardinals roster instead of their stats on this one. Paul Goldschmidt, 173 wRC+ hitter in career, has a 105 one this year. Willson Contreras, 127 wRC+ career, just 87 this year. Nolan Arenado is not as egregious, but still 145 career, 129 this season. Jordan Walker has been a 32 wRC+ hitter against lefties, there’s no way.
Which is a long way of saying, at some point these guys are going to do what they do and hit lefties so why not start against Justin Steele.
Sunday - 9:00 AM (ESPN)
Marcus Stroman (2.28 ERA/3.35 FIP/3.62 xFIP) vs. Matthew Liberatore (6.12 ERA/4.92 FIP/5.58 xFIP)
Seriously guys, the other Cubs’ starters are Jameson Taillon (6.71 ERA), Drew Smyly (3.35 ERA, but 4.35 FIP and 4.76 xFIP) and Kyle Hendricks, which yeah actually I’d rather face Stroman and Steele than Hendricks actually. I think Hendricks has a 0.00 ERA against the Cards with an average of 8 innings pitched.
More good news: the Cardinals don’t have much trouble with Stroman. Which is not to say he’s never had a good start against them, but he has a career 4.73 ERA against the Cardinals in 45.2 IP. That’s not his worst performance against any team, but everybody he’s pitched worse against has faced him less. Let’s hope that trend continues.
The Cubs have been the 5th best offense against lefties, although if you look at the individual numbers, it looks less like that. Cody Bellinger leads the team with a 168 wRC+ against LHP. Bellinger is a career 103 wRC+ hitter against lefties. Tauchman, left-handed himself, has a 121 wRC+. Tauchman has been better against LHP in his career, barely, but still just a 99 wRC+. Left-handed Miles Mastrobouni, which fun fact is pronounced like master (Harrison) Bader in an Italian accent,* has gotten on base three times in his six plate appearances against LHP despite a 27 wRC+ overall.
*I don’t actually know how it’s pronounced. Since I won’t see the games, it’ll be pronounced like that in my head, though.
Point being, that’s 12.4% of their production against LHP. Which doesn’t sound like a lot, but since a 113 wRC+ is 5th place and a 109 wRC+ is 10th place, you can see how just a slight dip in production would drop them to mediocre against LHP. With all that said, still not an easy start for Liberatore.
*It seems like Jack Flaherty is making the start Sunday. He is a better bet than Liberatore, making my article premise not quite true. Flaherty has a 4.95 ERA/4.20 FIP/4.51 xFIP, so on the whole not great. He’s also given up 12 ER combined in his last two starts. But when he’s on, and he’s on more than Liberatore has been, he’ll usually give a good performance.
A sweep would be incredible, but due to unfavorable pitching matchups, that seems like a rather big ask. But also the Cubs pitchers aren’t as scary as their numbers, and the Cards do have the type of offense that can hit anybody. So I’ll still be following along on my phone as much as I can (but if they’re losing, I’ll probably challenge myself to not look for as long as possible, because every time I look, I’m frustrated)