The St. Louis Cardinals have seen way more success in recent days and hope to keep things rolling at Wrigley when they take on the Chicago Cubs for four games. Since the All Star break the third place Cubs are 3-3 after taking two of three from the Washington Nationals and dropping two of three from the Boston Red Sox. With both the Cardinals and the Cubs desperately needing wins to keep their slim playoff chances technically alive, this series is pretty important for both teams.
The two starters that have been announced so far for the Cubs are Marcus Stroman and Justin Steele, which also happen to be the Cubs two best starters. Stroman takes the mound Thursday evening. Here is what I wrote about him in their first matchup:
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.
Since then his ERA has increased a little to 2.88 and his FIP has dropped to 3.39 in nearly 119 innings. He has maintained his low HR/9 at 0.46 and had the second highest groundball rate among qualified pitchers at 58.4%. Somewhat interestingly, he has pretty much quit throwing his slider and barely throws his cutter either. He primarily relies on his sinker and slurve and mixes in a cutter, 4-seamer, and split finger around 10% of the time or less while he has thrown his slider less than 5% of the time.
The Cubs best pitcher is still Justin Steele. Like Stroman, the Cardinals have faced Steele twice already this season. Here is what I said before their first matchup:
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.
Here is what stlcardsfan4 wrote in his preview for the Cardinals’ most recent matchup against Steele:
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%
How does Steel look now? Still not allowing homers, for starters — his HR/9 is 0.55. His 4-seamer is still one of the best in the league per run value. It ranks seventh among qualified pitchers in the stat, per Baseball Savant. He seems to have gotten even more precise with the placement, throwing it up and in to rightes. It barely moves too, at least compared to the average MLB 4-seamer — this pitch comes in around 92 mph and drops almost 22 inches on average — 6 inches less than average — while breaking 1.5 inches — 7.9 inches less than average. He also throws a slider and that is pretty much it.
The Cubs offense has cooled a bit to 15th in the league in wRC+ at 101. Cody Bellinger has been their best hitter all season, slashing .311/.367/.527 for a 138 wRC+. He also strikes out less frequently than his teammates with a 17.4% K rate. Christopher Morel is slashing .273/.330/.551 for a 134 wRC+. He has hit 15 homers for a .278 ISO, but is also prone to strikeouts with a K rate of 30.1%. Similarly, Patrick Wisdom has 17 homers on the season and a .293 ISO, but only a .200 batting average for a 109 wRC+ and has struck out 37.2% of the time this season. On the bathpaths, the Cardinals need to keep an eye on second baseman Nico Hoerner. He leads the Cubs in stolen bases with 21 and has only been caught steeling three times. The slick-fielding shortstop and overall best player for the Cubs, Dansby Swanson, is currently on the 10-day Injured List.
In my first preview I mentioned closer Brad Boxberger had some of the worst stats among the bullpen — he is now on the 60-day IL. The pitcher I had mentioned as the best in the ‘pen is now the closer. Adbert Alzolay is still the best reliever for the Cubs. In 41 innings has struck out 28.9% of batters while only walking 4.4% and has a HR/9 of 0.66. He has the lowest ERA of the regular relivers at 2.63 along with a 2.66 FIP.
I think that covers the series as we know it so far. I don’t want to overstate it or oversell it too much, but it does feel like a pivotal series for the Cardinals, at least to me. If they can play well in these games, maybe — just maybe, there is still some hope that they can at least make the season interesting. And just before the trade deadline is the time to do it, right?
Thursday, July 20 at 7:05 pm CT: Steven Matz vs. Marcus Stroman
Friday, July 21 at 1:20 pm CT: Jack Flaherty vs. Justin Steele
Saturday, July 22 at 1:20 pm CT: Miles Mikolas vs. TBD
Sunday, July 23 at 1:20 pm CT: Jordan Montgomery vs. TBD