3 Things to Watch for Against the Cubs

Written by Mike Passador, Matt Gwin, and Cole Nefsky

Judicious Use of the Bullpen’s Southpaws

The Blue Jays will be making their final trip to an NL ballpark this season (well, hopefully there’s one more), and it’ll put the team’s late-game maneuvers under a bit of a spotlight. In their previous seven trips to the senior circuit, only one pitcher has been called upon to face fewer than three batters, and that occurred when J.P. Howell served up a walk-off grand slam to Matt Carpenter on April 27th. Though the bench consists of five players, Kendrys Morales’ specific skillset will keep John Gibbons’ options limited when it comes to double switches and substitutions in the late innings. It means he’ll need to get as much as he can out of every player who appears, and perhaps no group will feel the heat as much as the team’s left handed relievers.

The Cubs boast a lethal lineup that’s particularly tough on southpaws. As of Thursday, they sit sixth in MLB with 46 home runs of lefties while ranking first in OBP with a .355 mark. They’re also first in walk rate and sit sixth in ISO, while Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant are both in the top 20 in terms of TAv against lefties amongst batters with 100 such plate appearances this season.

With Matt Dermody not in the mix for high leverage work, it’ll be up to Tim Mayza and Aaron Loup to shoulder what’s likely to be a heavy load. The Cubs have six left handed hitters and three switch hitters on the roster, and it’s inevitable that Gibbons will turn to a lefty-lefty matchup or switch somebody around in the late innings.

In the last series against the Rays, Loup faced only one batter on Wednesday (righty Steven Souza was called on as a pinch hitter for left-handed Lucas Duda) before being lifted with Evan Longoria on deck. He faced just two on Thursday, with one being unimposing right hander Adeiny Hechavarria. On Monday, Loup was called in to face two lefties and was allowed to face Longoria after working through Corey Dickerson and Duda without issue. Mayza dealt with two lefties and the mediocre Wilson Ramos in his short appearance on Thursday. Given the collective success of the Cubs’ roster against lefties, the matchups over the next three days should be far less comfortable.

Toronto has been getting great production from their bullpen stalwarts lately, but their two best left-handers might have to see some extremely daunting opponents during their three-game stay at Wrigley. Any exceedingly short appearances could spell trouble for an already-overtaxed relief corps and Gibbons probably doesn’t want to burn through his bullpen quickly unless it’s absolutely necessary. He’ll surely pick his spots so as to get the most out of Loup and Mayza, but both will have to face some batters who excel against lefties even if they can dodge the biggest boppers. It should be quite the test for both.

Two Starters Living on the Margins

In the modern game, there’s no doubting it: velocity is king. This is the Baseball Prospectus pitcher WARP leaderboard for 2017.

  1. Chris Sale – 6.6 WARP
  2. Max Scherzer – 6 WARP
  3. Corey Kluber – 5.2 WARP
  4. Zack Greinke – 5.2 WARP
  5. Chris Archer – 5.0 WARP
  6. Jacob DeGrom – 4.6 WARP
  7. Clayton Kershaw – 4.5 WARP
  8. Luis Severino – 4.1 WARP
  9. Carlos Martinez – 4.0 WARP
  10. Jeff Samardzija – 3.9 WARP

On the velocity high end of that Top 10, you have Luis Severino, who has an average fastball velocity of 97 MPH and regularly tops out over 100 MPH. On the velocity low end of that Top 10, you have Zack Greinke, who has an average fastball velocity of 91 MPH, but regularly hits the mid 90s. Nearly all of baseball’s best pitchers have some level of elite velocity backing up their claims.

That’s not the case for Blue Jays’ starter Marco Estrada and Cubs’ starter Kyle Hendricks, however. Previously in their careers, each starter had hit 94 MPH on the Pitch f/X radar gun, but these days their average fastball velocities hover below the 90 MPH mark. In turn, both have had to find new ways to pitch and take hold of alternative strategies for success. For Estrada that was finding elite spin, while for Hendricks it was creating a sinker that had pin point precision. Over the last two seasons, those strategies resulted in Cy Young Award votes for both of them. This year, however, there’s been a little more trouble.

After posting low 3.00s ERAs for two straight years, each starters’ ERA was well over 4.00 through June of this year. By all accounts, both pitchers had done everything relatively then as compared to 2016. Jeff Sullivan wrote on Kyle Hendricks’ early season issues and found slight differences, but nothing reasonable enough to justify such a massive ERA increase. Meanwhile, plenty have tackled Estrada’s 2017 pitching issues, each coming up with a different, yet slight variation, but no one having come up with a major fix.

In the time since June, Hendricks has righted his ship, doing many of the same things and getting vastly different results. Meanwhile, Estrada has done a lot of the same and got many similarly poor results. In other words, baseball is weird, but it’s also incredibly hard to succeed on the margins. Look for that as the pair face off in Sunday’s matinee.

Juggling the Offense

The Jays have stormed back into playoff contention with good enough pitching, and good enough batting, and good enough defending. It’s hard enough to make the playoffs when your team is good at any one of those things, but this current iteration of the Blue Jays isn’t especially gifted in any of the three. Things are certainly not made easier by the almost 37 year old Jose Bautista lumbering around right field looking for a way he could help this team lose.

Jose Bautista is a below average hitter, a below average runner, and a below average defender. He has been worth a mighty 0.0 fWAR or 1.0 WARP, neither of which is a very good showing. Ezequiel Carrera on the other hand has turned himself into what seems like a decent hitter, while playing defense that at the very least is slightly better than Bautista’s, when you account for the hairiness of defensive metrics. He’s been worth 1.0 fWAR or 1.2 WARP, both of which are better than Bautista.

He also is one of only three Blue Jays with an OBP above .330 since the beginning of August. If this team is serious about winning, they’d start an outfield of Pearce-Pillar-Carrera. Don’t get me wrong, Zeke has been cooling down a bit lately, but it is sad to say that this season, even when he’s been cool, he has outperformed Jose. Justin Smoak hasn’t had much of a month either overall, but he has enough power to still be a valuable offensive player and has earned a lot more trust this season that he can perform at a high level.

The rest of the team, other than two players on the DL in Travis and Martin, has been the sort of bad that might make you queasy. Since May 17, Kevin Pillar has had a triple slash of .209/.260/.330. Darwin Barney, Ryan Goins, and Rob Refsnyder have been various iterations of the same joke. Kendrys Morales has hit like a high quality backup catcher.

On the bright side, though, the team playing the series in the NL equalizes the playing field. Morales won’t be hitting and neither will the opposing team’s generic DH. The way that Gibby has been playing the matchup game, I don’t know if the added flexibility will help or hurt, however. The number of times Barney has hit against a righty and then Carrera has pinch run for him has been appalling and nonsensical. If he can make an adjustment, it will be possible for Toronto to get a better platoon advantage in this series and possibly squeeze out a couple of extra runs.

Lead Photo: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

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