The Cubs enter their series against the Mets with the best footing of any National League division leader. Their advantage over the second-place Cardinals has grown to four games, and as a result BP’s projection system gives them a 96% chance to make the playoffs. Chicago’s pitching staff has not been the strength they probably envisioned it would be coming into the season, but one recent addition has not only bolstered their rotation, but has seemingly made a deal with Father Time to regain a few weeks of his youthful pitching dominance. That player and two others that have helped solidify the Cubs playoff chances are the focus of this stats preview.
Cole Hamels: Of course the pitcher mentioned above is Cole Hamels, who in his five starts with the Cubs has been absolutely lights out. In his time with Texas this year, Hamels carried a 4.72 ERA, 5.23 FIP and 5.57 DRA. With Chicago, those numbers have been 0.79, 2.31 and 4.00, respectively. While DRA still does not see him as the top of the rotation starter he once was, all of those numbers show marked improvement. Hamels’ ground ball percentage has also shot up to 58% with Chicago after sitting at 45% with Texas. So what has changed? He is throwing a little harder, but that is something he has done almost every year as the season has gone along. Since the trade, his four seam usage has greatly increased (22.3% to 40.2%) and his sinker (17.6% to 12.4%) and cutter (20.5% to 15.5%) usages have decreased. He has also thrown the ball up in the zone with more frequency, as 25% of his pitches have been in the upper third of the zone or higher, compared to 20% before the trade. All of this seems to be counterproductive to getting more ground balls though: throwing up in the zone and throwing fewer sinkers. So why is his ground ball rate so high? It is likely due to small sample size, as his ground ball rates on his change and cutter are both better than 80% with the Cubs, something he has never come close to sustaining on either pitch. The ground ball rate is probably going to regress, so it’s left to be seen if his overall results follow suit.
Javy Baez: Javier Baez has not just been the Cubs’ best player in 2018, he has been their best player over the last month by far. Over the last 30 days, Baez has hit nine home runs and 19 total extra-base hits for a .317/.351/.692 triple slash line. While many of the Cubs’ regular stars have not quite reached their usual production levels due to injuries or other factors, Baez has risen to the top of a very talented group of position players. He has always been a free swinger (4.7% walk rate), but he has amazingly swung at an even greater number of pitches (60.2%) this season. Most of that increase has been on pitches in the zone, which are the ones he should be swinging at. Among batters who have seen at least 1,000 pitches in 2018, Baez ranks fourth in swing rate on pitches in the zone. Look to see if Mets pitchers try to expand the zone on Baez to try to get him to chase (he also ranks fourth in baseball in out of zone swing rate at 46.4%).
Wilson Contreras: Wilson Contreras has gained a reputation as one of the game’s best young catchers over the last few years, and that is supported by his 2.7 and 3.5 WARP seasons the last two years. He is projected to finish with 2.2 WARP this year, and while that is still above average, his defense may be a concern going forward. Contreras ranks second to last in FRAA among catchers (-11.0 FRAA) and dead last in framing runs (-14.4). The difference between the best and worst framing catcher is significantly smaller than last year, but this is still not a good sign for a catcher who had 5 and -2.8 framing runs in his first two seasons. His offense has helped make up for that shortcoming, though, as even though his .277 TAv is the first time he has not been above .300 in a season, it is still good production from the catching position.
The Good: Cubs batters have the highest on base percentage in baseball (.341). The Mets OBP is .312 (eighth worst).
The Bad: Cubs pitchers have allowed the second most walks this year (511). Mets pitchers have given up 388 (ninth best).
The Ugly: The Cubs have scored the sixth-least runs in August. The only teams to score fewer runs have losing records.
The Mets’ offense has scored the second most runs in August, trailing only Boston. They have twice scored eight runs in a game started by deGrom in that span, but they have only scored five in his other three August starts. After facing off against Jake Arrieta and Madison Bumgarner his last two outings, the Mets may struggle to provide run support again for deGrom, as he will match up against Hamels.
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