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Series Preview: Cubs at Pirates, April 24 – April 26, 2017

Series Previews

Tonight, the Chicago Cubs continue their road-trip out east, with a three-game set against the Pittsburgh Pirates.

And yes, those are the same Pittsburgh Pirates that swept the Cubs at the beginning of a four-game losing streak just over a week ago. The Cubs have rebounded well since then (4-2), but that was a particularly frustrating speed bump, right at the beginning of the season.

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There’ll be an off day on Thursday following this series, before the Cubs will head out to Fenway Park to tackle the Red Sox. I’m really looking forward to that series, because the last time the Cubs were at Fenway (2014), a younger Jake Arrieta took a no-hitter into the eighth inning on the national stage, forcing many to realize that the corner was just about to be turned. It’s nice, then, to return as champions.

Let’s hope the Cubs are also doing so on a new winning streak.

We’re Going Streaking

The Chicago Cubs (10-8) have lost just one series out of six this season, but the fact that it was a sweep (and that they haven’t yet had one of their own) has depressed their record a little bit. They are in first place of the NL Central, two games ahead of the last-place Pirates.

After sweeping the Cubs a week ago, the Pirates have had a rough go of it. They dropped three straight to the Cardinals before taking two out of three in New York. They’re 2-4 in their past six games and have fallen to the back of the pack in the NL Central. Even still, no one in the division, including the Cubs, has been able to create any breathing room, so there’s just that aforementioned two-game distance between first and worst.

Location: PNC Park

Game Times and Broadcasts

  • Monday, April 24 at 6:05 CT on WGN, ESPN, 670 The Score
  • Tuesday, April 25 at 6:05 CT on WGN, 670 The Score
  • Wednesday, April 25 at 6:05 CT on CSN-C, 670 The Score

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Expected Starters and Lineups

These lineups are likely to be pretty close to what actually gets fielded, but you’ll want to check each day’s Lineup or Pre-Gamin’ post for the actual lineup.

Chicago Cubs

Starters:

  • Brett Anderson (4.40 ERA, 3.32 FIP, 3.54 xFIP; 2.20 K/BB)
  • Kyle Hendricks (6.19 ERA, 5.84 FIP, 4.11 xFIP; 1.86 K/BB)
  • Jon Lester (2.66 ERA, 2.69 FIP, 3.78 xFIP; 3.00 K/BB)

Approximate Lineup:

  1. Kyle Schwarber, LF
  2. Kris Bryant, 3B
  3. Anthony Rizzo, 1B
  4. Ben Zobrist, 2B
  5. Addison Russell, SS
  6. Jason Heyward, RF
  7. Willson Contreras, C
  8. Pitcher
  9. Albert Almora/Jon Jay, CF

(Javy Baez will obviously work in, as well.)

Pittsburgh Pirates

Starters:

  • Chad Kuhl (2.60 ERA, 2.84 FIP, 5.18 xFIP; 2.00 K/BB)
  • Gerrit Cole (4.70 ERA, 4.86 FIP, 3.86 xFIP; 3.17 K/BB)
  • Tyler Glasnow (7.94 ERA, 4.40 FIP, 4.68 FIP; 1.44 K/BB)

Approximate Lineup:

  1. Adam Frazier, RF
  2. Josh Harrison 2B
  3. Andrew McCutchen, CF
  4. Gregory Polanco, LF
  5. David Freese, 3B
  6. Francisco Cervelli, C
  7. Josh Bell, 1B
  8. Jordy Mercer, SS
  9. Pitcher

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Hot or Not and Whom to Watch

Chicago Cubs – Pitching

The Cubs starting staff has had some really weird numbers so far this season. Their combined 4.21 ERA looks fairly terrible (it is 22nd in MLB), but their peripherals tell a different story. Their 3.97 FIP, for example, is 13th best in baseball, and their 3.49 xFIP is SEVENTH best.

Where are they getting bit, then? Well, their 16.3% HR/FB (eighth highest) ratio isn’t helping (for comparison: it was just 12.5% last season), and neither is their 71.8% strand rate (eighth lowest). Still, it’s not all been bad luck, as there’s been plenty of hard contact mixed in.

Two of the pitchers who could stand to right the ship the most – Brett Anderson and Kyle Hendricks – are going this week. Anderson’s biggest issue so far is very obvious: his 47.9% ground ball rate is well below his career 58.0% mark. Remember, the reason why Anderson was expected to succeed with the Cubs is that his mile-high ground ball rate would be best served in front of defense like the one in Chicago. But if he can’t get batters to put the ball on the ground anymore, the equation has changed.

Kyle Hendricks has had just three starts this season, but he’s allowed a total of eleven runs through just 16.0 IP. It’s still very early for him, as well, but the 18.8% strikeout rate is very low and his 10.1% walk rate is very high … not just for Hendricks, for any pitcher in baseball. And further, while he’s getting a comparable amount of soft contact as last season, he has traded roughly 15 percentage points of medium contact for 15 percentage points of hard contact.

That’s not exactly a trade you want to make.

Chicago Cubs – Offense

While the Cubs starting staff has not been without its issues, the offense has finally been getting up and off the ground. Late last night, we pointed out Anthony Rizzo’s scorching hot week, but it’s Jason Heyward who needs recognition right now. He’s currently working on a REALLY nice stretch of baseball.


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First and foremost, he’s hit in 15 of the 17 games he’s appeared in this season. Although, to be fair, one of the two games in which he did not record a hit was just a 1 PA pinch-hit opportunity. So in reality he’s hit in all but one of his starts this season. His last five games have been particularly warm: .333/.368/.667; 2HRs, 7 RBI.

After a pretty cold start to the season (-8 wRC+ through first 20 PAs), Javy Baez has begun to hit a bit better lately (93 wRC+ in the 33 plate appearances since). His strikeout rate for the year is back up over 30% though, and he’s definitely looked a little lost at the plate. Given how well Albert Almora has hit all season long (120 wRC+ overall), you may continue to see more of Almora and slightly less of Baez until one or the other makes a change.

Pittsburgh Pirates – Pitching

The Cubs are fortunate to miss James Taillon this week, because the 25-year-old second-year pitcher has been doing pretty well this season (2.13 ERA). Last week, he held the Cubs to just one (unearned) run over seven innings.

We will touch on the Pirates’ Monday starter, Chad Kuhl, later today in the Pre-Gamin’, though it’s worth pointing out that his 5.18 xFIP suggests that he’s been pitching in extraordinarily lucky circumstances – a 0.0% HR/FB ratio being the notable stat. Lefties have crushed Kuhl for his (short) career, though, so maybe the Cubs stable of southpaws can even that ratio out for him.

As for the Pirates’ bullpen, they’ve been worth exactly 0 WAR this season – which is 20th best in baseball. Interestingly, while they have refused to walk many batters (6.4% walk rate is second best in MLB), they’ve not been able to strike them out either (18.3% strikeout rate is second worst in MLB). So the Cubs, if it comes to it, will need to put the ball in play to succeed against their pen.


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Pittsburgh Pirates – Offense

David Freese is still the Pirates best hitter this season (161 wRC+), as Andrew McCutchen (115 wRC+) and Josh Harrison are the only other qualified hitters that have been above average so far.

McCutchen has been especially hot lately, as he’s gone hitless just once in his past 13 games: 313/.370/.583; 3HRs, 3B, 2 2Bs. And because of Starling Marte’s suspension, McCutchen is back in center field. Given his recent offensive explosion, it’s almost like it’s 2013 again. Let’s see if the Cubs can make that stop.

The Pirates swept the Cubs at home just a week ago. Perhaps the Cubs can return the favor.


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Michael Cerami

Michael Cerami is a Writer at Bleacher Nation, and you can find him on Twitter at @Michael_Cerami.

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