Tonight, the Cubs have a shot of halving the Dodgers’ lead in the NLCS with their first of (potentially) three-straight games at Wrigley Field (and I have tickets to Game 5, so, you know … win one, please).
Kyle Hendricks gets the ball for the Cubs, after throwing 81 pitches across four innings in Game 5 of the NLDS. And for the Dodgers, it’ll be midseason acquisition, and soon-to-be free agent, righty Yu Darvish.
Darvish, 31, was sent to the Dodgers at the trade deadline this season, but made just nine starts for his new team once he got there – he had a brief stint on the DL with back tightness near the end of August which forced him to miss at least two starts, but he’s all healed up now.
His numbers through those nine starts were solid: 3.44 ERA, 3.38 FIP; 30.2 K%, 6.4 BB% and better than his numbers in the first half of the season. You could knock his LAD body of work by pointing to his inability to last 6.0 innings in five out of his nine starts, but he managed to go at least 7.0 innings in three of the other four, so it’s not like he’s that much of a short-start risk (and does anyone really want more of that Dodgers bullpen right now, anyway?).
But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have his weaknesses. In fact, they’re not too hard to spot and could provide a perfect match for the Cubs’ bench. So let’s run down the areas in which the Cubs could exploit and then see if we can guess which fringe-Cubs-starters might actually match up well against him.
Weakness One: Hard Contact
The first thing I noticed when digging into Darvish’s numbers in LA is that his BABIP increased by 33 points (and above his career average). Normally, you might consider that some tough luck, but I’m not quite sure it’s that simple. Since joining the Dodgers, Darvish’s hard-hit rate has increased and his soft-hit rate decreased over his time in Texas (both this season and for his career). That’s a pretty sure-fire way to earn some increase in BABIP, so he may have deserved at least part of that.
Weakness Two: No Grounders
The second thing I noticed about Darvish isn’t really 2017 specific: he doesn’t get many ground balls. For his career, Darvish has had a 41.3 GB%. This season, that number’s been even lower with both the Dodgers and Rangers (40.7%, 40.8%), ranking out as the 15th lowest mark in baseball (his fly ball rate was 18th highest). He’s obviously found success throughout his career despite those rates, but on that point, it’s worth pointing out a few things:
- The first three seasons of his career were his best three and they were before the fly ball revolution and the current juiced ball era,
- His ground ball rate is worse now than it ever was, and
- He’s getting more hard contact and less soft contact.
Combine those three facts and it’s pretty easy to guess that the Cubs will play for the home run ball tonight (which has bugged Darvish all season). But we’ll put a pin that for now, and move onto …
Weakness Three: Serious Splits
During the 2017 season, righties really struggled to square up Darvish (.260 wOBA). They hit just .192 against him, walked below league average, struck out over 27% of the time, and couldn’t do much in the way of power. Lefties, on the other hand, did quite well: .261/.325/.453 with a .333 wOBA and 16 homers in just 89.0 IP. In addition, they walked more, struck out less, and racked up extra-base hits.
But it’s not all good news, Cubs fans.
Despite just generally being a good pitcher (his 3.5 fWAR ranked 16th in MLB this season), Darvish actually improved in some ways upon reaching the Dodgers – specifically, in the K/BB department:
2017 Texas (137.0 IP): 26.2 K%, 8.0 BB%, 3.29 K/BB
2017 L.A. (49.2 IP): 30.2 K%, 6.4 BB%, 4.69 K/BB
And, as I mentioned, those numbers were even worse against righties than lefties.
So let’s recap: Darvish is getting more weak contact than usual, and fewer ground balls. He’s also allowing more fly balls and hard contact in general, and struggling mightily against left-handers. On the other hand, he’s walking fewer batters and striking out more, and doing so especially against fellow righties.
Based on these factors/statistics, it’ll be pretty difficult for Maddon not to want each of Kyle Schwarber and Ian Happ in the lineup tonight. Both guys are capable of hitting the ball in the air (actually they’re each among the better fly ball hitters in the NL), for power, and from the left-side of the plate. And given the way the offense has sputtered lately, a little bit of a spark would be nice.
I wouldn’t necessarily expect Jon Jay or Jason Heyward (both lefties) to sit, though, so don’t be surprised to see Javy Baez out of the starting lineup for just the second time this postseason (perhaps in favor of Happ at 2B). In fact, if I had to guess, tonight might/should probably be the Cubs’ most left-handed lineup of October.
We should probably see an all left-handed outfield of Schwarber, Jay, and Heyward from left to right, and two lefties on the infield in Happ and Anthony Rizzo. I don’t quite think Maddon will sit Contreras in favor of Alex Avila, but given the desire for a spark, I wouldn’t be shocked to see that either. Kris Bryant and Addison Russell will, of course, remain in the starting nine.
It’s nearly do or die time for the Cubs, so let’s see if Maddon has one more trick up his sleeve tonight.