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Scouting by the numbers: Chicago Cubs

A day late analytic preview, Games 53-55, September 18-20

Cleveland Indians v Chicago Cubs
“You’re serious?!? The season is almost over already?”
Photo by Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty Images

The Twins make a rare regular season visit to Chicago’s north side for a late season three game set with the first place Chicago Cubs that closes out Minnesota’s 2020 regular season road schedule. The Twins come into the series having dropped three of four in a frustrating, closely contested series to the rival White Sox that likely determined the 2020 AL Central division. The Cubs enter holding a five and a half game lead in the NL Central and have won three series in a row, including back to back walk-off wins against Cleveland earlier this week. Each team has just two regular season series remaining after this weekend and could be in the rare position of helping each other next weekend when Minnesota takes on the Reds and the Cubs face the White Sox to wrap up the season.

Opponent Overview:

The 2020 Cubs have bounced back after a disappointing third place finish in 2019 that led to leadership changes in the dugout. First year, first time manager David Ross leads a group with a lot of recognizable names. The core of this roster is mostly the same as the group that won the World Series in 2016, although much of that veteran core has underperformed and battled injuries in 2020.

The star power is on the infield, anchored by veteran first basemen Anthony Rizzo, shortstop Javier Baez, and third basemen Kris Bryant. Catcher Willson Ramos is also an everyday staple, Jason Heyward continues to hold down right field, and burly Kyle Schwarber mans left. Second base is mostly a platoon of former Cleveland second basemen Jason Kipnis and young Nico Hoerner. Ian Happ has laid claim to the centerfield job with a breakout 2020 that sees him leading the Cubs’ position players in WAR. Despite the name recognition, this group has been just around average offensively in 2020, ranking 17th in runs per game, 14th in on base percentage, 17th in weighted on base average, and posting a collective wRC+ of 97.

In the rotation, right hander Yu Darvish has returned to his Ace form since the middle of last season, finally delivering on his big free agent contract. Behind him, the perpetually underrated Kyle Hendricks and his command and control approach continues to get it done. 28-year-old right-hander Alec Mills and veteran lefty Jon Lester are the other key cogs in the rotation. The fifth spot has been a bit of revolving door due to injuries and ineffectiveness. Lefty Jose Quintana was penciled in for a rotation role but has thrown just 6 innings due to injuries. Tyler Chatwood, top prospect Adbert Alzolay, and Colin Rea have each had multiple turns in that spot, to limited success. The uncertainty at the back end won’t matter for the Twins, however, as Chicago is lined up to throw Hendricks, Mills, and Darvish in this three-game set. As a group, Chicago’s starters have a 3.77 ERA and 3.94 FIP (both 6th in MLB) despite ranking just 22nd in strikeouts per nine.

In aggregate, the bullpen has been slightly above average, ranking 12th in ERA (4.33) and 15th in FIP. The production hasn’t come from the names you recognize, however, as Craig Kimbrel was inconsistent early in the season. Rowan Wick is the team’s best reliever, and Ross closes games often by matchups, mixing right-handers Wick, Kimbrel, and Jeremy Jeffress depending on the day. Jeffress leads the pen in saves (8) and win probability added (+1.50) but he allows a lot of contact (just 6.20 K/9) and walks (5.06 BB/9). He has outperformed his FIP by more than two and a half runs (4.37 FIP vs. 1.69 ERA). The Cubs have tweaked their pen lineup regularly throughout the season, with 19 players having made relief appearances so far. The team is carrying three left-handers (Kyle Ryan, Josh Osich, Rex Brothers) coming into this series (and expecting trade deadline acquisition LHP Andrew Chafin to return soon), and Ross will try to play to the platoon advantage with the rest of his arms when he can. Ryan Tepera and Jason Adam are both having solid seasons and appear to be the next most trusted right handed arms after the three above.

Three Breakdowns

★ ★ ★

The Professor

Kyle Hendricks’ dominance Friday night in the Cubs 1-0 victory (8 scoreless innings, 10 strikeouts) is merely the latest example in a long run of success for the understated right hander. Much in the same way of the all-time great he often is compared to and shares a nickname with (Greg Maddux), “The Professor” quietly goes about his business, commanding four pitches anywhere he wants to throw them. With a career 3.13 ERA and 3.51 FIP over seven seasons in the Cubs rotation, the soft-tossing Hendricks is a master at avoiding hard contact (career average exit velocity allowed 86.5 mph), getting groundballs (47.5%), and limiting free bases (1.95 BB/9).

The raw stuff and velocity (3rd percentile, ~87 mph) might make it easy to dismiss Hendricks as a smoke and mirrors pitcher – but that would be ignoring his long, sustained track record of production. Since his Major League debut in July 2014, Hendricks ranks 15th in fWAR (21.3) among all pitchers. Among starters, he is 10th in ERA and 3rd in average exit velocity allowed. In fact, he has been in the top 10% of the league for average exit velocity allowed each of the past five seasons. All told he’s compiled a career ERA- of 76, tied with Rich Hill and Hyun Jin Ryu for 10th best among starters and 24 percent better than league average in that time.

In 2020, like a lot of pitchers, Hendricks has eschewed his fastball varieties in favor of more curveballs. For most of his career he’s offered his slow curve about 8% to 9% of his pitches. This season, that figure has bounced upward above 16%. Last night against the Twins he threw 29 curveballs (28% of his pitches). That proportion is easily a career-high for curveballs thrown in one outing. It’s easy to understand why he would lean heavily on his curve, especially against the Twins. All batters are hitting and slugging just .133 against Hendricks’ curve in 2020 and the Twins rank just 22nd in linear weighted runs against curveballs.

★ ★ ★

Ian Happ’s Breakout

As a rookie in 2017, Cub’s centerfielder Ian Happ made a splash, slugging .514 and blasting 24 home runs in only 115 games. That production was good for 114 wRC+ and 1.9 fWAR. 2018 was more of a struggle. Happ’s strikeout rate reached new heights (36%) and he slugged just .408 with 15 homers in 142 games. That strikeout rate was the 1st percentile (i.e., league-worst) and was supported by a 38% whiff rate that was also in the 1st percentile.

2019 was rougher still, as the Cubs decided to option Happ to Triple-A Iowa to begin the season to work on cutting down on the strikeouts. After his recall in July, Happ looked better, popping 11 homers and cutting his strikeout rate to a still high, but better 25%. In just 58 games, Happ posted 1.5 fWAR – the same total he had accumulated in nearly a full season of games the year before.

In 2020, he has sustained those improvements. Through 50 games, the switch-hitting Happ has been Chicago’s most valuable offensive player. His .275 / .380 / .561 triple-slash line is easily a career-best, leading to a .396 wOBA, 148 wRC+, and 1.9 fWAR. Those top line numbers are supported by more granular advanced numbers. Happ’s 52.5% hard hit rate and 92.3 mph average exit velocity are both better than the 90th percentile.

Given the strikeout profile I described above, you might presume Happ is an impatient, chase a lot of pitches out of the zone, kind of hitter. While it’s true that he has a lot of swing and miss to his game – even with his improvements his strikeout percentage ranks in the 22nd percentile and swing and miss rate in the 5th percentile – he’s always been a selective hitter. His career chase rate is just 24%, significantly better than the 28.2% MLB average over the same period.

What to look for:

In 2020, Happ has gotten even more selective, offering at just 43% of pitches thrown his way and just 26% of first pitches (a career low). This approach has the mark of trying to get into favorable counts and hunt fastballs he can drive. For the Twins pitchers, it will be imperative to get ahead of Happ with breaking balls and off-speed pitches. For one, he’s likely to let them go by without swinging early in counts, and for two, he’s very dangerous when he makes contact, especially against fastballs – hitting .305 and slugging .642 against them this season.

★ ★ ★

Peak Yu Darvish

Right hander Yu Darvish started his career with the Texas Rangers as a star, finishing in the top ten in the American League Cy Young voting in his first two seasons (2012 and 2013) and making three All-Star teams in his first three opportunities. In the second half of his third season, things begin to turn, as Darvish injured his elbow and eventually underwent Tommy John surgery that caused him to miss all of 2015. The next three seasons (2016-2018) were inconsistent, with flashes of the old Yu mixed with more frequent bouts of struggling command and lots of homeruns allowed. A deadline trade sent him to the Dodgers in 2017 and he signed with the Cubs as a free agent before the 2018 season. Darvish’s first year and a half with the Cubs were a bust. Through 25 starts, he was 3-7 with a 4.97 ERA and 5.15 FIP. He walked 4.83 batters and allowed 1.73 homeruns per nine innings.

Since the start of the second half of last season, Darvish has returned to form as one of the game’s most dominant pitchers. In 81.2 2019 second half innings, Darvish put together a 2.76 ERA and allowed just a .199 batting average, while striking out 13 per nine. This season he’s been even better, posting a 1.86 ERA that is supported by a 2.18 FIP. In 2020, Darvish has been the most valuable pitcher in the National League by Fangraphs version of WAR, accumulating 2.5 fWAR that trails only Cleveland’s Shane Bieber among pitchers.

With the Cubs failing to make the playoff last season, and the bizarre circumstances surrounding the 2020 season, Darvish’s dramatic turnaround has flown a bit under the radar. His 2020 numbers are actually career-bests almost across the board and it’s clear that he again belongs among the best in the game. The Twins are likely to have their hands full on Sunday.

What to look for:

The biggest change aiding this turnaround has been an improved ability to command his pitches and throw quality strikes. In just more than 150 innings since the start of July 2019, Darvish has walked only 1.13 batters per nine innings – the lowest rate among starters to have thrown 100 innings in that span. Darvish has always been a handful for pitch classification systems because he proudly throws as many as ten different pitch types. Statcast has measured 6 different pitches for him thus far in 2020, including a cutter (45%), slider (16%), four-seamer (13%), curveball (12%), sinker (10%), and split-finger (4%). Darvish’s turnaround coincides with a mix change that led to him featuring the cutter as his primary offering, in lieu of the four-seamer and sinker. After never offering the cutter more than 30% in a month in his career, Darvish has used it more than 40% in each of the last five months. Unsurprisingly, it’s a very effective pitch. Batters are hitting just .216 with an average exit velocity of 85.3 mph against it this season and the pitch has accumulated the most weighted runs above average of any cutter in baseball (9.5) per Fangraphs.

Emphasizing the cutter, in addition to the ability to move the baseball in many different directions and speeds (see below), it’s easy to understand how Darvish can be so dominant.

John is a contributor to Twinkie Town with an emphasis on analytics. He is a lifelong Twins fan and former college pitcher.