Series Preview: Cincinnati Reds (66-45) at Chicago Cubs (43-66)

Riding an eight game losing streak and consecutive sweeps on the west coast, the Cubs continue their upset bid to take the number one pick away from the Houston Astros. The Reds, meanwhile, are two and a half games ahead of the Cardinals and the still hanging in there Buccos. For all the slagging I like to do on the Reds pitching staff, they've allowed the fewest runs in the division so far and are only 14 runs behind the NL-leading Nationals. I sitll think the Cardinals are the much better team, but even 2.5 wins is a pretty big gap at this point of the season. Baseball Prospectus has the Cardinals as a .583 true talent team and the Reds at .539, but the Reds have a 4 game advantage in expected wins at the end of the season (94.3 to 89.3). Oddly enough the Pirates, despite an even worse expected win% have a better projected record than the Cards. Must be a strength of schedule thing, i.e. they must have plenty of games left against the Cubs and Astros.

Team Overviews

NL rank in parens. I'm switching to the park-adjusted wRC+ and FIP- instead of wOBA and FIP. I do kind of wish that fangraphs just put out a park-adjusted wOBA and FIP instead of the 100-scaled numbers, which I'm not really a fan of.

  Reds Cubs
wRC+ 94 (8th) 76 (16th)
BSR 4.4 (4th) 1.7 (6th)
UZR -2.4 (10th) 20.2 (2nd)
DRS +17 (4th) +3 (7th)
SP FIP- 99 (10th) 101 (11th)
RP FIP- 80 (1st) 111 (15th)

Race to the top update: the Cubs have the lowest wRC+ in all of baseball, and only the Mariners (who play in pitcher-friendly Safeco) have a worse team wOBA. The Cubs bullpen's FIP is still the worst in MLB by over 0.2 points, and the gap between the pen's xFIP (4.91) and the next best is even larger. However, adjusting for park effects has the Cardinals pen worse than the Cubs, and the Astros pen is right in the thick of things too. It makes for some interesting late innings in the division.

The Reds rotation has been average despite the presence of Bronson Arroyo, but it's been the bullpen that has driven their runs scored numbers so low. The Reds have five pitchers (Sean Marshall, Alfredo Simon, Sam LeCure, Logan Andrusek, and the amazing Aroldis Chapman) who have logged more than 40 innings in the pen, and the "worst" ERA among them is LeCure's 3.07. Just imagine how good this pen would be if Ryan Madson were healthy. Chapman has been so electric that it's amazing when he only gets one strikeout in an inning. I still find Good Carlos Marmol circa 2008-2010 to be more exciting, because I love a wicked slider, but Chapman has amazing stuff. I saw him merely warming up at a Durham Bulls game a few years back and was blown away by his stuff before I even knew who he was. He was spinning 102-104 mph fastballs on the stadium gun and didn't really know where it was going at the time. He hit Dioner Navarro in the back with a fastball that I expected to see come out on the other side. I guess it's safe to say he figured it out (laughing).

Position Players

The Reds have this Joey Votto guy, who leads the team in wRAA by a wide margin with 38.4 and a .444 wOBA. Unluckily for the Cubs draft pick chances (and people who love watching elite players) he's still rehabbing from July knee surgery. He could come back next week. Jay Bruce and Luis Gonzalez clone Ryan Ludwick are having solid years at the plate, with .362 and .344 wOBAs respectively. 27 year old rookie SS Zack Cozart has put up a .247/.293/.401 line in 453 PAs, hitting leadoff in 78 games this year. With a .293 OBP. Never change, Dusty Baker. Never change.

Injuries

Aside from the aforementioned Votto and Madson, C Devin Mesoraco is out with a concussion suffered July 30, but has been feeling better and could come off the DL this series.

Matt Garza could be donezo for the season with a stress reaction in his elbow. Ian Stewart is done for the year with wrist surgery, though I don't think Luis Valbuena has much of a chance at Wally Pipp-ing him for the 2013 job. I think he'll be nontendered and re-signed into a platoon with Vitters. Recently acquired Cub Arodys Vizcaino is rehabbing from Tommy John and won't be back this year. Lendy Castillo is recovering from David Patton disease, and recently started at AA. Given the Cubs options behind Ace Pitcher Jeff Samardzija and Travis Wood, the Cubs might as well toss him into the mix too. This is a year!

Pitching Matchups

ERA, FIP, xFIP, ZiPS FIP in parens

Thursday: Mike Leake, RHP (4.51, 4.23, 3.67, 4.25) vs Chris Volstad, RHP (7.22, 4.27, 4.63, 4.64), ~8:00 PM CT

There's a bunch of rain in the Chicago area but the Cubs think this will get underway around 8 pm CT.

Mike Leake throws strikes and puts the ball on the ground when it doesn't head out of the park. He posted a 2.04 BB/9 last year and it's held right around that mark in 2011. He's had terrible luck with HR/FB over his career, posting 13.2%, 13.9%, and 16.7% in his two and a half seasons in the bigs. Playing in GAB doesn't help those numbers, but even so that's pretty big. He's given up 17 runs in 22 innings over his last four starts, including five homers.

Don't let his 0-8 record and 7.22 ERA fool you, Chris Volstad is merely a shitty pitcher instead of a terrible one. I remember his strikeout rate being decent early in the year even while he was giving up a zillion runs, but it's dropped to a pathetic 5.16 K/9. He's had a little BABIP bad luck (.319) that can be partially explained by his GB rate, but the most baffling number of all is his ludicrous 51.3% strand rate. With the bases empty he's posted a 3.62 FIP, but with runners on it rises to 5.01 and a whopping 7.40 (,432 BABIP!) with runners in scoring position.

Friday: Homer Bailey, RHP (3.98, 4.38, 4.28, 4.25) vs Justin Germano, RHP (2.37, 2.40, 4.10, 4.13) 1:20 PM CT

Bailey's main problem early in his career was walks, but over the past three year's he's steadily lowered his walk rate from the 4.13 BB/9 in his first year with the Reds to this year's 2.52. I remember him as either a strikeout guy or a groundball guy, but he isn't either. Just a solidly average pitcher. He strick out ten Brewers and allowed one run in eight innings two weeks ago, but followed that up with a five walk game and has given up ten runs in his last two starts.

I'm not that familiar with Germano since his acquisition happened while I was away, but his numbers/projections are a lot better than I expected, though to be fair  they're mostly as a reliever. I hadn't realized that he's been bouncing around since 2004. At the very least he might inspire Chris Volstad to pitch better, because if Justin Germano is outpitching you, ouch.

Saturday: Bronson Arroyo, RHP (4.05, 4.25, 4.19, 4.73) vs Travis Wood, LHP (4.77, 5.62, 4.81, 4.45), 3:05 PM CT

Arroyo had a hilariously bad 2011, pitching 199 innings with a 5.07 ERA and 4.88 K/9, while coughing up 46 HRs. He's actually having a surprisingly good 2012, at least relative to Past Bronson Arroyo. He's still throwing tons of junk strikes but for some reason more hitters are letting them get over the plate. I can't wait unil he throws a 10 hit shutout against this team.

The only stat that has mattered this year for Wood is the HR. He's given up 18 in 15 starts, which is only a little better than Arroyo's 2011 rate. There's not much else good to point to – his strikeout rate isn't particularly impressive and he issues plenty of walks. That HR rate should regress, and he'll keep pitching like the 1-1.5 WAR guy that can eat innings in the back of the rotation, just as the Cubs probably expected when they picked him up.

Sunday: Johnny Cueto, RHP (2.58, 3.02, 3.56, 3.50) vs Brooks Raley, LHP (SSS), 1:20 PM CT

I was pretty skeptical of Cueto and Volquez after the 2010 season. Both were being heralded as a Great Young Core of the Reds rotation, but Cueto in particular had posted fairly pedestrian numbers with a ERA and FIP averaging around 4.5 or so over those seasons. When Cueto had a breakout 2011, posting a 2.31 ERA and 3.45 FIP I was still a little skeptical. He had a 3.90 xFIP and a ton of BABIP (.249)  and HR/FB (5.8%) luck. To be fair to Cueto though, he was still fairly young in those seasons. He turned 26 this year and a superficial read of his numbers says that he picked up right where he left off in 2011. However, they're actually much better. His strikeout rate moved up to 7.26 K/9, and while he's still suppressing HRs at a 6.3% clip he's putting up that great ERA-FIP split with a much more reasonable .308 BABIP. Not bad. Maybe he's just a guy who can keep a ball in the park, something that the Reds would sure love to see rub off on fellow groundballer Mike Leake.

Raley was one of the few success stories for Cubs pitching above the A level, but he's pretty much just dogmeat in the bigs. When your next best option is Casey Coleman though, you just have to shrug your shoulders. This is probably the biggest starter mismatch we've seen to this point in 2012.

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