It didn’t have to be this way, Rockies. You could’ve beaten the Giants instead of letting Chris Stratton pitch a shutout. You could’ve beaten the Dodgers yesterday. Instead, you’re on the road again, facing the Cubs in Wrigley Field. Sure, the Cubs have had their offensive problems, but none so striking as your own. To wit:
They were #1 in the National League for runs scored at home and 3rd in all of baseball, but 20th in MLB on the road (9th in the NL). Not in that image above but actually relevant this time around — their .225 batting average on the road was the worst in the National League and second-to-last in MLB. Somehow, the Rangers hit only .224 on the road. By comparison, the Giants hit .235 on the road, and they were still a completely terrible team.
So, the Rockies’ offense on the road has been an issue. Meanwhile, the Cubs actually scored 19 fewer runs (761) than the Rockies did overall (780). The Cubs’ wRC+ was exactly 100 (12th in MLB), but their 27.1 fWAR puts them as the fifth-most valuable offense in the league. Their team OBP of .333 put them in a three-way tie with the Rays and Dodgers for third in all of baseball, but their team total of 167 home runs put them below the Mets (170) and good for only 21st in MLB. They had five more home runs than the Padres did all season and 21 fewer than the Orioles. On the surface, they’re not the power threat they’ve been in the past — but they’re still not terrible, so what gives?
As our good friend Kenny Kelly wrote today for Beyond the Box Score:
The Cubs have run into the same problems as the Dodgers. The Dodgers nearly missed the playoffs because they haven’t been good in high leverage situations. As a team, the Cubs are hitting .226/.305/.340 in high leverage situations. That’s just a 68 wRC+ and the worst mark in the league. The Cubs are one point behind the Nationals and we saw how their season wound up.
Ah. That would do it.
But there’s reason for optimism on both sides. The Rockies scored 16 runs in a three-game series at Wrigley from April 30-May 2nd. Sure, the bulk of that came in an 11-run game started by Yu Darvish who only made two more starts before hitting the disabled list for the rest of the season with an extreme elbow problem, but at least they know they’ve already scored a bunch of runs in the very place they’re playing today. Meanwhile, the Cubs will be facing Kyle Freeland who will be pitching on three days’ rest.
Kyle Freeland (17-7, 3.67 FIP) pitches on three days’ rest for the second time of his young career — he pitched the final game of the Rockies’ season on short rest but lasted only three innings. That was mainly because he had been moved to the bullpen last September to limit his innings down the stretch of his rookie season and the Rockies had already clinched their Wild Card spot, so it’s not really instructive for today.
He’s easily been their best starter (164 ERA+) and he’s been effective as the result of impeccable command on all of his pitches. Eno Sarris notes in The Athletic (subscription required):
None of Freeland’s pitches lead the league in whiffs, but at least right now he does have four pitches with 10+ percent whiffs. [...]
... all of his pitches have significantly more sink than league average ...
Presumably, Bud Black will count on him to at least go five innings before turning it over to the Rockies’ Billion-Dollar bullpen (do not fact check this), and if that’s the plan and if the Rockies can get on the board early, then it’ll be a good one: Freeland, as with all pitchers, is significantly worse the third time through a batting order.
Javier Baez is 25th in MLB for wOBA against left-handed pitching (.366). He’s the only Cub who cracks the list. The Cubs as a team are 13th in MLB (.317).
Jon Lester (18-6, 4.39 FIP) had a helluva September, posting a 1.52 ERA in 29.1 innings and a 30:8 strikeouts to walks ratio. He allowed only 1 home run. He lowered his season ERA from 3.67 to 3.32. Still, that FIP suggests he should’ve had a worse season, one that would not leave him as the Cubs’ de facto ace heading into this postseason.
That 4.39 FIP is the 13th-worst among all starters in MLB, just behind his teammate Jose Quintana’s 4.43. That 1.07 gap between his ERA and FIP is the 2nd-largest gap in MLB behind Mike Fiers’ 1.33. The Rockies’ Kyle Freeland is actually 5th in that ERA-FIP gap, but that difference is between a 2.85 ERA and 3.67 FIP.
Compounding the ERA-FIP split is Lester’s Home-Road split: he’s had a 3.71 ERA at Wrigley and 2.87 ERA on the road in 2018. Those translate into a 4.59 FIP at Wrigley (11th-worst in MLB for Home FIP) and 4.16 FIP away (57th-best in MLB for Away FIP).
Three Rockies are in the top 25 in all of MLB for wOBA against left-handed pitching: Nolan Arenado (.391; 7th), Trevor Story (.384; 10th), and Charlie Blackmon (.368; 23rd). As a team, the Rockies are the #1 team in the National League (by wOBA) against left-handed pitching (.342) behind only the Astros in MLB.
It’s tough to root for the Rockies, but it’s really easy to root against the Cubs.