A wholesome preview
Starting Friday, May 21 at 7:15 pm CT through Sunday, May 23 at 6:08 pm CT the St. Louis Cardinals will host the Chicago Cubs for three games. With a win on Thursday, the Cubs have moved past the Milwaukee Brewers into second place in the National League Central. After posting a losing record in April the Cubs have seen reversal of fortune in May, going 11-6 over the month to bring their record to 22-21. The Cardinals have also gone 11-6 in May but have had a more consistent season behind their 25-18 record, which is good for first place in the Central, three games ahead of the second-place Cubs. With a sweep, the Cubs could find themselves tied with the Cardinals for first place. Should be fun!
A lot of people reading this probably know the Cubs pretty well at this point so there won’t be a lot of surprises here. Kris Bryant is, and for the most part has been for several years, far and away the Cubs most valuable player. He has gotten off to a great start in 2021 slashing .308/.401/.615 for a 174 wRC+, the fifth highest wRC+ in baseball. According to Fangraphs Bryant has been the fifth most valuable position player so far, behind Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Xander Bogaerts, Mike Trout, and Nick Castellanos. His 10 home runs and 14 doubles have powered him to a .308 ISO, also the fifth highest among qualified hitters. Oh, and he is walking 12.6% of the time.
On defense he has logged innings all over the field, making appearances in every outfield position, third base, and first base this season. In 2021 Bryant has more outfield innings played (197) than third base innings (121.2). Matt Duffy has been receiving most of the playing time at third base, where he is apparently pretty good defensively.
You might be wondering how the heck are the Cardinals going to get Kris Bryant out and the answer to that is: it will be tough. Looking at Baseball Savant the pitch he swings and misses at the most often this season is the curveball. He also has the lowest batting average against it at .200. When he does hit it though, he hits is hard — his highest hard hit percentage is on the curveball at 66.7%. The book on Bryant isn’t anything new; keep it down and away and this is likely to happen:
But stray from safety:
Craig Kimbrel has been a premier reliver for a many years now (what a year 2012 was for him) and after tough seasons in 2019 and 2020 he looks to be as good as he has ever been. In just over 17 innings pitched he has a 1.02 ERA and 1.66 FIP. He is striking out 43.5% of batters he faces and has walked a few at 101%. The home run issues he had in 2018 through 2020 seem to be on their way out; he has given up two home runs in 2021 for a HR/9 rate of 0.51.
Kimbrel’s arsenal is well-known by now and very straightforward. He throws a 4-seam fastball 61% of the time and a curveball the rest of the time. That is it. There was a time when he would throw a handful of sinkers and according to Baseball Savant he threw one changeup in 2018, but since joining the Cubs in 2019 it has only been fastballs and curves. When your two pitches are that good, I guess you don’t need any more. In 2021 he is in the 98th percentile in Whiff % and K%, the 90th percentile in Barrel %, and the 93% in Hard Hit % per Baseball Savant. The Cardinals over the years have been one of the more successful teams against him and their batting line is a pretty meager .174/.230/.337.
Miles Mikolas is back
It is hard to guess what to expect from Cardinals pitcher Miles Mikolas. Mikolas will be making his first regular season start since 2019 as he has suffered various arm aliments since the 2020 season resumed in July. When he was healthy he was a very effective starter for the Cardinals, giving up very few walks and home runs.
Mikolas has a pretty even split among four pitches, throwing a 4-seam fastball, sinker, slider, and curveball all around 20%-27% of the time and will occasionally, if not rarely, throw a changeup. On that note, he doesn’t really have a “best pitch”. His curveball has a slight edge in Wiff % and has the lowest batting average and slugging percentage against it, but all his pitches are pretty effective pitches. In two-strike counts he has tended to throw his 4-seamer the most and on three-ball counts the sinker is what you will likely see (unless it is a 3-2 count, in which case a slider is more often what he uses). Otherwise it could be any of the four at any time.
The Cubs starting pitching
The Cubs starters have been the least valuable in baseball, per Fangraphs. John Gant, the starter the Cardinals just replaced with Mikolas, would have the most fWAR on the starting staff at this point in the season with 0.5. The most valuable starter has been Adbert Alzolay, who is 2-3 in seven starts with a 4.62 ERA and a 4.57 FIP. Kyle Hendricks has struggled the most and it looks like a big reason why is the long ball. His HR/9 is 2.32 (for context Adam Wainwright has notably struggled with giving up homers this season and his HR/9 is 1.74). Zach Davies is the other starter the Cardinals are expected to see. He is walking 11.5% of batters and striking out 12% of them. It is the lowest strikeout rate in the league among pitchers with as many innings.
It seems like the Cardinals have gotten this more under-control as of late, but even then they are second in the league in hitting batters with pitches at 29. The only team ahead of them is… the Cubs with 35! Zach Davies is tied for lead on the Cubs with 4 and Kyle Hendricks has 3. The Cardinals worst plunker is Carlos Martínez, who returns from the Injured List to start Friday. Giovanny Gallegos (two of which occurred in the same fateful game, if you recall), Wainwright, and Jake Woodford have three. (Daniel Ponce De Leon has three hit batters in only 10 innings pitched.) Both teams seem to have settled in, so there should not be a “Plunk-Fest”… a “Plunk-A-Palooza”, if you will, but it did seem like something to mention and keep an eye on, especially since the Cubs are one of the highest plunked teams as well.
When the Cardinals and Cubs face off anything can happen. That being said, the Cardinals seem to be the stronger team. Miles Mikolas is a wild card making his debut and Wainwright and Martínez have been inconsistent this season, but will all that in mind, this series at home against a Cubs team that has been 6-12 on the road seems like one the Cardinals should win. The matchups I am going to keep my eyes on, and by that I mean cover my eyes with my hands in terror and watch peaking through my fingers, are Carlos Martínez against Kris Bryant and Adam Wainwright against Kris Bryant. Those two have the stuff to get the strong right-hander out, but if they7 miss their spots, Bryant could sent it in the seats, especially Wainwright who has struggled the most to keep the ball in the yard.
Game 1 – May 21, 7:15 PM CT – Kyle Hendricks vs. Carlos Martínez
Game 2 – May 22, 6:15 PM CT – Adbert Alzolay vs. Miles Mikolas
Game 3 – May 23, 6:08 PM CT – Zach Davies vs. Adam Wainwright