Series Preview #9: Arizona Diamondbacks vs. Chicago Cubs

Dear 2011 Diamondbacks,

We've only known each other for 23 games, but so far you've actually been kinda fun to hang out with.  I mean, there's still plenty to complain about, like the Mets series and Joe Saunders' start to the season and pretty much everything Xavier Nady does, but there have also been more good times than I was expecting.  Like that home opener where we beat up on the Reds?  Classic.   Chris Young's walk-off to beat the Giants in 12 innings?  Or what about that time Ian Kennedy out-dueled Cliff Lee by throwing one of the best games in Diamondback history?  That was pretty swell.  Sure, a record of 10-13 is nothing to write home about, but a winning percentage of .434 is still a damn sight better than the .401 you put up all of last season.

And speaking of last season, that's actually what I wanted to talk to you guys about.  Some of you may remember that your 2010 counterparts, who won a whole 65 games last year, actually started the season a game better than you, going 11-12 in their first 23.  At this point last season, they had just lost the second game of a four-game series against the Chicago Cubs (appropriately enough).  They also lost the next night, the night after that, and then 8 of the next 11 games thereafter.  Basically, this next stretch of games was where your 2010 counterparts fell out of contention (if a team that features Rodrigo Lopez and Kris Benson in its rotation can ever be said to be "in contention").  I'm sure you're all thinking, "what are the chances of THAT happening again?"  Well, they're probably higher than you think, given that this team doesn't have an "ace" pitcher the caliber of Dan Haren to stop the bleeding if the team begins a losing streak.  All it would take is a couple of bad starts from Kennedy or Hudson, general failure from the rest of the rotation (also known as "business as usual"), plus two or three bats in the starting lineup going cold at the same time to send us down that same path of despair. 

So, yeah, don't pull that s**t again.

Love,

D-Back fans.

What the Stats Say:

                              Arizona (10-13)                                Chicago (10-13)                                    Edge

Hitting (wRC+):     98                                                       95                                                    Arizona

Pitching (FIP):     4.45                                                    4.25                                                  Chicago

Fielding* (UZR):   -0.1                                                    -9.0                                                   Arizona

What the Stats Say is that this series is a little too close to call.  The Cubbies roll into Chase with the same record as the D-Backs, following an eight-game homestand against the Padres, Dodgers and Rockies that saw the Cubs go 3-5.  In an astonishing turn of events, the final game of the Rockies series was postponed due to inclement weather, giving the Cubs an extra day to prepare for the D-Backs.  Equal records aside, this is a very even matchup, as the difference the FIPs above is nothing, the difference between wRC+ is even less than nothing, and the UZR means nothing anyway because it's only four weeks of fielding data. 

Starting Lineups:

Arizona Diamondbacks

Chris Young, CF
Kelly Johnson, 2B
Justin Upton, RF
Stephen Drew, SS
Juan Miranda, 1B
Miguel Montero, C
Ryan Roberts, 3B
Gerardo Parra, LF

Chicago Cubs

Starlin Castro, SS
Darwin Barney, 2B
Marlon Byrd, CF
Aramis Ramirez, 3B
Carlos Pena, 1B
Alfonso Soriano, LF
Geovany Soto, C
Kosuke Fukudome, RF

The main thing that jumps out about the Cubs lineup when perusing their stats is that Carlos Pena has been weapons-grade terrible so far this season.  He's currently slugging a cool .186, and when your slugging percentage is lower than Kelly Johnson's batting average, you're having a rough go of it.  Pena has also produced an unflattering -0.6 WAR in only 73 plate appearances so far this season.  Luckily for the Cubbies, the rest of their lineup is somewhat less awful.  Kosuke Fukudome has led the way early in the season with a 1.031 OPS, despite battling a hamstring injury.  Starlin Castro has been as good as advertised thus far, with an OPS+ of 121, and his double-play partner, Darwin Barney, has been somewhat better than advertised with an OPS+ of 111.  In addition, Aramis Ramirez is off to a much better start than last year's, as he has an OPS+ of 117.  The team does need better production out of Marlon Byrd, their de facto 3-hole hitter, who is slugging only .365 on the season. 

Pitching Matchups:

Thursday: Ryan Dempster (1-2, 7.63) vs. Barry Enright (0-2, 6.65)

Insightful Commentary: Well, this has the makings of a barn-burner.  Ryan Dempster has had a rough start to the season, as he's allowed 8 HRs in 30.2 innings.  In fact, his start against the Diamondbacks, where he allowed 4 runs in 7 innings has been his best start to date.  Other than the home runs though, most of Dempster's peripherals look to be on par with his career averages.  Thus, once his BABIP (.326) drops, his LOB% (59.3) rises and his HR/FB rate normalizes, I expect him to be the same pitcher that he's been for the last few years.  Barry has also been plagued by bad luck this season, with a BABIP of .342, but his LD% has also jumped to 18.8, so perhaps it's not entirely luck.  I think Enright is better than this, and I believe that he has the potential to be a solid back-of-the-rotation starter for years to come, but with Duke coming back soon he's running out of chances to show it. 

Friday: Carlos Zambrano (2-1, 5.28) vs. Armando Galarraga (3-1, 6.00)

Insightful Commentary: Armando Galarraga's winning streak came to an end in his last start, where he did pretty much what he's been doing all season, but without the run support.  His numbers should improve once he his HR/FB rate of 26.7 returns to more normal levels.  Carlos Zambrano was a pretty overrated for a while in the mid-2000s, as he was glorified despite never having a season of more than 4.9 WAR.  He has also been declining for several years, so when his numbers "fell off a cliff" early last season and was moved into the bullpen, it led to a bunch of people screaming that he was done and actually caused him to become underrated when he pitched well down the stretch last year.  Now he's, I don't know, just "rated" I guess.  Yep, Carlos Zambrano is definitely rated. 

Saturday: Matt Garza (0-3, 4.11) vs. Ian Kennedy (3-1, 4.02)

Insightful Commentary: Much has been made, particularly on this site, of Ian Kennedy's awesomeness.  And a lot of it is deserved, as his last start against the Phillies was nothing short of fantastic and the fact that his daughter was born the night before just makes the whole thing that much more memorable.  When Kennedy has command of the strike-zone, he's as good as anyone in baseball.  It sounds like a cliche, but the key for Ian really is his walk rate, because control is such a big issue for him.  There were many encouraging signs from the Phillies game, but perhaps my favorite was that he didn't allow a single walk.  Meanwhile, Matt Garza is having a very confusing start to the 2011 season.  At first glace, it looks like he's having insanely bad luck, since he has an absurd BABIP of .414.  Indeed, his FIP is a minuscule 1.24, but that's built on the fact that he hasn't allowed a HR this season, despite being a fly-ball pitcher.  So...I don't really know.  What I do know is that if he's able keep his HR/9 manageable, he's on his way to a monster season once his BABIP regresses. 

Sunday: Casey Coleman (1-1, 7.43) vs. Daniel Hudson (1-4, 5.64)

Insightful Commentary: Casey Coleman is only starting because both Randy Wells and Andrew Cashner broke the last time the D-Backs faced the Cubbies, and Coleman was tabbed to fill one of the holes in the rotation.  In his previous start, he got rocked by the Dodgers to the tune of 6 runs, 2.2 innings.  With that in mind, he probably isn't worse than Kyle McClellan, or Dillion Gee, or a handful of other struggling pitchers who have shut the D-Backs' offense down this year.  Despite what the basic stats show, Hudson is basically the same pitcher as he was last year, at least according to FIP and xFIP.  So I expect him to rebound nicely from his early season woes.  However, just to be on the safe side, maybe Josh Collmenter or someone should "start" by pitching the first inning before bringing Hudson out of the bullpen for the second. 

Final Verdict: I'm just going to be honest: I have no idea what's going to happen over the next four games.  These teams are pretty evenly matched, and the Diamondbacks have made a habit of doing exactly the opposite of what people (and by "people" I mean "I") expect them to do this season.  So whatever, I don't even care any more.  I predict that the D-Backs will sweep this series with back-to-back perfect games from Enright and Galarraga.  I predict that Kennedy will get knocked around but the team will bail him out on the back of Xavier Nady's 5 RBIs.  I predict that Casey Coleman will no-hit us, but lose in extra innings following a walk-off steal of home by Henry Blanco.  Prove me wrong, D-Backs, I dare you. 

Also, I predict that there will be absolutely no Cubs fans at Chase during this series. 

And speaking of Cub fans, get their take on the series over at Bleed Cubbie Blue.

GO D-BACKS!

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