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Series Preview #24: Arizona Diamondbacks vs. Chicago Cubs

CHICAGO, IL - SEPTEMBER 21: Matt Garza #17 of the Chicago Cubs pitches against the Milwaukee Brewers on September 21, 2011 at Wrigley Field in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by David Banks/Getty Images)
CHICAGO, IL - SEPTEMBER 21: Matt Garza #17 of the Chicago Cubs pitches against the Milwaukee Brewers on September 21, 2011 at Wrigley Field in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by David Banks/Getty Images)
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Cub fans have seen a lot of losing over the years, but of course you knew that already. You can't watch a Cubs game on national television without an announcer given the whole "104 years...billy goat...Bartman" speech that nobody actually likes hearing anymore. But it's still hard to believe that they've seen only four playoff appearances since 1945. I mean, I don't consider the Diamondbacks a fantastically successful franchise, and they have five since 1998. That means plenty of bad teams on the north side.

So when I say that the 2012 Cubs are well on their way to being the worst team in franchise history, you should understand that this is no small thing. The worst record in Cub history is 59-103, shared by the 1962 and 1966 incarnations of the team, and this is good for a winning percentage of .364. The modern version has a winning percentage of .348, which averages to about 56-106. Yes, the team with the nickname "the lovable losers" may have found a new losingest team in franchise history. I suspect Cub fans don't find them particularly lovable, however.

So will they make it? Well, they've underperformed their pythag by four games, possibly suggesting that they aren't as bad as they've played so far. But they're also clearly looking to the trade deadline to sell off players for prospects, so they might just gut their team enough to make it. Theo Epstein clearly has a plan in place, and with acquisitions like Jorge Soler, the wheels are clearly turning under the surface in Chicago. But they've essentially punted on 2012.

What the Stats Say (According to Fangraphs):

Hitting (wRC+): 96 80
Pitching (FIP-):
92 105
Fielding (UZR):
16.2 3.7 Arizona

So the Cubs don't score many runs, but luckily they make up for it by allowing a bunch of runs! Wait, that's the opposite of "making up for it." My mistake. One of the nice things about the Cubs offense in 2012 is that it really isn't good at anything. They don't take walks (29th in BB%), they don't hit for power (22nd in ISO%). Hell, they don't even hit for not power, with a team BA of .242. I guess they're eighth in stolen bases, which is...something?

As for the pitching, their starters have been much better than their relievers. Actually, their starters are right in the middle of the pack in both ERA and FIP. But the Cubs' bullpen must have sent FIP a bunch of chain emails or something, because FIP hates them. Of course, that will happen when you have a BB/9 of 5.16, as the Cubs' bullpen currently does.

Starting Lineups

Arizona Diamondbacks

1. Willie Bloomquist, SS
2. Aaron Hill, 2B
3. Justin Upton, RF
4. Jason Kubel, LF
5. Paul Goldschmidt, 1B
6. Miguel Montero, C
7. Chris Young, CF
8. Ryan Roberts, 3B

Chicago Cubs

1. Tony Campana, CF
2. Starlin Castro, SS
3. David DeJesus, RF
4. Alfonso Soriano, LF
5. Bryan LaHair, 1B
6. Darwin Barney, 2B
7. Luis Valbuena, 3B
8. Geovany Soto, C

  • I suspect I reacted to the Starlin Castro trade rumors the same way that everyone else in the baseball world reacted to the Justin Upton trade rumors in 2010. With a "Wait, really, are they insane?" followed almost immediately with a "Actually, that's not important. We'll take him." Castro is an above-average bat who can play a position where an above-average bat is a luxury most other teams can only dream of. Also, he's 22. I guess what I'm trying to say is that the Diamondbacks should trade Upton for him.
  • That last bullet point was sarcasm. Although it would be an awesome way to absolutely troll both fanbases.
  • Bryan Lahair was an infamous AAAA first baseman until he made the Cubs' roster out of spring training and decided he just wasn't going to stop hitting, to the tune of a .927 OPS. The Cubs, who were presumably just looking for someone to kill time until they could call up Anthony Rizzo, suddenly have a legitimate trade chip in a 29-year-old triple-A first baseman. Meanwhile, the Athletics are looking over their collection of Brandon Allen, Brandon Moss, and Daric Barton and saying "C'MON!"
  • "Hey, I wonder what Luis Valbuena's up to these days."
  • Darwin Barney is currently the seventh most valuable player in the National League by bWAR. Darwin Barney has an OPS+ of 89. These two statements should be irreconcilable, except that bWAR really likes Barney's defense. bWAR has Barney as the best defender in baseball, which seems odd for a guy with a good but not great defensive reputation. bWAR has weird taste in men baseball players.
  • I really need to stop anthropomorphizing obscure stats. I mean, that's the second time I've done it so far. I've set the sabermetric movement back about ten years in this article alone.
  • Alfonso Soriano on the Cubs is like seeing a homeless man holding a broken gourmet coffee roaster. It probably seemed like a good idea when he was rich and successful, but then the recession hit and he lost his home and the coffee roaster broke down and oh god won't someone please take this damn thing?! That was a metaphor, but Soriano literally does play left field like a broken coffee roaster would.

Pitching Matchups:

Friday: Joe Saunders (4-5, 3.44) vs. Jeff Samardzija (5-5, 4.04)

Insightful Commentary: Shoewizard mentioned the other day that Saunders has produced almost exactly the same ERA+ since the trade as Dan Haren. Which is just absurd to me. I mean, I know Saunders has played better than expected since coming over, and Haren has lost a bit of velocity, but still, wow. Sure, Haren's ERA is still better, he's pitched a few more innings and his peripherals are shinier. But then again, Saunders is getting paid about half of what Haren is, so that's worth keeping in mind.

Samardzija was singled out as the only Cub who would be untouchable at the trade deadline. The question is, why? To his credit, Samardzija's ERA probably doesn't tell the whole story (FIP of 3.21), and he's striking out a batter per inning in 2012. Still, he's 27, he has a career ERA of 4.29, and a career walk rate of 4.65. Maybe he's turned a corner this year, but seriously, Starlin Castro's available and this guy isn't?

Saturday: Ian Kennedy (5-7, 4.13) vs. Paul Maholm (4-5, 4.88)

Insightful Commentary: Has it seemed to anyone else like Kennedy has worn his emotions on his sleeves a bit more this year than last? Obviously, the "stomp" has been around since last year and has resurfaced when things are going well in 2012, but he's just seemed a bit less composed at times this year. I don't have empirical data for this, but his body language looked particularly negative during his five-game losing steak, and when things aren't going well, he seems to be throwing "angrier" fastballs and showing more visible frustration with misplays behind him. I don't know if it's a good thing or a bad thing, just something I've noticed.

I remember thinking in 2006 or so that that Paul Maholm-Zach Duke-Ian Snell rotation in Pittsburgh had a chance to be really good. Which, hahahahaha me. Maholm's the same pitcher he's been for years, just with more home runs this year, which has contributed to the ERA that's above his career mark.

Sunday: Wade Miley (8-3, 2.50) vs. Matt Garza (3-5, 4.07)

Insightful Commentary: Obviously one of the major contributing factors in Wade Miley seemingly transforming into one of the best starters in MLB has been his walk rate, which has dropped considerably since last year. He's thrown a higher percentage of strikes this year, which makes sense but doesn't tell the whole story. Batters have swung at fewer pitches that he's thrown in the zone this year, and swung at more pitches outside of the zone, both of which logically lead to fewer walks. As for why that's the case, who knows? Fangraphs' pitch values suggest that his fastball and slider have both improved, and indeed, both have shown increased velocity, so it's possible that batters are just having a harder time picking them up.

Garza has dropped off a notch since his 5-fWAR season last year. This is mainly due to a spike in his home run rate, and a slight drop-off in his K/9. His home run rate is higher than it's ever been, and without a corresponding rise in line drive rate or contact rate, it seems to have more to do with bad luck than bad pitching. He should bounce back a bit, and I imagine the Cubs are hoping this happens before he inevitably gets traded in July.

Final Verdict: The Diamondbacks have a noticeably better offense than the Cubs, and they have the better pitcher (by ERA at least) in each matchup. So, sweep, right? I might be being overly pessimistic, but I have no faith in this team to sweep anyone, even a team as bad as the Cubs. So I'll stay with what I hope is a conservative prediction and say Diamondbacks two games to one.

Send your condolences (or not) to Bleed Cubbie Blue.

(Stats via Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference)