Point Blank: Changing Our Minds About Cubs Now?

Point Blank With Dave Malisnky

David Malinsky

Monday, July 17, 2017 4:07 PM GMT

Monday, Jul. 17, 2017 4:07 PM GMT

Is Jon Lester a “buy” after the bye? How much of the weekend was good Cubs hitting, and how much bad Orioles pitching?

One of the prime handicapping directions we will all sort through here at PB throughout each MLB season are the various notions involved in determining how well a pitcher is pitching. That may elicit a “Duh” moment, but there is so much to it – baseball statistics are not precise on this front, with the prime measurements geared more towards measuring the outcomes of pitches rather than their quality. There is a difference between the two, and that means time to dial up a mini-seminar on Cubs lefty Jon Lester, who brings a particularly intriguing setting when he takes the mound in Atlanta this evening.

In fact, the Cubs as a team are interesting right now, so be prepared for further discourse on their offense, although we can’t isolate the bats without also delving into Roger McDowell and the Baltimore pitching staff. More on that in a moment.

Lester’s first start since the All-Star break comes to the forefront partially because he meets the criteria to be a “buy” candidate after what appeared to be an extremely sub-par showing through the first half of the season. For tonight there is magnification because he steps on the rubber for the first time since one of the worst outings we will ever chart from his quality of performer, that dismal loss to the Pirates at Wrigley Field in which he faced the embarrassment of walking away down 10-0 in the first inning.

Lester was only able to retire two of the 12 batters he faced that afternoon, 26 of 53 pitches missing the strike zone, and two of those that did make the zone ended up in the outfield bleachers.

That leaves us with a couple of key aspects to sort through: 1. Is there anything physically wrong with Lester?; and 2. Does he have the mentality to bounce back positively off of that kind of disaster? Let’s go to work.

 

Lester’s pitches haven’t been that much different than last season

This looks like quite a drop, doesn’t it, Lester’s base performance for 2016 and 2017 -

           W/L  ERA

2016  19-5  2.44

2017  5-6    4.25

But while those numbers take the lead across most of the Sports Mediaverse, they are focused on the outcomes of pitches and not necessarily how good the pitches were. Let’s go deeper behind the numbers to set a better perspective, focusing on how his run allowance gets measured by most, but then those key rate counts that take some of baseball’s geometry out of play.

                    ERA   K/9    BB/9 GB%  SWS%

Career        3.48  8.4    2.9    47.1  9.6   

2016           2.44  8.8    2.3    46.9  10.3

2017           4.25  9.2    3.1    48.7  11.0

Lester’s “stuff” has been there – while there has been a decline in fastball velocity, his strikeout, ground-ball and swinging-strike rates are actually better than both his career norms and his 2016 tallies, with only his walk rate in decline. What has happened is that the defense behind him has not been as good this season as last, which is out of the pitcher’s control, and to set that up we can look at Lester’s BABIP allowed (Batting Average on Balls in Play), and also that of the Cubs defense.–

                   2016  2017

Lester         .256  .317

Cubs           .255  .286

Lester’s numbers aligned with the defense behind him over 202.2 regular-season innings last year yet is running significantly behind this time. Has that been bad pitching or just some of baseball’s randomness? We can examine that by viewing how hard the contact has been against him, using LD% (Line Drive rate)

2016  20.2%

2017  19.7%

Lester’s LD% is lower, not higher, so the case can be made that the .317 count on balls in play is something calling for regression. Of course a pitcher can aid that regression by bringing a positive mentality to the hill, which takes us to ...

 

Is Lester’s mental toughness something we can confidently back?

Bouncing back from a bad outing can be a challenge for any performer in sports, but might Lester be classified as among the “Best in Class” as a candidate? He has battled his way through anaplastic large cell lymphoma, which renders the scoreboards of sport to a rather trivial level, but there has also been the legacy of success as measured by those scoreboards. Lester’s personal W/L% is No. 59 in MLB history and No. 6 among current pitchers, while his 2.63 ERA over 133.2 postseason innings, including a 1.77 in World Series games, would classify him as one of the best pressure pitchers in MLB annals.

I’ll stamp Lester as play-on in the post-break cycle from the standpoint of mental toughness. That leaves the question as to whether there may have been a physical issue involved in his recent poor showings, which he was quick to dismiss: “I don’t know why if you pitch bad it’s got to be a physical reason. Just like hitters, you go through slumps, and you got to figure out ways to contribute.”

I believe he will figure those things out, and the timing this evening may look ideal at first, with the Chicago offense having a big weekend in Baltimore to help erase the bad taste of underperforming so far in 2016. But that also calls for us to step back a moment.

 

How much was it bad Baltimore pitching making the Cubs look good?

The Cubs raked the Baltimore pitching staff for 27 runs on 41 hits over the weekend, including 11 home runs. You can’t have that kind of production without the hitters having been good, but you also can’t get to that level without the pitchers having been major culprits. This takes us to a key “Behind the Numbers” direction as we look for the realities behind the scoreboard outcomes, and the impact of pitching coaches. Today it is the negative ofMcDowell with the Orioles staff; tomorrow Mike Butcher and his work with the Diamondbacks will be the lead topic.

McDowell is in his first season with Baltimore after 11 campaigns as the PC with the Braves, and his stint in Atlanta was generally considered a positive one. But as all of the numbers get field across their various categories at this time of the season, the halfway point having been passed to put a lot of meat and cheese between the bread, the numbers for the Orioles are alarming. Let’s use FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) as the guide, eliminating the influence of defense and giving a better look at the quality of pitches thrown.

                    2016          2017

Bundy        4.70            4.86 

Gausman   4.10            5.13

Miley          4.45            5.26 

Jimenez      4.43            5.97

Tillman       4.23            6.24

The alarms are set off because it is not one or two pitchers having fallen off, but instead the entire starting rotation. Chris Tillman may not be physically right, and Ubaldo Jimenez is going to be inconsistent regardless of where his advice is coming from, but Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman are a pair of highly-rated prospects who are expected to become cornerstones of the franchise.

FIP is at 4.34 across MLB so far in 2017, while the Baltimore starters are a combined 5.45, with only Cincinnati worse. The Reds have an excuse, injuries riddling the anticipated rotation and some young arms being forced into starting roles long before they were ready. The Orioles lack that excuse, and hence it is time to begin examining McDowell’s role in all of this more closely.

The Cubs did have a good offensive weekend, especially in terms of how the outcomes will impact their confidence going forward, but to properly rate those games does require grading on a curve because of some of the batting-practice pitches that were thrown their way. Hence a major focus on searching for ways in which the McDowell impact can be put into better perspective: 71 more games still ahead for the O’s.

 

So you think you can be an oddsmaker, huh?

Part of a continuing series on what the guys who originate the prices have to deal with, and also those that must put every game on the board (the single biggest advantage we have on our side of the counter is that we can pick and choose our spots).

Miami is 3-15 in Tom Koehler’s last 18 starts, and Koehler is 1-9 with a 7.18 ERA across those games. Yet in the current trading for tonight’s series opener with Philadelphia, Koehler and the Marlins are -150. It shows what you have to do to try to get someone to back the Phillies these days.

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