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Cubs Opening Series Thoughts and Notes

With a new series beginning today against the Pittsburgh Pirates, let’s take a look back at the opening series and some things to keep an eye on moving forward.

Nico Hoerner Cubs
Photo: RyanThomure/Twitter

The Chicago Cubs were not expected to take two of three games against the Milwaukee Brewers in their opening series. In fact, many said the Cubs were not good enough to beat the top pitchers for Milwaukee. However, despite all the doubters and outside noise, the Cubs managed two wins in three games with a quality showing in Sunday’s loss. The Cubs enter play against the Pirates on Tuesday with a 2-1 record.

After an eventful first series, let’s dive into some thoughts and notes from the three-game set against the Brewers.

Starting Pitching

The Professor

Pitching is where it all begins, and that’s especially true with the rotation. In the season opener, the Cubs got off to a great start behind Kyle Hendricks. The Professor went 5.1 innings and allowed only one run with seven strikeouts. Six of his strikeouts came from his changeup, which he used to keep Milwaukee’s hitters off balance. He threw the pitch 39.8 percent of the time and recorded a 59.1 percent whiff rate with it. Last season, Hendricks threw it only 27.8 percent.

This is undoubtedly a good sign as the 32-year-old veteran had his worst season as a big leaguer last year and traditionally gets off to a slow start. In 154 career innings pitched in March and April, Hendricks has a 4.68 ERA, which is his worst in comparison to any other months he’s pitched.

Balls of Steele

In game two, it was the same story. Justin Steele proved worthy of the number two spot in the rotation by tossing five shutout innings while allowing only one walk and striking out five batters. Like Hendricks, Steele saw some notable pitch-mix changes, looking at his start compared to last year’s data. Steele increased his four-seam fastball and slider usage while throwing fewer curveballs and sinkers. So far, so good. All five of his strikeouts came from four-seamers and sliders.

Str0 Show

The much anticipated first start for Marcus Stroman in a Cubs uniform didn’t disappoint. Admittedly, Stroman had some nerves early on after hearing the Wrigley faithful and the energy fans in attendance provided. While his command might not have been as sharp as he would typically want with three walks, Stro went five innings and allowed only one run on two hits. He kept the Cubs in the ballgame and left with a 3-1 lead. Unfortunately, the Cubs’ bullpen didn’t hold up their end of the bargain, and the Cubs wound up losing 5-4. 

Relief Pitching

The Concerns

Let’s start with the bad because I like to end on positive notes. The Cubs’ relief pitching efforts have been solid for some and spotty for others. Daniel Norris is the Cubs’ lone southpaw in the bullpen as it stands. He’s made two appearances thus far and has allowed at least one earned run in each outing, including a go-ahead homer to Mike Brosseau, which turned out to be the game-winning run for the Brewers on Sunday.

Jesse Chavez was terrific during Spring Training. However, in his first and only appearance thus far, he allowed three earned runs, including a two-run bomb to Rowdy Tellez during Sunday’s game. The homer gave the Brewers a 4-3 lead at the time. It’s a rough start to the year, but maybe not indicative of how he’ll pitch moving forward.

Rowan Wick was my predicted closer for the team, although that role was never made official by David Ross. However, Wick entered the game on Opening Day to begin the eighth inning. Thanks to Mychal Givens, who came in and saved the day, Wick walked away with a hold. Still, he allowed one earned run on two hits in 0.2 innings pitched. We’re only three games in, but the Cubs have the third-worst bullpen ERA in baseball at 5.40.

The Positives

Among the questionable outings, there were some standouts. As aforementioned, Mychal Givens came in and saved the day for Rowan Wick on Opening Day. He struck out the only batter he faced. Then, on Sunday, he pitched a full clean inning with another strikeout.

At least for the time being, Ross might’ve found his closer. David Robertson picked up the save on Opening Day, while allowing one hit and no runs with one strikeout. Robertson pitched another scoreless inning on Sunday to keep the Cubs within striking distance.

Keegan Thompson looked incredible in his first and only appearance. He pitched 2.2 innings, allowing zero hits or runs while striking out four before being ejected for hitting Andrew McCutchen with an inside fastball. Between him, Scott Effross, and Ethan Roberts, the Cubs bullpen didn’t allow a hit once Justin Steele departed the game on Saturday.

The Bats

Hard Hit Balls

The team leader as it stands right now in hard-hit balls is none other than Nico Hoerner. Just as we all guessed it would be. Despite his home run on Opening Day, Hoerner has been a tad unlucky. Hoerner has struck the ball with an exit velocity of 95 MPH or better six times through three games of play. That’s some severe smoke. It’s also encouraging.

As we always say, when healthy, Hoerner is a stud. If he continues to do this while adding more lift, Hoerner could be in store for the most significant power numbers of his young career. We’ll have to see how this plays out, but Hoerner is hitting far better than his .182 batting average indicates. A .125 BABIP and a -5.5 launch angle are holding him back.

Less Volatility

Stringing together baserunners and keeping the line moving hasn’t been the easiest task in recent years. Last season, the Cubs ranked 20th in OBP, last in strikeout rate, and last in contact rate.

With runners in scoring position (RISP), the Cubs ranked 23rd in batting average. Also with RISP, they struck out at the second-highest clip, walked at the sixth-lowest rate, and ranked 24th in wRC+.

So far this season, the Cubs numbers look better much better. They are first in baseball in walk rate with RISP (21.6%) and overall (14.8%). The team batting average with RISP still isn’t great, as they’re only batting .200. However, they’re finding ways to push runs across and keep the chain moving. With RISP, they sit ninth in strikeout rate (16.2%) and seventh in wRC+ (139).

Overall, the Cubs rank third in OBP, first in walk rate, 16th in strikeout rate, and 14th in contact rate. In recent years, far too often at-bats resulted in either a home run or strikeout, and more often than not the latter. Hopefully they can continue improving the contact and cut down on the strikeouts, but we are already seeing improvements from a year ago. 

What’s On Tap Next?

The Cubs travel to Pittsburgh for a two-game set against the Pirates. The first game starts at 3:12 p.m. CDT and Wednesday’s game is an early 11:35 p.m. CDT start.

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