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Cubs vs. Pirates Series: Expanding the Box Score

Although the Cubs couldn’t complete the two-game sweep of the Pirates, they still hold a winning record for the season. Let’s take a look at some underlying numbers from the series that was.

Kyle Hendricks Cubs
Photo: Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

Coming off a 2-1 series win over the Milwaukee Brewers at home to open the season, the Chicago Cubs were in a good spot when they traveled to Pittsburgh to take on the Pirates. Although they were able to win game one behind two solo bombs from Seiya Suzuki, they dropped the finale 6-2. You’d like to see them come away with a sweep in that situation, especially with your “ace” on the bump. However, the Cubs will take the split as they still hold a 3-2 winning record after five games. Here are some underlying takeaways and numbers from the series that was.

Pitching

Drew Smyly

Smyly’s choice of pitches used was interesting. In game one of the series, Smyly racked up groundball after groundball in his first outing against the Bucco’s. The 32-year-old lefty struck out only one batter, but held the Pirates scoreless in five innings while allowing only three hits and zero walks.

Looking at the numbers, a few things jumped out to me. A big reason he generated groundballs and weak contact was his ability to get hitters to chase. Pirates hitters chased five percent more than the league average. Furthermore, they made contact when they chased with a 70 percent chase contact rate. That’s good enough for 11.5 percent better than the league average.

Smyly also lived on the edges and threw a ton of first-pitch strikes. 77.8 percent of his first pitches were hurled in for strikes, 17.2 percent better than the league average.

In seasons past, Smyly has leaned more on his four-seam fastball. Over the past nine seasons, Smyly has thrown his four-seamer more than any other pitch. However, he’s gradually started throwing more curveballs in the last three seasons. Against the Pirates, Smyly threw his curveball 51.5 percent of the time on Tuesday, which was 26.5 percent more than his four-seamer.

Smyly only allowed one hit on the curve. He also struck out his only batter of the day on that pitch. Did we witness yet another pitch usage change, or was that just the game plan against the Pirates? That’s yet to be determined, but given the results, it’s encouraging for what could be.

Kyle Hendricks

Yikes. The Professor had himself a clunker as he put the Cubs in a 6-2 hole before exiting the game in the fourth inning on Wednesday. Hendricks allowed seven hits, six earned runs, and walked four. The pitch to Ben Gamel on his three-run homer in the bottom of the first inning was a changeup low and in that missed his intended target of low and away.

It’s frustrating because all of the damage came after inducing a double play and getting two outs in the inning. In addition, if you go back and watch the final pitch that walked Yoshi Tsutsugo, the changeup he threw was a strike on the inside corner but was called a ball because it missed the intended mark, and Contreras had to reach across for it.

The only takeaway isn’t “umpire bad, Hendricks good.” But rather, his command was not sharp enough, and who knows what would’ve happened if the count would’ve reached 3-2. Maybe Hendricks makes a better pitch and gets out of the inning?

That’s all assumption, but after allowing the damage, Hendricks threw fewer changeups. In fact, he threw the change only 22 percent compared to 39.8 percent in his first start vs. Milwaukee. It could’ve been because of the success Pittsburgh was having off it, but it’s worth noting and monitoring moving forward. Was the first game of the season a fluke, or can Hendricks return to his career solid form, and this just a bump in the road?

Batted Ball Data

Willson Contreras

Of course, Seiya Suzuki’s two homers in the series opener were incredible. How can you not be impressed by how he’s handled himself in the box early on in his MLB career? That said, the first person we need to expand the box score for is Willson Contreras. In game two of the series, the team leader drove a ball through the teeth of the wind for a 453-foot bombski. The signs were pointing to a big game coming even before that.

In the first game, Willy took a walk, struck out, and roped a single. His single came in the eighth inning, and it was 103.1 MPH off the bat. In his first at-bat of the game, he was on the wrong side of luck as he scorched a 102 MPH liner for an out. It shows up in the traditional box score as an out, but two hard-hit balls and a walk is a solid day at the plate. Therefore, the missile he hit on Wednesday comes as no surprise. Willy was locked in. 

Nick Madrigal

Madrigal deserves mention. Why? Although he finished the series 0-for-4 in his one game played, he had three hard-hit balls in game one of the series that resulted in outs. First, he grounded into a double play. Then, another groundout. And lastly, a lineout. All of those carried exit velocities upwards of 97 MPH, and the double play he grounded into was the third-hardest hit ball of the day out of anyone from either team.

The issue for Madrigal was hitting the ball on the ground too much. Much like Nico Hoerner, he needs to elevate just a tad more. For him, it’s not so much about hitting more home runs but getting more base hits. Surely, a .067 batting average will not last long.

Patrick Wisdom

You’ve heard the saying, “when he makes contact, it’s going to go.” Well, is it? Right now, Wisdom just isn’t making contact. He looks hesitant and behind on a lot of pitches. With only one hit in 17 at-bats, Wisdom is striking out at a 47.4 percent clip. However, the batted ball data is still solid. Wisdom has an 11.1 percent barrel rate and 44.4 percent hard-hit rate. That said, he didn’t strike a single ball that would’ve qualified as a hard hit during the Pittsburgh series. His contact did not qualify, but it wasn’t relatively close, either.

Leaving six men on base and striking out five times in the series definitely leaves a sour taste. Coincidentally, Jonathan Villar smoked the ball all afternoon in the series finale.

Jonathan Villar

The box score reads 1-for-4, but it could’ve easily been a 3-for-4 game for Villar. He had three of the five hardest-hit balls of the game. For reference, each of the three hard-hit balls had higher exit velocities than Ben Gamel’s home run. However, he experienced some highway robbery on the fantastic catch made by Bryan Reynolds in center field and a nice play at first base by Yoshi Tsutsugo. 

Unofficially, we might have our first real hot seat situation. If Wisdom continues to struggle, he might lose significant playing time to Villar. It’s too early to jump to conclusions, but the early signs favor Villar.

These are just a few thoughts and notes from the two-game series in Pittsburgh. I’ll try to do as many of these as possible as the season progresses. Until then, enjoy watching Cubs baseball, and check out all of our Cubs content and the Twitter account @CubbiesOnTap.

What’s On Tap Next?

Today, the Cubs will say hello to a lifetime legend and former Cubs player Kris Bryant, as they take on his new team the Colorado Rockies at Coors Field in Denver, Colorado, for game one of a four-game series. The first pitch is set for 7:40 p.m. CDT.

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