Almost a week into Spring Training and the Chicago Cubs were sporting a 4-2 record prior to their 10-3 loss to the Oakland Athletics on Thursday evening. A high-flying offense has been the key to that solid, yet meaningless record, something the Cubs hope will translate to the regular season.
Willson Contreras has already hit two home runs this spring, the last of which came on Wednesday and easily cleared the bullpen in left field. Kris Bryant has also showed off his power-stroke early in the season, mashing a long-ball in his first at-bat of the spring earlier this week.
On the pitching side of the ball, the Cubs’ regulars have looked equally as good. Jon Lester worked two innings in Monday’s contest, settling in after a shaky first frame to record two strikeouts in the second and three overall.
Yu Darvish struggled with his control in his outing on Tuesday as he walked four batters in just 1.1 innings of work. Nonetheless, Darvish’s velocity sat in the mid-90’s and he reported no pain after the game, both great signs for a pitcher that managed just 40 innings in an injured shorten season in 2018.
Much like his teammates before him, Hendricks looked to be in mid-season form against the A’s, striking out the first batter he faced. That strikeout came against Dustin Fowler who swung and missed on a curve-ball from the right-hander.
The development of Hendricks’ curve-ball took an interesting turn in 2018, an offering he threw just 7.5 percent of the time. While that usage falls solidly in-line with previous years, the right-hander’s whiff percentage on the pitch ticked up a noticeable amount.
Prior to 2018, Hendricks had only posted a whiff percentage on his curve-ball higher than 6.4 percent once, 2014 when it sat at 8.89 percent. Last season, however, that number clocked in at 6.49 percent, a more than one percent increase from 2017’s mark and almost double what it was two seasons ago.
That number, which included a career-high 15 whiffs last season, was aided in the fact that batters swung at 25.54 percent of the right-hander’s benders in 2018, an almost five percent increase from a season prior.
While Hendricks garnered a solid amount of swing-and-miss with his curve-ball, when batters hit it, they hit it hard. In 2018, batters averaged .483 on Hendricks’ curve-ball with a .759 slugging percentage and .276 ISO. For perspective, batters hit no higher than .293 on any of Hendricks’ other offerings nor did they slug better than .567 on his other pitches.
Looking at those numbers and the marks posted in prior seasons by the right-hander suggest 2018 could have been a fluke in regard to Hendricks’ curve-ball. Throughout much of last season, Hendricks struggled with the home run ball as he gave up 1.0 long-balls per nine innings, just 0.1 off his career mark which was set in 2017.
Even with his lackluster home run rate in 2018, Hendricks tossed a career-high 199 innings, winning 14 games and posting a rather solid 3.44 ERA. Below the surface, Hendricks recorded a BB/9 of just 2.0 last season, his lowest mark since his rookie season of 2014.
After allowing the opposition to bash his curve-ball, it makes sense that it was Hendricks’ plan to get a feel for the pitch early in spring to see if that helps him with the offering during the regular season.
While we will have to wait for those results, the early return for Hendricks looks good as the right-hander allowed just two hits over two innings of work on Thursday. Those hits were split between the two frames as Hendricks induced three ground balls in the second inning, including a 5-4-3 double play that put the finishing touches on his outing.
Behind Hendricks, Brian Duensing and Brandon Kintzler worked quick, scoreless third and fourth innings respectively. It was not until Kintzler departed following the fourth frame that Cubs’ pitching run into some trouble.
Right-hander George Kontos allowed back-to-back singles to lead-off the fifth inning, the latter of which put runners on second and third with no one out. Despite the rough start to the inning, Kontos allowed just one run in the inning, a Cliff Pennington RBI ground out to the second baseman before getting Jorge Mateo to strikeout, ending the inning.
While Kontos was able to work around his ineffectiveness, limiting the A’s to just one run, Jen-Ho Tseng would not be as fortunate when he took over in the top half of the sixth. Tseng, who is a former two-time Minor League Pitcher of the Year for the Cubs, suffered a hellish 2018 minor league season.
Following a 13-4 record and 2.54 ERA in 2017, Tseng won just two games for Iowa in 2018 across 26 starts, posting a 6.27 ERA in the process while appearing in one big league game for the Cubs last season. That outing, which included Tseng allowing four hits and three earned runs across two innings, was the right-hander’s third major league appearance and second start.
With numbers like he posted with Triple-A in 2018 and performances like he had an Thursday, Tseng may never make it back to Wrigley Field.
Like Kontos, Tseng allowed a lead-off single in the top half of the sixth, but instead of working out of trouble, the right-hander continued to work himself deeper into trouble.
That single by Fowler was followed by back-to-back walks from Tseng, loading the bases with no one out. A fly ball out shed some light on the inning and offered Tseng a chance to end the frame with a ground ball double play. Not only did the right-hander fail to get a double play ball, but Tseng promptly allowed three straight hits (two singles and a triple), knocks that plated five runs for the visiting A’s.
A wild pitch, which seemed to cap off a wild inning for Tseng, allowed the A’s sixth run of the inning to score, giving them a 7-2 advantage over the Cubs.
Entering the sixth, the Cubs held a slim 2-1 lead over Oakland, an advantage they gained on a two-RBI single by Ryan Court in the home half of the fifth.
Court, who entered the game as a pinch-hitter for Ben Zobrist, is enjoying a solid spring up until this point. Even before his RBI knock and hustle double on Thursday, Court was slashing .300/.417/.817 this spring, numbers that jumped following his brief go-head base hit.
The 30-year-old Court is a former 23rd round draft pick by the Arizona Diamondbacks and has appeared as high as Triple-A after spending the 2017 season in the Boston Red Sox’ organization. Across 114 games, Court slashed .262/.362/.407 with 11 home runs and 62 RBI while playing every infield position and even some left field.
For a team that likes versatility, Court be a valuable piece moving forward as the Cubs still face uncertainty with middle infielder Addison Russell. If Court can maintain his success, both this spring and in the minors, the veteran could very well find himself on a major league roster for the first time in his career.
After Tseng’s rough inning, the Cubs were unable to recover, falling behind by a score of 10-3 after the A’s mashed back-to-back home runs in the seventh inning and pushed across yet another run in the eighth.
With their loss on Thursday, the Cubs fall to 4-3 in Cactus League action while the A’s improve to 2-5.
Next Up For The Cubs
The Cubs will play the Arizona Diamondbacks on Friday, March 1 at 3:10 p.m. at Salt River Fields in Arizona. Taking the ball for the Cubs will be Jose Quintana (0-0, 0.00 ERA). Quintana will be making his first Cactus League start after posting a 4.03 ERA across 32 starts and 174.1 innings last season.
Since being acquired from the Chicago White Sox in the middle of the 2017 season, Quintana has made 46 regular season starts for the Cubs, working to a high-three ERA. In his 14 starts with his new club, Quintana posted a 3.74 and career best 10.5 K/9 rate versus a tiny 2.2 BB/9 rate. Last season, however, those numbers took off in the wrong directions, as the southpaw’s K/9 rate dipped to 8.2 while his BB/9 rate shot up to 3.5, a career worst over a full season for Quintana.
While Quintana has never been much of a strikeout pitcher (7.8 career K/9 rate), the left-hander’s walk rate will be something to watch this spring and into the 2019 regular season.
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