Twelve games into the 2019 campaign, the Chicago Cubs stand at a disappointing 4-8, putting them in the cellar of the National League Central. The big issue plaguing Chicago has been a lackluster pitching staff that has not been able to live up to the billing thus far.
Entering play on Friday, the Cubs’ pitching staff owned the sixth highest ERA in baseball at 5.86 with the bullpen sporting a 6.07 mark to begin the season. More recently, however, the Cubs’ pitching staff has shown signs of turning after their rough start.
Over the last seven days, Chicago’s bullpen owns a 4.01 ERA, a number that puts them solidly in the middle of baseball. As for the rotation, the group has still struggled to find their stride, amassing a 5.93 ERA over their last turn-plus.
Nevertheless, while the numbers may not bear it out, the pitching staff has looked much better of late. In a 10-0 defeat of the Pittsburgh Pirates earlier in the week, the bullpen was tasked with filling seven innings after Jon Lester left in the second inning with a tight hamstring.
For perhaps the first time in 2019, the Cubs’ relievers stepped up, keeping the Pirates off the board over those seven innings, while striking out eight batters versus just two walks. That trend continued into the following games as the bullpen failed to allow a run in either the Cubs’ 5-2 loss to Pittsburgh or Thursday’s 2-0 victory, running their streak to three straight contests without allowing a run.
On Thursday, it seemed the bullpen’s fortune finally began rubbing off on the starting rotation as Jose Quintana looked very good against the Pirates. Over seven innings, the southpaw allowed just four hits and one walk while striking out 11 batters. Of his 99 pitches thrown, 64 of them were strikes, helping to lower his season ERA to 5.14.
Riding a set of solid performances from the staff, Cole Hamels took the mound on Friday looking to string together back-to-back solid starts for the starting rotation. Whereas Wednesday was a pitcher-friendly game with the wind blowing in, Friday was the complete opposite as the wind was blowing out to center at 19 MPH at first pitch.
Hamels, who has more than 2,500 big league innings under his belt, never seemed fazed by the hitter-friendly conditions on Friday. In the first inning, the lefty didn’t allow the Los Angeles Angel hitters to settle in, needing just eight total pitches to record the game’s first three outs.
As one can see from the above pitch chart, Hamels challenged the top of the Angels’ lineup with fastballs in the strike zone, offerings that resulted in a ground out and two fly outs.
Into the second and third innings, Hamels continued his solid work, allowing just two hits over the first three frames. While the Angels were able to move a runner to third base in the second inning on a pair of productive outs, Hamels induced a third straight ground ball, getting Zack Cozart to end the inning.
On a day tailored to hitters, Hamels paid for just one mistake on the evening. With the Cubs up in the fourth inning, Albert Pujols took a pitch off his shoe tops and flipped it out to left field, briefly cutting the home team’s advantage to 3-1.
The green dot on the above pitch chart is the pitch Pujols, a right-handed batter, took out to left field. At 87 MPH, Hamels’ cutter was turned around at 105.7 MPH and found the bleachers 426-feet away from home plate.
While Pujols was able to get the Angels on the board in the fourth, a pair of heavy-hitters for the Cubs had already built a favorable lead.
Despite slipping in the rankings of late, the Cubs still entered play with one the better offensive units in the game. Prior to Friday, the Cubs were sporting the sixth best team batting average, fourth best OBP, tenth best slugging percentage and fourth best opposite-field contact percentage.
One area that has been kind of up-and-down for the club thus far, however, has been the hard contact department. Even after amassing five games with at least 10 runs scored over their first 12 contests, the Cubs entered play with a 37.7 percent hard contact percentage, a number that put them 13th in baseball.
On Friday, using the wind to their advantage, the Cubs did what they could to improve that number. While lead-off man Albert Almora flied to middle-depth center field to open the Cubs’ half of the first, two straight reaches had Chicago up 2-0 early.
Kris Bryant was the first of those reaches, grounding a ball through the left side of the infield for a single. On a chilly 50 degree day at Wrigley, Anthony Rizzo must not have wanted his buddy to get cold on the base paths, because on the first pitch from left-hander Tyler Skaggs, the big first baseman ripped a very long home run.
The pitch, a 90 MPH center-cut fastball, exited Rizzo’s bat at 111.2 MPH, landing 472-feet from home plate, giving the veteran his third on the season. According to Statcast, Rizzo’s long-ball represents the third longest home run hit in the major leagues this season, a leader-board the Cubs would not be finished adding to on Friday.
That is because just two batters later, Willson Contreras completely unloaded on an offering from Skaggs. Unlike Rizzo, Contreras worked the count, seeing six pitches before deciding on one to swing at, running the count full at 3-2. It was on that 3-2 count that Contreras got a down-and-in curve-ball at 78 MPH. The young catcher was able to pull his hands in, get the barrel to the ball, and send it 460-feet onto Waveland Avenue over the left field bleachers.
Contreras’ shot in the first, while slightly shorter in distance than Rizzo’s, still placed him among the leaders in maximum home run distance, putting Willson sixth on the leader-board and giving the Cubs two representatives in the top-ten.
Perhaps more importantly than leader-boards, his long-ball pushed the Cubs’ lead to 3-0 on Thursday, a lead Contreras would continue to help build only a few frames later.
Only minutes after Pujols cut the Cubs’ advantage to two runs in the fourth, David Bote was able to stretch it back to three as he sent his first home run into the left field seats, making it 4-1.
As Hamels continued dealing the mound, the Cubs’ offense continued tacking on runs. Even prior to his first inning bomb, Contreras was slugging .655 on the season after racking up three home runs and two doubles across 37 plate appearances.
In the sixth, Contreras only added to those numbers, sending his second home run beyond the bleachers in left field. Perhaps taking a page out of Rizzo’s playbook, Contreras jumped on a first-pitch offering from Angels reliever Noe Ramirez, a curve-ball that ended up right in Willson’s wheelhouse as he sent it 443-feet, giving him 903 combined feet of long-balls on Friday.
His second home run of the evening pushed Contreras’ total to five on the season and gave the Cubs a 5-1 advantage, a lead that was more than safe with Hamels on the mound.
Pujols’ home run in the fourth inning ran the Angels’ total to three. Following that solo blast, however, Hamels settled into an efficient groove as he was able to work through eight innings.
Across the four innings spanning the fourth and eighth frames, Hamels issued just one additional hit, racking up six punch outs in the process without walking a batter.
A more in-depth look at Hamels’ start reveals that he induced 10 swinging strikes in his third start of the 2019 season, including three with his cutter and four with his change-up. Perhaps even more impressive, however, is the 26 called strikes Hamels received across his eight innings of work. Seventeen of those came on his four-seam fastball, a sign the southpaw brought his best command to the mound with him against the Angels.
Hamels’ final line looked like this: eight innings, four hits, one earned run, zero walks and six strikeouts on 106 pitches.
With their second straight win, the Cubs move to 5-8 while the Angels fall to 7-7 on the season.
Next Up for the Cubs
The Cubs will continue their three-game set with the Angels on Saturday at 1:20 pm at Wrigley Field. Taking the ball for the Cubs will be right-hander Kyle Hendricks (0-2, 6.48 ERA). Across two starts this season, Hendricks has yet to find his groove, allowing six earned runs on 18 hits over 8.1 total innings. In addition, the right-hander has issued three home runs on the young season a year removed from setting his career high in that statistic.
Opposing Hendricks on the mound Saturday will be right-hander Chris Stratton (0-1, 6.48 ERA). Stratton, like Hendricks, has allowed six earned runs over 8.1 innings, four of which came in his first outing of the season on April 1 against the Seattle Mariners. In his last start, the youngster issued four walks versus just one strikeout over four frames in a 7-2 victory over the Texas Rangers.
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