A little more than 24 hours after postponing their series finale with the Los Angeles Angels due to snow at Wrigley Field, the Chicago Cubs were playing in sunny Miami, Florida. At first pitch, the temperature was in the mid-80’s, a hot environment for a team that is off to a quick start in many offensive categories.
The Cubs began play on Monday ranking among the best teams in team batting average, OBP and walk rate. In addition, the Cubs were sporting the league’s seventh best slugging percentage and wRC-plus, while at the same time clocking baseball’s fourth best HR/FB rate.
Despite that last statistic, the Cubs have managed to hit only 23 home runs so far this season, putting them toward the middle of pack. With that being said, Chicago ranked 26th in fly ball rate entering play on Monday with a 34.1 percent mark. The same can be said for the Cubs’ line-drive percentage, a number that also ranks 26th in baseball, leaving the North Sider’s to post the second highest ground ball as a team, ranking behind only the Tampa Bay Rays.
While it’s true the Cubs are putting the ball in play more toward the opposite field as they own the second best opposite field contact rate at 29 percent, much of their hard contact is being followed with large bouts of soft or medium contact.
Opening play on Monday, the Cubs had four players with at least 10 plate appearances who were posting a wRC-plus less than 100 (league average), including their former MVP Kris Bryant who was sporting an 89 mark.
With Caratini nursing a hand injury, the Cubs will continue to need the same production from names like Willson Contreras and Jason Heyward. Those guys, who struggled mightily down the stretch last season, own the second and third highest wRC-plus’s on the roster entering play, sporting marks of 202 and 189 respectively.
The quartet of David Bote, Ben Zobrist, Daniel Descalso and Javier Baez has also jumped out to a quick start at the plate this season, all posting wRC-plus’s better than league average with Javy bringing up the rear of that group with a 111 mark.
Nevertheless their success, the Cubs began play in Miami with only meddling power numbers as a team, posting the 17th best hard contact rate in the league at 36.4 percent while at the same time ranking 15th in ISO with a .189.
At times this season, no matter the numbers, the Cubs have proven they can mash the baseball with the best of them. Their 5-1 win over the Angels on April 12 was a perfect example of that as the Cubs hit four home runs, two of which came off Contreras’ bat and traveled a total of 903-feet.
The first of Contreras’ long-balls on that evening ranks as the sixth longest in baseball while Anthony Rizzo‘s 472-foot blast only two batters earlier is the third longest in the game.
When they want to, and the conditions are right, the Cubs are a slugging machine. Other times, however, they can wear pitchers down with their patience at the plate, coming through with timely knock after timely knock. That was the case on Monday as the Cubs opened a three-game set with the Marlins in their newly re-branded ballpark Marlins Park.
Going back to the conditions note made earlier, it seems like the Cubs love hitting in warm weather, exactly what they got on Monday in Miami. At 84 degrees as Trevor Richards threw out the first pitch, the weather was just right for the Cubs to jump all over the young right-hander.
Just a few years removed from pitching in the independent league, Richards found himself staring down a bases loaded situation only five batters into the game.
A hit-by-pitch, single and walk was responsible for the bases being full of Cubs, giving Contreras a shot to put the game out of reach early. Entering play, Contreras was sporting a .447 ISO with five home runs and nine RBI to go along with his two doubles. As one might expect with numbers like that, Contreras ranks highly on the team with a 44 percent contact rate and 45.5 percent fly ball rate (a team-high).
Despite once again finding his power-stroke at the plate, something that was lacking in the second half of last season, Contreras has also shown patience at the plate, posting a 15.2 percent walk rate. That number, unfortunately has been paired with a lofty 28.3 percent strikeout rate, a number Contreras and the Cubs would no doubt like to see come back down to earth.
As things stand right now, the Cubs can live with Contreras’ high strikeout rate, as long as he continues to produce at an All-Star-caliber level.
Early on Monday, Contreras did not look like a player with a strikeout rate nearing 30 percent as he worked a really solid at-bat with the bases loaded. The young back-stop saw six pitches, and laid off a couple of boarder-line offerings, eventually working a walk and giving the Cubs their first lead of the contest at 1-0.
Judging by the above pitch chart, Contreras took at least one pitch in the strike zone for a ball, while also maintaining his patience on a ball down and one up, earning an RBI for his efforts.
With Contreras aboard, Bote inherited his chance to open up a lead over the Marlins before they even had an opportunity to step to the plate. Like his teammate, Bote enjoyed a good at-bat, fouling off two fastballs and a change-up before running the count to 1-2.
After fouling off a similar pitch earlier in the at-bat, Bote got a change-up from Richards that stayed in the heart of the zone and resulted in a ringing double into left field that plated two and moved the lead to 3-0 Cubs.
On the above chart, the green dot in the middle of the zone is the ball Bote ripped into the outfield at 108.9 MPH with six degrees worth of launch angle. For Bote, his two-run double in the first inning only continues to build-off what has been a solid start to the season for the newly minted millionaire.
After signing a multi-year extension as the season began worth $15 million, Bote is rewarding his club with a .269/.367/.462/.828 slash line prior to Monday. Additionally, Bote has racked up a .192 ISO and jumped out to an All-Star-caliber start to the season with a 116 wRC-plus.
Not only did Bote’s double continue his quick start to the 2019 campaign, but it gave the Cubs all the runs they would need on Monday. With that being said, the Marlins did rally in the innings following the first, plating a run in each of the second and fourth frames, cutting the Cubs’ lead to 3-2 at one point.
A Chad Wallach home run in the home half of the fourth was responsible of the 3-2 score, a solo blast that doubled the Marlins’ run total. At that point, Richards had retired nine straight Cub hitters dating all the way back to a first inning intentional walk of Almora.
The home run off Wallach’s bat, however, seemed to awaken the Cubs’ bats the very next half inning. Chicago’s half of the fifth inning began with a Bryant double into the left field corner. Bryant, as touched on above, has been one of the Cubs struggling at the plate early in the season.
Entering play, the 2016 National League MVP was slashing just .231/.333/.365/.699 with a lackluster .135 ISO and only one home run to his credit. Two days off for the youngster, however, seemed to pay dividends as Bryant reached each of the first two times he stepped to the plate on Monday, contributing to each run-scoring environment for the Cubs.
After Bryant’s double, Baez collected his second knock of the game (and his 100th double) on a ball that was blooped into shallow right field. That hit gave Baez his 13th RBI of the season, a team-high for a guy that led the league in 2018 with 111.
Up 4-2, the Cubs worked the bases back loaded, this time on a walk and another hit-by-pitch. Once again, Bote stepped to the dish with the bases loaded, and once again, the youngster came through. Hit at a much slower 76.2 MPH, Bote rolled a ball toward the Marlins’ shortstop, a grounder the fielder decided to throw to second base. Hustling all the way breaking from first, Contreras reached the base prior to the throw, resulting in a fielder’s choice RBI for Bote upon replay review.
Sporting a 5-2 lead in the fifth inning, thanks, in part, to Bote’s three RBI, the Cubs were not finished tacking on. Up until this point, the Cubs had relied on balls in play for their runs. Nevertheless, there had been multiple balls hit to the warning track by Cub hitters, including a Zobrist fly out on the very first pitch of the game.
In fact, through the first six innings, the Cubs had hit five balls with an exit velocity of 100 MPH of greater. Two of those came in the first (Baez single and Bote double) with Bryant’s double and a Zobrist fly out in the fifth accounting for two more. The remaining of those five came in the top of the sixth when Contreras stretched his lead in the team home run category, mashing his sixth of the season into the left-center field seats.
Off the bat at 105 MPH, the ball traveled 420-feet and registered an xBA of .900 with a 29 degree launch angle, pushing the Cubs’ lead to 6-2.
Perhaps just for good measure in the top of the ninth, the Cubs rallied with Rizzo drawing a walk and Baez punching a single into right field.
With runners at the corners, Contreras joined Bote on the three RBI plateau, dropping a single into left-center field, pushing Chicago’s advantage to 7-2. Of the Cubs’ eight hits on the evening, six of them came courtesy of either Baez, Contreras or Bote as the latter two accounted for six total runners batted in.
For the Marlins, their runs in the second and fourth innings would be all they would get on Monday. That is because Yu Darvish was largely on top of his game across 5.2 innings before the bullpen took over.
A shaky first inning in which the Marlins loaded the bases gave way to back-to-back walks to open the bottom of the second. Just eight batters into the game, despite not allowing any runs, Darvish had already walked three batters, but had recorded two strikeouts, one of which came with the bases juiced in the first.
While those walks in the second frame resulted in a run for the Marlins after an E6, the right-hander was able to settle into somewhat of a groove, making just one mistake pitch to Wallach in the fourth.
On the night, Darivsh threw a total of 96 pitches, garnering 13 swinging strikes and another 18 called strikes. Of those, four swinging strikes and five called strikes came on his four-seam fastball with another four swinging strikes and six called strikes coming courtesy of the slider.
Darvish’s final line looked like this as he continued to take steps in the right direction: 5.2 innings, four hits, two earned runs, four walks and eight strikeouts on 96 pitches, lowering his season ERA to 6.11.
With Darvish off the mound, the Cubs’ bullpen was able to hold the Marlins in-check over the remaining 4.1 frames, allowing the visiting club to win by a score of 7-2.
The Cubs’ series-opening win over the Marlins moves their record to 6-9 while Miami drops to 4-13 on the season.
Next Up for the Cubs
The Cubs will continue their three-game set with the Marlins on Tuesday at 6:10 pm at Marlins Park. Taking the ball for the Cubs will be Jose Quintana (1-1, 5.14 ERA). Quintana, who struggled through his first two outings of the 2019 campaign, spun a gem on April 11 against the Pittsburgh Pirates. Across seven innings, the southpaw allowed just four hits, while striking out 11 and leaving the game with a shutout in-tact.
With that successful outing, Quintana halved his ERA from 10.29 to where it stands now at 5.14, a number he will look to further cut into on Tuesday.
Opposing Quintana on the mound Tuesday will be right-hander Pablo Lopez (1-2, 6.60 ERA). In his last start, the 23-year-old Lopez allowed four earned runs on seven hits while striking out five batters versus just one walk.
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