The Chicago Cubs (37-46) have been synonymous with losing and disappointment for years, and famously hold the longest title drought in professional sports: 106 years. It’s certainly easy to write the Cubs off, given their past, but the 2014 iteration of this cursed franchise will be no pushover for the Washington Nationals (46-38).
The Cubs may be languishing in last place in the NL Central, but what success they have had is due to their stellar starting rotation. Leading the way are Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel, who are both having career years after a difficult 2013. Samardzija had a 4.34 ERA in his second full season as a starter last year, but was widely known to have a great pitching repertoire. In 2014, he has fulfilled his potential so far with a 2.89 ERA, along with a 2.1 WAR that ranks seventh in the NL. Hammel had a 4.97 ERA with the Baltimore Orioles in 2013, and signed a one-year, $6M deal this offseason in an attempt to rebuild his value. The deal could not have worked out better for both sides, as Hammel has a 2.98 ERA and the NL’s 9th-best WAR among qualified pitchers. The Nats and Cubs are the only teams with two qualified starters who rank in the top ten in WAR in the NL.
With these two excellent starters, any rotation would be formidable. But so far in 2014, Jake Arrieta has been the true ace of the Chicago staff.
Arrieta was acquired in a trade with the Orioles in exchange for starter Scott Feldman almost exactly a year ago. His years in Baltimore were marked by injury and inconsistency, sprinkled with flashes of brilliance. Though Arrieta was injured to start this year, he has been as good as any pitcher in baseball since returning to health. Career-best marks in strikeout and walk rates, 29.0% and 6.3% respectively. have propelled him to a 1.81 ERA. Most impressively, Arrieta leads the Cubs staff in WAR at 2.4, despite having pitched only 62.4 innings, over 35 fewer than both Hammel and Samardzija. His WAR/IP is second in baseball, tied with Felix Hernandez and trailing only Clayton Kershaw. In other words, he has been otherworldly.
Of course, the Nats are offered the distinct privilege of facing these three pitchers in this series.
In their previous series a week ago, the Nats took on Hammel and Samardzija, but missed Arrieta. Hammel, who has never lost to the Nationals in his career, went 6.1 innings, giving up two runs on five hits, a walk, and six strikeouts as the Cubs cruised to a 7-2 win. Samardzija struggled against the Nats, giving up five runs in five innings during the second game of a doubleheader. The Nats would win that game, also by a score of 7-2, to grab a series split. The final two games of that series were the first two of the Nats’ current five-game winning streak.
Where the Nats will find an advantage this series is on offense. The Cubs’ bats have floundered, ranking 24th in baseball in runs scored so far this season. As a whole, the Cubs’ .234/.295/.376 line puts them 29th, 29th, and 22nd in baseball in batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage respectively. The Nats may be just 22nd, 20th, and 19th in those three categories, but the return of Bryce Harper makes their offense much more potent than it has been recently.
Despite the intimidating Chicago rotation, the Nationals have the upper hand in this series. The Nats will get to line some of their best starters up against the poor Chicago bats, so expect low-scoring games. But if Washington can find any success against the Cubs’ rotation, they should be able to win a few games in this series.
(All stats below are from the past week, unless otherwise noted)
In The Zone
Anthony Rendon (2B) .375 avg, .927 OPS, 0.3 WAR
Luis Valbuena (3B) .278 avg, .889 OPS, 1 HR, 0.2 WAR
Jayson Werth (RF) .278 avg, .965 OPS, 1 HR, 0.2 WAR
Starlin Castro (SS) .304 avg, .751 OPS, 0.1 WAR, .389 BABIP
Ian Desmond (SS) .227 avg, .682 OPS, 0.1 WAR, 0.0% BB rate
Anthony Rizzo (1B) .167 avg, .426 OPS, -0.2 WAR, .174 BABIP
Probable Pitchers (full season)
7/4, RHP Tanner Roark (7-5, 2.98 ERA, 3.37 FIP, 6.68 K/9) vs. RHP Jason Hammel (7-5, 2.98 ERA, 3.11 FIP, 8.50 K/9)
7/5, LHP Gio Gonzalez (5-4, 3.93 ERA, 3.33 FIP, 9.31 K/9) vs. RHP Jeff Samardzija (2-7, 2.83 ERA, 3.06 FIP, 8.58 K/9)
7/6, RHP Jordan Zimmermann (6-4, 2.95 ERA, 2.74 FIP, 7.90 K/9) vs. RHP Jake Arrieta (5-1, 1.81 ERA, 1.96 FIP, 10.30 K/9)