Real or not? Odds favor Cubs, but Cardinals are their equal – SweetSpot


A week ago, St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Tommy Pham was surprisingly frank:

“Man, we’re not good. We’re not dynamic,” he told reporters of the team’s offense. “We lack speed. We lack power. And if you look at all the good teams, they have that. They have both of those elements — speed and power. We just have a lot of guys, man, who are trying to figure it out.”

The Cardinals were 53-56 and had scored just 15 runs over their previous eight games. The judgment may have been a little harsh, as Pham was certainly speaking out of frustration about the team’s recent performance, but at the time the Cardinals ranked 11th in the National League in home runs and sixth in stolen bases. (They did rank below average in the percentage of extra bases taken on the basepaths.)

Dynamic? Sure, not really. Hopeless? Well … since Pham’s outburst the Cardinals have won six games in a row and scored 54 runs. They finished a four-game sweep in the home-and-home series against the Royals with an 8-6 victory on Thursday as they pounded Royals pitching for a .317 average in the four games while hitting nine home runs. The big blow Thursday was another go-ahead grand slam, this one from new cleanup hitter Dexter Fowler in the seventh inning:

It was the first time in Cardinals history they hit a go-ahead grand slam in consecutive games (and they became the first team to do that since the 2005 Indians). Fowler’s move to the cleanup spot — he’s hit there the past two games — may be a permanent thing given the outcomes. We told you: Believe in the Rally Cat.

The Cardinals are now just a game back of the Cubs, and what’s interesting is that entering Thursday FanGraphs still projected the Cubs as the heavy favorite in the division, giving them 76 percent odds of winning the division versus 20 percent for the Cardinals.

Are the Cubs really that much better? Or are the projection systems still giving too much weight to 2016? So far the teams have been essentially even. In two more games, the Cardinals have scored three more runs and allowed 15 fewer. In terms of Base Runs, the Cubs have underachieved by three wins and the Cardinals by five, so neither has gained an advantage via clutch hitting or pitching.

Starting pitching: Cardinals 3.78 ERA, Cubs 4.29 ERA. The Cubs should be a little better than this moving forward, not only with Jose Quintana in the fold, but Kyle Hendricks back off the DL. But home runs are still an issue: John Lackey, Jon Lester and Jake Arrieta have combined to allow 64 home runs after allowing 60 in all of 2016. This looks pretty even to me.

Bullpen: Cubs 3.48 ERA, Cardinals 3.80 ERA. The Cubs might be a little deeper here, especially after adding Justin Wilson, but the St. Louis pen has been excellent the past two-plus months after posting a 5.55 ERA in April. Cubs closer Wade Davis has issued 20 walks in 39 innings Carl Edwards Jr., one of Joe Maddon’s top set-up guys, has 30 walks in 45⅔ innings. Again, looks pretty even.

Offense: Cubs 4.69 runs per game, Cardinals 4.63 runs per game. The Cubs don’t have likely regression candidates and guys like Kyle Schwarber and Kris Bryant could do better. I’d be less confident about Ben Zobrist and Jason Heyward, two guys the projection systems probably peg as underperforming. The Cardinals have two potential overperformers in Pham and Paul DeJong currently occupying key spots in the lineup and no obvious underperformers (maybe Matt Carpenter a bit). Overall, I’d probably give a slight edge to the Cubs the rest of the way.

I think the teams look pretty close the rest of the way. The deeper we get into the season, the less likely the Cubs go on a run. Of course, this could be the Cardinals’ peak right now. I’d still pick the Cubs to win the division, but I think it’s a lot closer to 50-50 than 80-20.

Yu Darvish dazzles again. Darvish wasn’t as sharp as he was in his Dodgers debut, nibbling too much his fastball and going to too many 3-2 counts, but he did finish with 10 strikeouts and two runs in five innings as the Dodgers beat the Diamondbacks 8-6. He did end with a flourish, however. After walking David Peralta leading off the inning, Darvish struck out A.J. Pollock swinging on a 2-2 curveball, Jake Lamb swinging on a 2-2 curveball and Paul Goldschmidt looking on a 3-2 slider, pumping his hand into his glove after getting Goldschmidt — the third time Goldsdchmidt had struck out. Here’s the curveball to Pollock:

It was a masterful bit of pitching. Darvish had thrown just two curveballs before the fifth. Then he breaks out two curveballs with two strikes (and threw one in the dirt to Goldschmidt on a 1-2 pitch). Goldschmidt, maybe expecting another curveball, then froze on the slider.

This is rare company. Pitchers since 1900 with 10-plus K’s in his first two starts with a new team:

2017: Yu Darvish, Dodgers

2015: Rich Hill, Red Sox

2008: Rich Harden, Cubs

1954: Karl Spooner, Dodgers

Hill and Harden were veterans (and they did it three games in a row). Spooner was a rookie, a hard-throwing lefty called up late in 1954 who fanned 15 and 12 batters in two starts. Those were huge totals back then when 10-strikeout games were rare. Spooner hurt his shoulder in spring training in 1955 and pitched just one more season.

Yankees feeling Gray. The Yankees have scored just one run in Sonny Gray‘s two starts, but he’ll have to pitch better than he did in Thursday’s 4-0 loss to the Blue Jays. Gray walked four batters in six innings, struggling through three straight 20-pitch innings at one point. The bigger picture, however, is the Yankee offense. Aaron Judge fanned for the 27th consecutive game and is hitting .172 in the second half. And his teammates aren’t picking up for him:

Yankees offense first half: .264/.344/.450, 5.55 runs per game (second in majors)

Yankees offense second half: .249/.315/.407, 4.04 runs per game (26th in majors)

Catch of the day. Andrew Stevenson, a late-game pinch-runner and defensive replacement in left field for Adam Lind, saves the 3-2 victory for the Nationals with a dramatic final out with two runners on base:

A great catch, but also superb positioning against Dee Gordon. Statcast gave the play a 55 percent catch probability. But probably closer to zero percent if Lind had remained in the game.

Down goes Paxton. The Mariners had climbed into sole possession of the second wild card, so of course James Paxton left Thursday’s game in the seventh inning with a left pectoral strain. Given that Paxton has arguably been the third-best starter in the AL behind Chris Sale and Corey Kluber, this injury would be much more devastating than Felix Hernandez‘s sore shoulder (although reports said Hernandez’s injury may be not be as severe as initially believed and he may not miss three to four weeks after all).

Anyway, it ended up a tough loss for Seattle beyond Paxton’s injury. The Angels led 3-0 in the eighth, but Jean Segura homered and then Nelson Cruz cracked a two-run homer, his sixth in eight games. Mariners manager Scott Servais went to closer Edwin Diaz in the ninth for a third straight day. Diaz didn’t have his control, walking three guys before some guy named Mike Trout cleared the bases with a double down the left-field line. Given that Diaz had thrown 41 pitches over the previous two games, this was a bit of a questionable decision by Servais, but these are the decisions managers are going to have to start making down the stretch. Playing the long game is less of an option as it becomes more imperative to focus on winning that game at all costs. Now they’ll probably be without Diaz for the next two games as he’ll need some rest.

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