Series Review: Cincinnati Reds (April 21 – April 23)

The Cubs went back to what they’ve been doing all season long, taking two of three against their opponent. This time it was against their 2016 punching bags, the Cincinnati Reds. This series had a little bit of everything, so there’s plenty to discuss.

 

Anthony Rizzo is Heating Up

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Arturo Pardavila III

It was only a matter of time, to be honest. Rizzo was ‘struggling’ out the gate this season with only one home run and three RBI coming into the series. That all changed over the weekend when he clubbed three homers and collected eight RBI, increasing his SLG 121 points for good measure. He also hit a clutch, game-tying three-run homer on Friday to send the game into extras, a game the Cubs would eventually win.

Undoubtedly the leader of the team, if Rizzo can keep it going and get back to being that rock every team needs then the team will be even harder to beat.

 

Starting Pitching Becoming More of an Issue Each Week

It is early in the season, but by taking a look at the stats it’s easy to see that the Cubs’ pitching staff isn’t performing the way they’re capable of. The team has only six quality starts (at least 6 IP and less than three ER), which is tied for 8th worse in the league. They’re also giving up hard contact 33.4 percent of the time. Compared to the rest of the league and what they had last year, this isn’t a good sign:

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These stats, courtesy of Fangraphs, show that not only are the starters giving up more hard contact than last year, but they’re giving it up at an above average rate. It’s no wonder the team ranks 8th in HR/FB rate (home run per fly ball); hard hit balls in the air tend to be homers more often than not. The Reds hit five long balls in the series and crushed the ball to a tune of a 78.3 percent hard-hit rate, 2nd in the league over the weekend. Last year’s team’s bread and butter was giving up soft contact while preventing hard contact, and while the starters are still inducing soft contact at an above average rate, the homers will keep piling up if the staff keeps allowing hard-hit balls.

Ben Zobrist Struggling Offensively

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Arturo Pardavila III

Ben Zobrist is certainly one of the most important players on the team. However his sluggish start to the season has made him perhaps the most underwhelming player so far. He’s sitting at a slash line of just .212/.339/.346 with two homers and only 5 RBI; not the kind of numbers you want from your cleanup hitter. By digging deeper we can see that Zobrist’s struggles may stem from his plate discipline not being as sharp as it has in recent years. Take a look at those stats, courtesy of Fangraphs:

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O = Outside of Strike Zone / Z = Inside of Strike Zone / SwStr = Swinging Strike

By looking at the stats it’s easy to see that Zobrist’s plate discipline has taken a dive here early in the 2017 season. Not only is the veteran swinging at more pitches outside of the strike zone (something he excelled at last year), he’s making contact at those pitches at a far worse percent then he has in recent years. He’s also making contact on pitches in general at an almost 10 percent fewer clip then the past two years. He’s also swinging the bat more often, which wouldn’t be a problem if he was making contact like he has in recent years, but he isn’t. He only played in one game this series due to a back injury and did go 2-4 with a double and two runs, so maybe he’s on the rise. Nevertheless, it’ll be interesting to see if Joe Maddon makes any moves in the lineup to accommodate this sluggish start.

 

Jason Heyward Continues to Hit

Jason Heyward’s new swing is doing wonders. The outfielder collected four more hits and seven more RBI in the Cincinnati series, pushing his slash line up to .297/.348/.422 with 12 RBI, 2nd on the team. He also mashed his first two homers over the weekend, something he didn’t do until June of last year.

What’s interesting is his hard contact percentage is the same at this point in the season then it was all last year, but his soft contact percentage is nearly seven points lower, with his medium contact percentage also climbing. Reducing the number of softly hit balls is one of the best ways to maximize a plate appearance, as it ensures that when you do hit the ball it’s going to be barreled up and more likely to drop in for a hit. The new swing he’s implemented is doing just that, as his BABIP (batting average on balls in play) is 25% higher then it was last year. If he continues to see the ball well then he’s definitely going to be in contention for comeback player of the year.

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