- Jon Lester and Michael Wacha will battle on Friday Night in St. Louis.
- Both pitchers have started out red hot this season, but we see many reasons why that won’t continue.
- Don’t sleep on how dominant the Cubs’ defense has been this year — especially compared to that of the Redbirds.
The Cubs and Cardinals, who both trail the Brewers in the NL Central, will each try to end two-game skids in their series opener tonight in the Gateway City. Both clubs turn to pitchers who have busted out of the gates in 2018 in Jon Lester and Michael Wacha. We will analyze whether their hot streaks will continue or if regression looms. Let’s dig more deeply into tonight’s matchup in this classic rivalry.
Chicago Cubs (-115) at St. Louis Cardinals (+105) | O/U: 8
Jon Lester (7-2, 2.22 ERA) vs. Michael Wacha (8-1, 2.47 ERA)
8:15 p.m. ET
Dominant Defense: While the Cubs have the edge in the categories above, they’ve also played significantly better defense in 2018. Chicago ranks third in MLB with +41 Defensive Runs Saved — whereas St. Louis ranks 12th with only +7 DRS. The Cubs’ outfielders have especially excelled on defense, as they lead the league with +9 rARM (Outfield Arms Run Saved). Conversely, the Redbirds rank 29th at -5. And believe it or not, Kyle Schwarber (tied with Aaron Judge) leads all outfielders with a +5 rARM. — Stuckey
Regression Looms: Take a look at the FanGraphs chart below, which shows Wacha’s 10-game rolling FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching).
The Cardinals’ pitcher has certainly performed well to start the season, compiling a perfect 8-0 record since April 1. However, he hasn’t shown an ability to maintain a high level over the past few years.
And there are reasons to believe he could regress in the near future. First, his home-run-to-fly-ball rate currently sits at a decent 8.5%. However, he’s had a poor rate above 11% over the last three seasons — a much more reliable sample size. He has also benefited from a .240 BABIP (Batting Average on Balls In Play) — ninth-best in the bigs.
As a Cardinals fan, I’m enjoying Wacha’s current form — but I don’t expect it to continue much longer. — John Ewing
Scary Splits: Having pitched in St. Louis for his entire six-year career, Wacha has faced the Cubs quite a bit and the splits are pretty ugly. In 17 previous outings (15 starts) against Chicago, Wacha is just 4-7 with a 6.12 ERA. Pretty drastic, especially when you consider the 2012 first-round pick has a career 49-24 record against the rest of the league. While Javier Baez, Ben Zobrist and Jason Heyward are just a combined 9-for-50 (.180) with zero homers and two RBI — take a look at the numbers of the other Cub regulars.
Those seven are a combined 43-for-116 with 11 home runs and 30 RBI. Silly. Even Lester is 1-for-2 in his career vs. Wacha. And to think those numbers don’t include Wacha’s start in Game 3 of the 2015 NLDS against the Cubs, who hit a postseason record six home runs. — Stuckey
Not Fooled: What has gotten into Lester? After finishing last season with a 4.33 ERA, he has raced out of the gates to a 7-2 start with a tiny 2.22 ERA. Well, Cubs fans shouldn’t get too excited — as the lefty’s xFIP (Expected Fielding Independent Pitching) sits at exactly 4.33.
Like Wacha, Lester has also had a lucky start to the year, as evidenced by his extremely fortunate .238 BABIP and 84.8% strand rate. Last year, those two metrics were .310 and 68.7%, respectively. And that top-10 84.8% strand rate matches that of Gerrit Cole, who strikes out almost five more batters per nine innings than Lester. Simply unsustainable.
Believe it or not, his K% has actually decreased and his BB% has increased compared to last season. And it’s not like his velocity has jumped back up after ticking down in recent years, as his average heater (91.6 mph) actually clocks in at 0.1 mph slower than his 2017 average. Don’t expect Lester to continue this level.
However, unlike Wacha, Lester has enjoyed great success in his career against the Cardinals. In 16 career starts, he owns an impressive 2.22 ERA over 101.1 innings. And outside of Yadier Molina and Jedd Gyorko, no current Cardinal has had any success at the plate against Lester. That’s especially true for Matt Carpenter, who’s just 5-for-37 (.135) with 11 strikeouts against the lefty. — Stuckey
Stay Away: As John mentioned, Lady Luck has certainly played a part in Wacha’s impressive start. Look no further than his recent (past 15 days) batted-ball luck score of -55 (on a -100 to 100 scale) at FantasyLabs. Pitchers with a score between -50 and -100 have historically posted a Plus/Minus of -0.52.
However, I should note that a handful of stud pitchers frequently fit this trend because they can score points by racking up strikeouts — even if they rank poorly in batted-ball distance. Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander combine for about 5% of the matches alone. If you add on a sub-9.0 K/9 rate (which Wacha has), the Plus/Minus drops to -1.73. — Mark Gallant
Cub Consideration: The hitters in this game likely won’t garner much fantasy attention on today’s slate, but I’d possibly consider Schwarber. He’s outperformed his 12-month marks in both distance and exit velocity over his past 12 games, but has failed to post a positive Plus/Minus in each of his past seven contests. The result is a Recent Batted-Ball Luck of +46, which suggests he should see some positive regression.
That could very well start today against Wacha, who has allowed a hard-hit rate of 56% over his past two starts. Schwarber has also historically performed well against right-handed pitchers, owning a .373 wOBA and .290 ISO over the past 12 months. — Matt LaMarca
Look Over? Lester and Wacha enter this game among the best pitchers in baseball this season. Both have sub-2.50 ERAs and have a combined 15-3 record — with their teams going 20-6 in their starts. Since 2006, when two starters in the same division with ERAs below 2.50 meet, the under has cashed just 44.6% of the time, costing bettors -28.2 units. — Evan Abrams
All stats via FanGraphs, Fantasy Labs and MLB.com