5 stats to keep in mind during tonight's Cubs-Rockies Wild Card matchup

5 stats to keep in mind during tonight's Cubs-Rockies Wild Card matchup

A little after 7:05 PM Chicago time tonight, the N.L. Wild Card game will get underway at Wrigley Field. 

This'll be the 7th meeting between the Cubs and Rockies this season, and with the series split at 3-3, it's oddly poetic that tonight is single-elimination. 

The Cubs will send Jon Lester to the mound, and Kyle Freeland's starting for Colorado. 

Baseball is a game overstuffed with stats, and you will surely hear that you're allowed to throw them all out for a one-game playoff. Platitudes aside, there are a handful of stats worth looking at when trying to get a feel for tonight's game. Here they are: 

1.) -1.07 

We'll start off with some bad news for Cubs' fans, with the promise that I'll make up for it somewhere farther down the list. The -1.07 represents the difference between Jon Lester's ERA and Jon Lester's FIP. It doesn't get the hate that W-L records do, but ERA is not-so-slowly losing its status as the tell-all pitching statistic. With that said, looking at ERA in comparison to other statistics still provides plenty of insight. In this instance, Lester's ERA is over a full run lower than his FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching). On its surface, that indicates that Lester has benefitted mightly from luck this season. Lester's ERA sits at 3.32, which is not going to win him any Cy Youngs but still lower than the 2018 league average (4.14). Lester's FIP? 4.39. Of all Cubs' starters with at least 50 innings pitched, no one has a higher disparity than Lester's -1.07. In fact, only eight starters across the entire league with at least 50 IPs has a wider gap. No one questions whether Lester can perform on a stage like this -- and looking at a gap set over 180 innings doesn't do a whole lot for a one-game performance -- but it's interesting to see how ERA still finds ways of directing the narrative around starters. 

2.) 78

This is the wRC+ that the Rockies' offense posted in road games this season. Given that wRC+ is a park-adjusted stat where the league average sits at 100, you can get a sense of how bad that is. Only 1 team - the San Fransisco Giants - had a worst road wRC+. It's not groundbreaking to point out that the Rockies offense is quite as prolific away from Denver's thin air, but it's illuminating to see just *how* bad their offense is on the road. The Rockies had a -6 run differential on the road (and a +41 at home, lolol) so they're clearly a different team away from Mile High. 

3.) 11% 

11 percent is how often the Cubs bullpen walks batters. It's not great! In fact, it's so not great that only one team's bullpen (Atlanta) walks more batters. It gets worse! Only six teams had worse K-BB% ratios than the Cubs' bullpen did this season, and four of those teams finished with less than 65 wins. Plainly, the Cubs' walk a lot  of batters late in games and don't have much in terms of backend strikeout threats. He's struggled this season, but not having Carl Edwards Jr -- the Cubs' best strikeout guy -- on today's roster is a real blow. 

4.) .797

Here we have the Cubs' OPS against left-handers at Wrigley. Granted, this is an awfully specific stat. But it's worth pointing out that it's the third-best home OPS against lefties in all of baseball. Given that the Cubs are at home, against a lefty, that seems noteable. What does this mean in regards to their lineup? I'd expect to see Albert Almora Jr. and his .806 OPS against lefties slotted in there somewhere. Same goes for David Bote, though most of his damage against lefties has come on the road this season. 

5.) 2.25

Finally, we've reached some good news. 2.25 is Jon Lester's ERA through 148 playoff innings pitched. Did I just spend 500 words explaining why ERA was outdated? I sure did! And while that's certainly true, it doesn't take Bill James to tell you that a sub-3 ERA over almost a full season's worth of playoff innings is incredible. The Cubs' gave Lester $155 million over six years specifically for starts like tonight. 

BONUS - 48.6%

The Rockies are one of the most aggressive swinging teams in baseball. That 48.6 percent represents how often they swing at pitches, which is the 4th-highest in all of baseball this year. They swing at pitches in the strike zone 70 percent of the time, which is four percentage points higher than the MLB average and the second-most in the league. They make contact on 84 percent of pitches in the zone, which seems like a lot, but actually isn't (23rd in MLB). They're free swingers who don't make a particularly impressive amount of contact, which bodes well for Lester and the Cubs. 

Why Cubs, rest of baseball sweat as MLB battles coronavirus testing issues

Why Cubs, rest of baseball sweat as MLB battles coronavirus testing issues

It was never going to be perfect.

But Major League Baseball’s coronavirus testing system needs to be good enough.

That may not seem like an especially high bar to set.

But so far it has been a difficult one for baseball to clear.

In fact, the latest example of baseball's biggest challenge in pulling off a 60-game season played out at Wrigley Field on Monday, when the team that by all indications has done the best job of establishing and following safe practices had its manager and five other “Tier 1” members of the organization sit out activities “out of an abundance of caution” because their latest COVID-19 tests, from Saturday, remained “pending.”

Tier 1, by the way, comprises the 80-something members of the organization with the highest access, including players and coaches.

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The results had been analyzed. But as pitching coach Tommy Hottovy explained, they appeared to be in a batch of samples that included at least one positive test, the batch involving multiple teams. So they were retested. Five of those retested samples, including manager David Ross’, were negative, the team said late Monday, with the sixth considered “compromised” and another test done.

The sixth did not belong to a player.

Give the Cubs another gold star for getting through yet another round of tests — and yet another glitch in that process — without having a player test positive.

But give MLB another kick in the ass. The testing issues don’t seem to be as bad as they were throughout the league that first holiday weekend of processing. But it hasn’t fixed this thing yet, either.

Whether it’s a lab-capacity issue, a quality issue or a shipping issue, it’s not even close to good enough.

Not for 30 teams barely a week from leaving their individual training-site bubbles to start playing each other for two months. Not when more than one-third of those teams play in locales considered hot spots for the pandemic. Not in the world’s most infected country.

“We do feel comfortable in this bubble that we’ve kind of created here,” said Hottovy, who was hit hard by the virus for a month before camp started. “When the season starts though and we start traveling and we start putting ourselves in some different circumstances, we just don’t know what to expect with that.

“We’re still taking this day-to-day for sure.”

Players across baseball, including Cubs star Kris Bryant, said they were upset and surprised at how unprepared MLB’s testing system appeared to be when camps opened. Two weeks of testing later, and just enough issues persist to make the league’s entire 2020 undertaking look more tenuous than ever.

The season starts July 23. That’s not much time to get it “good enough” — never mind to get it right. But, again, we're not asking for perfection.

The league protocols require testing thousands of players and other team personnel every other day through the end of the season.

Imagine sitting a manager and three or four players from a single team on a game day because of “pending” or “compromised” test results. Imagine that happening two or three times a week to various teams. Or worse — imagine a given team doesn’t exercise “an abundance of caution” and puts the players or staff in question on the field or in the dugout and clubhouse anyway.

“The only concern that I have right now is how long the test will take to get the results back,” Cubs catcher Willson Contreras said on Thursday. “Other than that, I don’t think I am at risk inside of the ballpark because the Cubs have been doing the best they can to keep us safe in here."

“I don’t have any concerns about my teammates, because I trust them. I know we all are doing our best to keep [each other] safe, and that way we can have a season this year.”

Contreras expressed tolerance with the system so far and was reluctant to point a finger at MLB or anyone else.

“But how can that get better?” he said. “I have no answer for that.”

It doesn’t matter whose fault it is as much as it matters that an answer is found quickly.

Players, staff and their families already have taken on the daily stress and anxiety of this health risk and the every-other-day process of holding your breath until the next result comes in.

“You get that test day coming up when you might get results, and it’s a little bit of that unknown, a little bit of anxiety of, ‘Have I done everything right?’ “ Ross said. “You start running back the day since you’ve been tested and what you’ve done, where you’ve gone, who you’ve been in contact with, just in case something bad may come back on your test. It’s real.”

Thirteen players, including Giants star Buster Posey, already have declined to play this season, all but one without a pre-existing condition that would qualify as “high risk” under the agreement between players and management.

Angels superstar Mike Trout heads a list of several more who have talked openly about opting out at some point, depending on how things look as we get closer to games.

That includes Cubs starter Yu Darvish, who said Sunday, “I still have concerns” and that he has not ruled out heading home if he doesn’t feel it’s safe anymore for him or his family to keep playing.

Maybe Trout, Darvish, Posey and the rest of those players have the right idea.

In fact, maybe we’d all be better off if baseball rededicated its testing capacity to a general public that suddenly is facing shortages again in a growing number of hot spots.

But if baseball is going to stick to its plan and try to pull off this season, then it needs to get this right. Right now.

Nobody’s expecting anything great at this point. Maybe not even especially good. But good enough? In the next week or so?

Would that be too much to ask?


How Cubs' Jon Lester just got 126 innings closer to returning to Chicago in 2021

How Cubs' Jon Lester just got 126 innings closer to returning to Chicago in 2021

One more year of Jon Lester?

A few months ago that looked uncertain at best — figuring to come down to a $25 million decision for the Cubs to mull at the end of this season (or a $15 million decision, given the $10 million buyout on the option clause).

But the vesting part of Lester’s hefty seventh-year option on his original six-year, $155 million contract suddenly looks tantalizingly within reach for the longtime ace.

Major League Baseball and the union have finalized an agreement on multiple details for calculating contracts in 2020, including vesting contract options, according to documents obtained by NBC Sports Chicago.

Performance thresholds for vesting options will be prorated for the 60-game season and rounded up to the next out. 

So that 200-inning threshold Lester needed to reach to assure the additional $25 million year — a threshold he hasn’t reached since 2016, when he was 32?

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In a season only 37.04 percent as long as normal, that means 74 1/3 innings earn the extra year.

It’s still roughly the same average of innings for 12 projected starts (6.17) this year as it would have been for 32 (6.25) in a full season.

But that’s a lot fewer potential aches, pains and injuries to navigate for two months compared to six months — and a stretch that doesn’t include the bone-chill cold of April and weather volatility of May.

Lester, who ranks eighth on the all-time list of postseason innings pitched, said when spring training opened in February he “obviously” wanted to finish his career as a Cub.

“Hopefully, I have a good year, and it’s null and void, and we don’t have to talk about it,” Lester said then of trying to vest the option.

“I signed here hoping that the option was kind of going to take care of itself and [I’d] finish out the seventh year. After that, I can’t predict tomorrow, let alone what’s going to happen two years down the road.”

Lester pitched in his first intrasquad game of the restarted training period on Sunday and looked strong enough to get sent out to face two more batters after finishing his scheduled two innings — retiring seven of nine, with one reaching on an error and another on a 15-foot tapper in front of the plate.

“He was commanding all of his pitches,” catcher Willson Contreras said. “From what I saw, he’s looking in good shape.”

Monday's agreement between MLB and the union also included details on calculating awards bonuses, roster bonuses and contract escalators. And unlike the normal injured list, players won't lose "active time" on the roster while on the COVID-19 IL.

The Athletic was first to report Monday's agreement.