(Author’s note: For whatever reason, I thought this series was at Wrigley, and I wrote this preview accordingly. Take the title, for instance. I am a fool. That said, what follows is still mostly applicable to a series at Busch and I hope you enjoy it anyway.)
The Chicago Cubs organization doesn’t need much in the way of an introduction. If you’re a Cardinals fan first, then there’s a good chance the team you know second-best is the Cubs. Sort of a “keep your friends close, but your enemies closer” type of thing. And on a more micro-level, the Cardinals play the Cubs 19 times a year so by default it’s pretty hard to not be somewhat acquainted with our NL Central friends by this point in the season.
Personally, the Cubs are part of my baseball DNA. I grew up in Central Illinois which meant half of my friends rooted for the Cubs. My only sibling, too. I am married to someone from the Chicago area, and even though she has a first cousin who once pitched for the White Sox (Hint: He was involved in the Andy Van Slyke – Tony Peña swap.), she, too, is a Cubs fan. In short, it was hard to openly and aggressively cheer for Cleveland in 2016 in front of lifelong friends and family and not feel like a total jerk about it. I did it anyway though because sports can bring out the worst in a lot of us.
Here’s a secret though: The friends and family component aside, there are some things about this organization that I do like. Let’s start with the city of Chicago. It is not perfect – what city or town is? – but it is probably my favorite major city in the United States. I used to live there and I don’t miss it all that much because the winters are pretty comparable to Alaska, but from a history, culture, food, entertainment, you-name-it standpoint, the place just feels like a living, breathing institution. And for skyline buffs (anyone?), there’s no place better.
Then, there’s Wrigley Field. It’s the best venue in sports so long as you’re looking at it strictly in a vacuum and not taking into account 1) the team who plays there; 2) the boys in the bleachers, all from the suburbs who upon their first day of moving to Lincoln Park or Lakeview start belligerently screaming things like, “Hey best fan in baseball, get out of my town!” (Downstaters love to hold on to grudges against every blank-face guy from Wilmette whose superiority lies completely in the fact that he was born north of I-80.); and 3) the fraternity culture that has usurped Wrigleyville and spills out of every bar on Clark and Sheffield while you’re trying to simply get the hell out of there.
All of that aside, Wrigley Field is a gem. One of the last of its kind. It’s gotten several facelifts over the years but look at a picture of Wrigley from 1945 and it’s still basically the same place. I (barely) remember when Wrigley only had day games, and that’s a crazy, cool thing to think about, right? Because it wasn’t that long ago. And while that added to its mystique in a way, Wrigley at night under the lights is a beautiful thing to see. Whether at the game or watching on television, the place always feels alive. It’s an environment that I think only a historical place like Wrigley can truly foster.
And ignoring the party scene that has slowly invaded the neighborhood over the years, there’s still something special about seeing a ballpark with its dimensions confined to the city block on which it sits, in a real neighborhood, just steps away from actual residences. I haven’t been there since Opening Night of 2015 – sort of the turning point in current Cubs history for a lot of reasons – but from what I understand the neighborhood-y feel to it isn’t quite what it used to be. I’m not talking about the bar scene – that’s a battle that’s been going on between residents and the city for a long time – but rather the development of things like hotels and club-owned restaurants. It’s the Ricketts-effect. I mean, just take a look at this thing:
That’s Hotel Zachary apparently. It might be hard to tell, but that thing now sits at the corner of Clark and Addison, where the McDonald’s used to be (if, of course, you’re somewhat familiar with how the area used to look).
I get it, but I don’t really like it. I went to Philadelphia a few years ago with a good friend of mine for a Cardinals – Phillies game and beforehand we went to their version of Ballpark Village, which is also perfectly fine and generic. This same friend recently went to Busch Stadium for the first time since Ballpark Village finally opened and he asked me if it was worth checking out, and I reminded him of Philadelphia and said, “It’s fine, but it’s just like that.” What I see now at Clark and Addison sort of looks “just like that.” And that’s a bit of a shame. One thing about the Wrigley experience was that it felt different, and never “just like that.” But be that as it may, once inside the slabs of the edifice itself, it’s still an experience that few other places can provide.
The Cardinals are now at Wrigley (EDIT: Nope.) for a three-game set, and thankfully because of the lights which were added in August 1988, we won’t be treated to one of those Friday day games which is a drag for anyone who has to work. (EDIT: Sigh…) Tonight will be the 2,407th meeting between the two clubs – the Cardinals have only played the Pirates more – and the Cubs lead the all-time series 1,222-1,165. Interesting enough, the Cardinals hold a +13 run differential in those games (10,517 to 10,504).
And don’t pay attention to that all-time series record anyway. The Cubs built up a 351-193 lead from 1876-1920, when the sport barely resembled the game today. Since that time the Cardinals hold a 972-871 advantage. In your lifetime, and the lifetimes of your parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents, the Cardinals have been far and away the better club. If you want to be even more petty about it (and why not!), check out this article from Dayn Perry which unnecessarily shows the all-time NL Central standings. At the time of publishing, the Cardinals were 138.5 games ahead of the Cubs.
As for this series, courtesy of FanGraphs, here are the pitching matchups and the Cardinals’ win probability.
Even though the Cubs are coming off a series with the Brewers in which their offense didn’t show much life, they’ve recently emerged as the dominant force in the NL that everyone expected by posting a 22-12 record since the Cardinals swept them at Busch in early May. Their offense ranks near the top of the NL in almost every statistic that matters and they get on base better than any team in the NL by far.
And they’ve done this even while Kris Bryant is having a slightly down year by his standards. In fact, he hasn’t hit a home run in over a month. Anthony Rizzo hasn’t been great either (his current 106 wRC+ is his worst as a Cub). But Kyle Schwarber and Ben Zobrist are having bounce-back years – both have a wRC+ over 120 – and Willson Contreras is showing last year wasn’t a fluke. He is good.
Other than Jon Lester, the starting pitching has been a bit of a disappointment, and that includes new (currently injured) acquisition Yu Darvish. They walk more batters than anyone and the result is easily the biggest negative difference between ERA and FIP in the NL. There’s a reason for that though and it’s not all dumb luck: The Cubs have the best defense in the league. Every FanGraphs metric says so. The eye test backs it up. Balls put into play quickly turn into outs against this defense so the Cardinals should just stick to their practice of hitting a lot of home runs to take it of their hands.
Speaking of great defense, I’m going to say something controversial: I think the Cubs (maybe) hit the jackpot with Jason Heyward. I really do. Or, to tone it down a bit, it’s not as bad of a contract as perceived. Here’s why: Heyward was horrendous at the plate in 2016 and 2017, that I think we’ll all agree upon. It didn’t matter. The Cubs won the World Series in 2016 and almost went back last year. He was flanked with great hitters in the lineup to mitigate his ineffectiveness and he was an asset in the field. Now, Heyward has (maybe) figured it out at the plate. I’m not good enough with StatCast to give you all of the fun details but I do know those numbers say he’s hitting the ball better, and the results say the same. Since May 19, he’s put up a slash line of .329/.365/.494 in 85 plate appearances.
And he’s likely not going to opt out of his contract at the end of this year because he’s probably shown to be too much of a risk at the plate. But he’s only 28. The Cubs have him for (maybe) another five seasons in what are still pretty much prime years and he’s (maybe) finally settled in at the plate. At the very least the Cubs know that they have the best defender in the league in right field. Best case scenario, Heyward is also an above-average hitter going forward. The contract could still be underwhelming when all is said and done, but an albatross? I don’t think so.
(Now Gleyber Torres? Yeah, the Cubs probably messed up there.)
As for this series, I’ve heard several people say that after the Cardinals went a disappointing 4-5 against the Marlins, Reds, and Padres, that they’ll probably sweep the Cubs because, hey, that’s the randomness of baseball. I really don’t see that happening, the offense is in a bad place right now. Paul DeJong is still out with an injury. Tommy Pham is battling a nasty slump. And the Cardinals’ best hitter is out of the country on paternity leave. I’m worried it will be an ugly weekend in Chicago (EDIT: Or, in St. Louis), but I certainly hope I’m wrong.
View from behind enemy lines (in 20 words)
Baseball Prospectus author and Cubs follower Matt Trueblood offered the following preview of this series from the Cubs perspective:
This series is about two things: showing off New Jason Heyward and looking for chances to throw Dexter Fowler pipeshots.
Thank you, Matt. You can subscribe to his very worthwhile baseball newsletter, Penning Bull, here. The cost is likely cheaper than what you paid for your lunch today and some of the proceeds go to very good charities, so it’s a win-win for everyone. You can also follow Matt on Twitter at @MATrueblood.
Enjoy the games; times are listed below.
Friday: 7:15 pm cst; FS-M, MLB Network (out of market only)
Saturday: 7:15 pm cst; Fox
Sunday: 7:05 pm cst; ESPN