Since becoming manager of the Chicago Cubs before the 2015 season, Joe Maddon has a regular season winning percentage just a tick above the .600 mark. Over the course of a 162-game schedule, this puts his Cubs teams at a pace of over 97 wins per season, which surely everybody reading this knows is very good. While the Cubs were coming off half a decade of fifth place division finishing before Maddon became skipper, giving Maddon full credit for the turnaround is unfair–the Cubs’ much-ballyhooed crop of coming talent from the minors, which includes current MLB stars Kris Bryant, Javier Baez, Kyle Schwarber, Addison Russell, and Willson Contreras, was widely accepted as one of the great prospect stockpilings in history even at the time. The Cubs were going to be very good. That the Cubs were even able to acquire Joe Maddon as manager reflects the inevitability of their rise–his run of success with the Tampa Bay Rays was nearing the end and the Cubs were the next juggernaut waiting in the wings.
Since becoming manager of the St. Louis Cardinals before last Sunday’s game against the Cincinnati Reds, Mike Shildt has a regular season winning percentage of 1.000. After 6 1/2 seasons with Mike Matheny, an anti-sabermetric whipping boy who combined a misunderstanding of basic tactical optimization with a crusty persona which assured that player happiness could exist in a winning environment and only a winning environment, a new era has begun in St. Louis. The Cardinals ought to steamroll the Cubs this weekend.
To say that Mike Shildt is a 1.000 true-talent manager is a bit ambitious, but while he is probably a very good manager, he doesn’t have to be a one-man army single-handedly guiding the Cardinals to victory in every single game. He has around him a full complement of professional baseball superstars which not only can trade punches with the 2018 Chicago Cubs, admittedly a very good baseball team in its own right, but which can overwhelm its opponents through sheer force and talent.
Going position-by-position isn’t the most nuanced way to evaluate baseball, as players don’t match up individually with one another, but it does make things nice and organized. At catcher, Willson Contreras of the Cubs has been one of the best offensive catchers in the game, and in certain ways he is a good defensive catcher (by certain ways, I mean “he has a good arm”), but his deficiencies at pitch framing, at which he is among the worst in the game, are his downfall. Yadier Molina, despite not being as good at framing as he once was, is nevertheless so substantially better than Contreras that despite worse hitting, he is the more valuable player by Baseball Prospectus’s Wins Above Replacemente Player.
At first base, I gave a wonderful preseason gift to the Cardinals by drafting Anthony Rizzo to be on my fantasy team–he has responded by being a slightly below league-average hitter. Jose Martinez has been a revelation offensively in full-time duty, and while his defense leaves much to be desired, it is not so far below that of Anthony Rizzo (whose win of the Platinum Glove, an award designed to reward the best fielder at any position, is one of the more egregious examples of Cubs overhype in recent years) that Martinez hasn’t held the decided advantage. At third base, Kris Bryant is also having a bit of a down season (he is still very good, and compared to Rizzo’s struggles, Bryant is at peak form), while Matt Carpenter, despite early struggles, has a 143 OPS+, the highest mark on either team this season. At shortstop, Addison Russell remains a defensively strong shortstop whose offense just hasn’t quite reached the hype–if his 95 OPS+ holds, he will have his fourth consecutive below-average offensive season. Meanwhile, Paul DeJong, fresh off missing considerable time on the Disabled List, is looking at his second consecutive above-average offensive season. Maybe you’d prefer Russell as an overall player, and maybe you’re right, but as a hitter, DeJong has been quantifiably better.
In left field, you could make a case for the Cubs having the advantage, but to make the case it’s a big advantage would require a level of trust in advanced defensive metrics in small sample sizes that I (and those who invented the metrics) simply don’t have. By Ultimate Zone Rating, Kyle Schwarber ranks as tied for the third-best defensive left fielder in baseball, and the best in the National League. While this may seem absurd to those who mostly associate Schwarber with his often-hilarious defensive misplays, his value is tied in mostly with his arm, and his range is barely above-average. While I am willing to grant that Schwarber shouldn’t be judged on his worst moments–notably, former Cubs left fielder Alfonso Soriano made a lot of ugly errors but also had a ton of range to more than make up for it–I’m not quite willing to crown him a great defensive left fielder. Also, consider that Marcell Ozuna, who has maybe the worst throwing arm from a Cardinals outfielder I’ve ever seen (non-Randal Grichuk while hurt division), is an above-average thrower per UZR. And while Schwarber has been a better hitter in 2018, Ozuna was the better hitter before this season, his first under Noted Bad Manager Mike Matheny and Noted Bad Hitting Coach John Mabry. And now they’re gone. Maybe Ozuna doesn’t bounce all the way back, but it’s hard to not view this as a positive in his column. And if Kyle Schwarber were such a great hitter, then why didn’t he win the Home Run Derby on Monday?
In center field, Albert Almora has had a better 2018 than Tommy Pham, but Pham has demonstrated far more upside in recent seasons. The same can be said for Jason Heyward and Dexter Fowler in right field. They both played well in their first game under Mike Shildt, a manager they presumably at least tolerate, and while it would be a mistake to read too much into this, it’s also important to remember how bad Mike Matheny was at this. The clearest advantage the Cubs have on the surface is at second base, where Javier Baez has been superior to Kolten Wong in 2018, no doubt, but it’s not quite as overwhelming as it may seem. Baez holds a 1.5 Wins Above Replacement lead because, after a terrible start, Kolten Wong is back to being Kolten Wong–a below-average hitter and above-average fielder. And I’m just going to say it–Javy Baez is the most overrated player in baseball. You know what the highest OPS+ season by one of the starting second basemen in this series was before 2018? 109. By Kolten Wong last season. Baez always had more power and thus always had more upside and it’s finally starting to come together for him in 2018, and good for him–he seems like a pleasant guy, unlike his Garbage Man middle infield partner. I’d rather have Baez, but the gap just isn’t so large that it makes up for the overwhelming superiority of the Cardinals at other positions.
And that’s not even getting into the pitching, the area at which the Cardinals are more widely accepted to be the superior team. While tonight’s starter, Carlos Martinez, has been subject to various trade rumors in the last day or two, I have a hard time imagining the Cardinals parting with their ace after this weekend’s five-game sweep for anything a team would realistically offer. Also, while Miles Mikolas is on the paternity list, he will pitch against this weekend, so that worked out pretty well. I feel like “baseball players shouldn’t take paternity leave” hot take artists would commend the timing here. Anyway, here are the pitching matchups for this weekend. Matchups listed per ESPN–the matchups, particularly on Saturday, are subject to change.
Thursday, 6 pm: Carlos Martinez (6-5, 3.08 ERA) vs. Kyle Hendricks (6-8, 3.92 ERA)
Friday, 1:20 pm: Jack Flaherty (3-4, 3.24 ERA) vs. Jon Lester (12-2, 2.58 ERA)
Saturday, 12:05 pm: John Gant (3-3, 3.49 ERA) vs. Mike Montgomery (3-3, 3.91 ERA)
Saturday, 6:15 pm: Luke Weaver (5-8, 4.72 ERA) vs. Tyler Chatwood (3-5, 5.04 ERA)
Sunday, 1:20 pm: Miles Mikolas (10-3, 2.79 ERA) vs. Jose Quintana (8-6, 3.96 ERA)