The MLB schedule apparently has a sense of humor: the struggling Braves will kick off a two-city, five-game road trip with a visit to Chicago to face the reeling Cubs, before continuing on to take on the now-underachieving Yankees in New York. After a walkoff win on Thursday afternoon, the Braves will try to keep their bats warm, even though the weekend forecast for Chicago currently doesn’t have a high above 50 °F.
As for the 5-8 Braves, well, you likely know the story by now. They’ve already had two four-game losing streaks, and have been wrung out by the baseball gods like they committed the baseball equivalent of fratricide. As a team, no team’s wOBA (.313) is lower than its xwOBA (.354) by a greater margin except the Giants (and even then, it’s .298 to .341), and they have a ballpark excuse that doesn’t befit the Braves. On the pitching end, the team’s 112 ERA- is bad, but its 92 FIP- and 85 xFIP- (fifth-best in baseball) are quite good — opponents have simply had the second-highest BABIP in baseball when facing the Braves, and the fifth-highest HR/FB rate. It’s pretty hard to win games when your opponents receive way more bang for a buck of their inputs when you do, and while bad luck isn’t the whole story about the Braves’ 5-8 start, it’s a pretty big one. When opponents’ BABIP in high leverage and/or runners in scoring position is basically .400 but yours is .200, all you can say is: welp.
(The paragraph above flips between wOBA/xwOBA and BABIP, but the trends are consistent either way.)
“Welp” is also a pretty good way to describe the Cubs through their first 12 games. After a fraught offseason where the team effectively cut payroll to its lowest level since 2015 (also dropping out of the top 10 for the first time since that year), they entered the 2021 season in a three-way dogfight-of-mediocre-on-paper-teams in the NL Central, and have managed just a 5-7 start. They won their season-opening series against the Pirates, but have lost three straight series (Brewers, Pirates, Brewers) since, including a 7-0 shellacking in Milwaukee to close out their most recent road trip.
For the Cubs, the struggles are mostly on offense. They are by far the worst offensive team so far, dead last in both wOBA and xwOBA, and by pretty sizable margins in both respects. The eighth-biggest xwOBA underperformance in baseball only adds more misery atop the hitting pile. The pitching has been okay (107 ERA-, 98 FIP-, 96 xFIP-). Yes, if you’re keeping score at home, they have indeed been pretty much worse than the Braves in every respect, yet are “better” by half a game in the standings. Baseball is cruel, but differentially so. The big difference between them and the Braves as far as bats go is that the Braves have a few guys that at least should be raking based on xwOBA, but the Cubs really do not. The Braves have guy-who-has-almost-physically-carried-the-team in Ronald Acuña Jr., but Freddie Freeman and Ozzie Albies have real good xwOBAs as well, while Travis d’Arnaud, Dansby Swanson, and even Ender Inciarte are in the average-y range. The Cubs, though, have a few guys hitting pretty well by xwOBA (Kris Bryant, Willson Contreras, Ian Happ), Anthony Rizzo with an average mark, and then a whole lot of depressing, with three regulars rocking an xwOBA of .253 or lower. New addition Joc Pederson has a bottom-10 xwOBA among anyone in baseball with even semi-regular playing time so far.
I’d talk at some length about the pitching matchup here, but the reality is that I don’t have much to talk about, because the Cubs still haven’t announced a starter for this afternoon’s contest. Kyle Hendricks was scratched from a scheduled Wednesday start as a precautionary measure after he felt ill before game time, but a COVID test returned a negative result. Rotation turn-wise, it’s Zach Davies’ turn to start, but it’s not clear whether Hendricks will bump him, or how the Cubs will choose to play anything out in this series. Both Hendricks and Davies had one decent-to-great and one pretty bad start against the Pirates so far this season, but the Braves would probably prefer to face the average-y Davies rather than the above average-y Hendricks if it’s all the same to Chicago. UPDATE: Yes, it is apparently Davies getting the start. Will we say Hendricks later in the series? Stay tuned.
Atlanta does apparently have this kind of uncertainty because Drew Smyly was placed on the Injured List with left forearm inflammation. So, it’ll be Kyle Wright facing off against Davies, as best we know right now. Wright was not very good in 2020 outside of one regular-season outing and one playoff outing, but hopefully he’s able to do something other than the absolute shelling he took at the hands of the Dodgers in the NLCS.
Atlanta does not have this kind of uncertainty as it pertains to today’s starter: it’s pretty much just Drew Smyly, unless something quite unforeseen occurs. Smyly has had a pretty miserable-but-consistent-with-the-crap-experienced-by-his-new-teammates start to 2021 so far: 138 ERA-, 121 FIP-, 95 xFIP-. He was done in by bad defense and a homer in his first start despite an 8/1 K/BB ratio, and then really struggled against the Phillies (two homers in five innings, including a big three-run homer in a lefty-lefty matchup against Didi Gregorius, while striking out just three batters). It’s early yet, but Smyly hasn’t immediately bounced into Atlanta with a revolutionized approach — he’s become essentially a two-pitch pitcher, shifting cutter usage to his not-great four-seamer while only marginally increasing the rate at which he throws his devastating curveball. The result has been more predictability and worse results than his elite, tiny-sample 2020 across the board, but there’s plenty of time for Smyly to implement whatever the Braves saw they thought warranted an $11 million, one-year deal early in the offseason.
The Cubbies are managed by old friend David Ross, who the Braves won’t actually see on Friday: he’ll be serving a one-game suspension associated with a bunch of beanball incidents that came to a head when Ryan Tepera threw behind Milwaukee starter Brandon Woodruff on Wednesday. Tepera has been suspended for three games but has chosen to appeal, so he’ll still be around for this series.
Speaking of old friends, one of the few bright spots for the Cubs so far this season has been Craig Kimbrel. The erstwhile Brave was a horrific trainwreck pitchingwise for Chicago when they signed him midseason in 2019 (-1.1 fWAR in just 23 games and around 20 innings; played a sizable role in them missing the playoffs for the first time in five seasons), was mediocre in the shortened 2020, but has yet to allow a hit so far in 2021, and only allowed his first baserunner in his most recent outing.
Atlanta Braves @ Chicago Cubs
Friday, April 16, 2021, 2:20 pm EDT
Wrigley Field, Chicago, IL
TV: Bally Sports Southeast (please stop making me type Bally), MLB Network (out-of-market only), MLB.tv
Radio: 680 AM/93.7 FM The Fan, WNNX 100.5, Braves Radio Network
XM Radio: Online/Ch. 184 (Cubs broadcast)