Ed. note: This is the first of weekly write-ups on each of the Chicago baseball clubs from our newest contributor to WARR.com, Kevin Luchansky. Expect more from Kevin on the Cubs mid-way through each week and the White Sox later in the week.
It would be easy to take a look at the Chicago Cubs’ opening week, one in which they finished 2-4 overall (now 2-5 after Tuesday’s tough 7-6 loss) – grabbing one win from each series – and point out all the negatives. Just as easy would be noting all the reasons why the Cubs won’t be competitive this year, easy yet time-consuming.
But, believe it or not, the Cubs showed us a few bright spots this past week, though they’re not reflected in the win column.
First and foremost, the starting pitching did an outstanding job of giving the team a chance to win each and every time they took the mound, compiling an ERA of just 1.93. The run support just wasn’t there for anyone outside of Jason Hammel and Carlos Villanueva to be in line for a win, but its certainly worth noting these pitchers’ overall performances, seeing as both Pittsburgh and Philadelphia’s lineups can do damage from top to bottom.
Since Hammel is a new face in 2014, let’s take a deeper dive into his first Cubs start, which was his first in the National League since 2011, a season in which he posted a 7-13 record and a 4.76 ERA with the Rockies.
Hammel, now 31, showed positive command of his pitches, needing just 98 pitches to get through 6 2/3 innings, while striking out five and allowing just one run on two hits. He was able to do this by getting ahead in the count and keeping the ball in the yard, as he threw first pitch strikes to 12 of the 23 Pittsburgh batters he faced.
In doing this, Hammel relied most heavily on his fastball, which he threw 67 percent of the time, and then his slider, thrown in 22% of his total pitches. Hammel’s velocity was also on par with his early career numbers, sitting at roughly 93 MPH for his fastball and 84 MPH on his slider.
It’s just one start, but something to keep an eye on might be Hammel’s use of his curveball this season, or lack thereof. It may have been just something in the scouting notes on the Pirates’ lineup, but Hammel tossed his curveball in just 4% of his pitches in his first start, down quite a bit from his rough average of 10-12% over the past few seasons.
Bonifacio’s Bueno So Far
Emilio Bonifacio was another new Cub that did all he could to help grab those two wins, including everything in the field short of actually taking the mound and pitching.
Even with a small sample size, Bonifacio’s hot start can’t be ignored, he’s certainly seeing the ball well, as attested by his MLB-leading 14 hits in the first six games. Hopefully, this can continue, and manager Rick Renteria sees the value in keeping Bonifacio in the leadoff role.
While the team average leaves much to be desired (.216, 24th in MLB), what’s worse is the Cubs’ abysmal average with runners in scoring position, a lowly .170. This just ups the importance of a guy like Emilio sticking in the leadoff role, and subsequently causing damage on the base paths.
Bonifacio has been picked off a handful of times already, which is somewhat inexcusable, but he also leads the majors with four stolen bags. Being that they have recently been notorious for a low team on-base percentage, I anticipate the Cubs continuing to be aggressive with runners on base, especially in the early goings of the long season.
Olt and Kalish Stepping Up
Although they’ve had limited roles thus far, both Mike Olt and Ryan Kalish are making the most of those opportunities. Sunday, Kalish provided the spark that led to an 8-3 victory over the Phillies, as the lefty started things off in the bottom of the first with a run scoring triple off the ivy. Kalish didn’t stop there, going on to collect a double, two more RBIs and two walks, reaching base in four of five plate appearances.
Olt’s batting average doesn’t indicate it yet, but he has been seeing the ball better and making solid contact. In the Thursday victory over the Pirates, Olt smashed his first major league home run – a welcome sign for a team that desperately needs middle of the order power and plays half their games in a hitter friendly ballpark.
In the coming weeks, I will be keeping a closing eye on Starlin Castro and his approach at the plate. It will be interesting to see where Renteria inserts the struggling young shortstop into the lineup, as his hitting woes of 2013 have carried into 2014 so far, backed up by his .240 average and 19% strikeout rate.
On top of that, Castro has just two hits against right handers in 15 at-bats. Not a promising start for an early-middle of the order guy who will face right handed pitching on most days, but I’m not here to draw conclusions on just 26 plate appearances.
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