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NL Wild Card Game Preview: Which Jon Lester will we see this postseason?

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Related: how long will “Rocktober” last?

Pittsburgh Pirates v Chicago Cubs Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Is it just me, or does this game feel a little one-sided? The Rockies are good and all, but pale in comparison to the Chicago Cubs. For one, Colorado is probably a bit lucky to be here. The Rox managed 91 wins during the regular season, but their pythagorean expected win-loss record was just 85-78. They finished a distant second in the NL West in third-order win percentage, barely ahead of the Arizona Diamondbacks — and they would not have made the playoffs by that measure.

Looking further, the Cubs are also well ahead in most other categories. Their offense ranked third in the National League with a 100 wRC+; Colorado’s 87 wRC+ was all the way down in 12th. And the Rockies were even worse on the road, with a paltry 78 wRC+ that was second-to-last in the NL. They were better against left-handed pitching, but still slightly below league average.

The numbers tell a similar story on the other side of the ball. Chicago’s 3.65 ERA was the second-best in the NL, while Colorado’s 4.33 ERA ranked fourth-worst, ahead of only the three last place teams in each division. The numbers get much closer if you adjust for hitting environment, but Chicago still wins this category, and Colorado’s road numbers weren’t all that special.

All of those numbers don’t necessarily matter in one game, though, and the Rockies are uniquely positioned to squeeze out a victory in a low-scoring game. Their bullpen rounded into form late in the season after a rocky (heh) start, and they ultimately finished 26-15 in one-run games. They might be helped by Wrigley Field’s weird hitting environment too; if the wind is blowing in, as it was on Monday, Colorado’s issues at the plate (namely, a lack of power on the road) could be less of a factor than normal.

Colorado Rockies (91-72) at Chicago Cubs (95-68)

Time/Place: 8:00 p.m., Wrigley Field
SB Nation sites: Purple Row and Bleed Cubbie Blue
Media: ESPN, WatchESPN
Pitching Matchup: LHP Kyle Freeland (17-7, 2.85 ERA) vs. LHP Jon Lester (18-6, 3.32 ERA)

NL Wild Card Pitching Matchup

Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Freeland 202.1 20.5 8.3 3.67 4.2
Lester 181.2 19.6 8.4 4.39 1.6

No two pitchers have been better for the Rockies this season than German Marquez and Kyle Freeland. The former missed his chance to deliver an NLDS berth to Colorado on Monday, so now the latter gets his chance. There’s one catch, though; Freeland is pitching on short rest. He tossed 96 pitches against the Washington Nationals on Friday, and while the Rockies won by a comfortable 5-2 margin, many of those came with traffic on the bases. Freeland allowed 11 hits in six innings, but was able to dance out of trouble often enough to notch his 17th win of the season.

But if there’s a pitcher to ride with in a game like this, Freeland is the guy. He ranked fourth in the National League with 8.4 rWAR this season, and logged 200 innings for the first time. Those 200 frames weren’t the most impressive in terms of strikeouts and walks — Freeland was second on his own team with “only” 4.2 fWAR — but he limited home runs and continually put his team in a position to win. Case in point: the Rockies went 15-2 in games Freeland started after July 1.

The postseason can be a different animal, though, and that’s where Jon Lester has done his best work. He has a 2.55 ERA with more strikeouts than hits allowed in 148 career postseason innings, and has limited opponents to a .585 OPS in 11 playoff appearances with the Cubs. Those numbers have been even better over the past two years, including a scant 1.98 ERA in his last 50 playoff innings.

We didn’t see the same Jon Lester during the regular season, though. He cut his ERA by a full run compared to an injury-riddled 2017 campaign, but posted his worst strikeout rate since 2012 and worst K-BB% since 2008 in 181 23 regular season frames this year. His home run rate was also a bit higher than usual, and his peripherals were much worse at Wrigley Field than on the road. It’s certainly hard to discount all the postseason success Lester has had over the years, but we also need to remember that he is 34 with nearly 2,400 MLB innings on his arm.

Key matchup: Freeland vs. Lester

This one is simple: the starter that goes deeper into the game will likely win. We saw the Cubs offense flummoxed by starter and bullpen alike on Monday, while Colorado couldn’t get things going until long after Walker Buehler left the game. Both bullpens are capable of handling things late in the game, but getting a quick lead to potentially forcing an early pitching change is a recipe for success for both teams in this matchup, Colorado especially. While the Rockies match up well against Lester, I’m still siding with the guy who has been here before.

Prediction

Postseason Lester comes to play and the Cubs win a snoozefest.