When a lineup’s first four hitters go just 1 for 21 (.047 AVG) with seven strikeouts over a 14-inning stretch that spans two games… it’s usually bad news. However, Sunday’s doubleheader with the Diamondbacks was about as bad as it could get as the Braves were shutout by a combined score of 12-0, losing two seven-inning games that featured just one hit by Atlanta in the first game of the doubleheader versus starter Zach Gallen, followed by none in the second game against Madison Bumgarner. It was a rough day for the Braves, but let’s hope this is as low as it gets over the next 141 regular-season games.
Freddie Freeman on Atlanta's offense ⤵️
"I wouldn't say I'm concerned about anything. It's three weeks into the season. I'm not concerned. We still have 141 games to go." pic.twitter.com/n7pdpgwwdh
— Bally Sports: Braves (@BravesOnBally) April 25, 2021
The Braves won’t have time to stay down about the recent pair of losses, though. Beginning Monday, Atlanta will start a four-game series with the Cubs, a team the Braves beat twice in a three-game series two weekends ago, including perhaps Atlanta’s best overall game yet this season. After losing 13-4, they beat Chicago by the same score at Wrigley Field the very next day.
Unfortunately for the scuffling Braves, this isn’t really the same Cubs team they faced a week ago. When I previewed that matchup back on April 16th, Chicago had only won five of its first dozen games, not to mention it featured the worst hitting offense in the majors, carrying a .163 AVG and 59 wRC+ up to that point. Those Cubs were scoring just 2.6 runs per game and were obviously still trying to get things going.
But things are a little different now. Since playing the Braves last time, Chicago has won five of six, including four-straight immediately following the final game of that series with Atlanta. Those wins for the Cubs came primarily against the first-place Mets, when Chicago swept New York by a combined score of 25-8 in the team’s three-game series last week. The recent offensive surge has resulted in much better numbers across the board for the Cubs, who, entering Sunday, had a much-improved .216 AVG and 99 wRC+ to go along with nearly twice as many runs per game (4.6) compared to when Atlanta faced them last.
One aspect of Chicago that hasn’t improved is its pitching — especially the starting rotation. Entering Sunday’s slate of games, the Cubs starting staff collectively held a 5.23 ERA — the third-worst mark in the majors. However, Chicago starter Jake Arrieta did pitch well in the team’s most recent game versus Milwaukee on Sunday — not included in the ERA listed above. That loss was on the Cubs bullpen, who allowed five runs from five hits in three innings of relief.
In a nutshell: Chicago has improved. Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo is scorching hot at the plate right now, posting a 199 wRC+ with three homers in his last seven games entering Sunday. In that same span, Kris Bryant is hitting .409, and Javier Baez has started turning things around, hitting .333 with a pair of homers as well. Meanwhile, as mentioned above, Chicago’s starting pitching has been hit around a bit as the aforementioned Arrieta start appears to be the only strong outing by a Cubs starter in the last week.
Hopefully, the Braves can attack Chicago’s weak pitching and silent the Cubs surging bats because one way or another, Atlanta needs to crawl out of this horrible hole it’s in.
Here are the pitching matchups for the Braves-Cubs series, a four-game set that hopefully includes the return of a certain pitcher the team desperately needs back on the mound…
Game 1: Monday @ 7:10 PM / Bally Sports South, ESPN
Zach Davies vs. Charlie Morton
Atlanta has Charlie Morton and his consistent longevity in starts this season, and Chicago has Zach Davies, who, save for his first start of 2021, hasn’t reached the 5th inning. Albeit Davies was respectable last time out, pitching around two runs from five hits in a game the Cubs offense broke out for 16 runs and the win against the Mets. Davies is a guy living on borrowed time right now on the mound, allowing a .414 xwOBA and a 42.1 HardHit% entering Monday’s start. Chicago’s 28-year-old righty is a sinker-baller who doesn’t miss many bats and tries to generate weak contact. Davies also throws a changeup over a ⅓ of the time, which has been one of the Braves’ favorite offerings so far; as a team, Atlanta’s offense ranks fifth in MLB versus changeups, according to FanGraphs Pitch Value.
It’s a good thing, coming off a day like Sunday, that it’s Charlie Morton’s turn to pitch on Monday. Last time out — last Tuesday versus the Yankees — Morton looked great, allowing just one run from two hits and striking out six in a start in which he lasted six innings — his third-straight outing that’s lasted that many frames.
The Cubs didn’t get to face the 37-year-old Morton last time the two teams played. Though Chicago’s offense has done pretty well against the curveball this season, ranking tenth per FanGraphs, they probably haven’t had to try and hit one like his. Morton’s curve, his most frequently thrown pitch in 2021, has allowed just a .103 AVG while generating a 46.9 Whiff%.
Game 2: Tuesday @ 7:20 PM / Bally Sports Southeast
Trevor Willams vs. Ian Anderson
The Cubs Trevor Willams was the starter of the 13-4 game the Braves lost last time these teams met, though it wasn’t as if he dominated Atlanta’s lineup. During that April 17th outing, Williams tallied all four of his strikeouts in just the first two innings, and then the rest of his outing featured Braves hitters continuously slapping balls to Cubs defenders. From the 3rd inning to the 5th, Atlanta produced seven-straight balls in play that resulted in either a groundout, line-out, or pop-out before Guillermo Heredia reached on an error. Sean Kazmar then proceeded to ground out into a double-play. I don’t expect the Braves to be so unlucky versus Williams on Tuesday.
I may be getting ahead of myself, but Ian Anderson’s last start has me believing he’s about to toss an absolute gem on Tuesday. I know Anderson was a bit wild during last week’s outing versus the Yankees walking four. Still, even despite New York’s historically poor start to the season, that was a helluva lineup he faced, and he didn’t surrender a single run. The last time out was also the first time in 2021 that the 22-year-old reached the 7th inning, and he did so without surpassing a season-high in pitches.
Anderson’s secondary pitches are currently right on point, with both his changeup and curveball combining to allow just a .170 AVG so far, including a 31.2 Whiff%. If he can get his fastball working like it did last year, Anderson will again be nearly unhittable when he allowed a .179 AVG.
Game 3: Wednesday @ 7:20 PM / Bally Sports South, FS1
Kyle Hendricks vs. Huascar Ynoa
Fortunately for MLB hitters in April, Cubs righty Kyle Hendricks has always struggled a bit during the first month of the season, illustrated by his career 4.53 ERA in March/April starts, compared to a 2.96 ERA in all starts after April. Even better for the Braves is the fact that Atlanta’s offense really got to Hendricks last time they faced him, hanging seven runs — including four home runs in the opening frame — and knocking the Chicago pitcher out of the game after just four innings. Hendricks is famous for his ability to strike guys out with hardly any velocity, and so far in 2021, he’s thrown all four of his offerings at least 10% of the time. But given how comfortable the Braves were two Sundays ago, this may be another quick outing for Hendricks.
Hopefully, the current trend for Huascar Ynoa continues, which is exactly what we were all saying after his career-high, 10-strikeout performance against the Marlins three turns ago — an outing that he followed up with by allowing six runs (three homers) versus the Cubs. That stinker against Chicago was hard to watch, but I’m very impressed with how Ynoa bounced back in his next start, going six strong innings against the D’Backs this past Friday to earn his first win of the season.
.@theynoaa did it all last night! @Delta | #ForTheA pic.twitter.com/fcvwpL8C5E
— Atlanta Braves (@Braves) April 24, 2021
We sometimes forget Ynoa is just 22-years-old, and through four starts — and one relief appearance — he’s pitching to a sub-4.00 ERA (3.68) in the big leagues. Ynoa must do something, though, to avoid the barrel-end of the bat because his current batted-ball profile is incredibly unsustainable; so far this season, the Braves righty has allowed an 18.2 Barrel% to go with a 50.9 HardHit%.
Game 4: Thursday @ 7:20 PM / Bally Sports South, MLBN
Adbert Alzolay vs. Bullpen game
Evidently, the Cubs only like pitching Adbert Alzolay when they’re up against the Brewers because in three starts so far, he’s only faced Milwaukee. I thought Alzolay would line up to pitch against Atlanta the last series, but luckily for the Braves, they just missed the former prospect. Listen, don’t let his 5.40 ERA this season make you think he isn’t dangerous. Alzolay’s peripherals are solid. Both his slider and four-seam fastball combine to generate a whiff rate of 35.2%, with the former offering accounting for 13 of his 17 total strikeouts this season. According to Baseball Savant, Alzolay’s expected-ERA is a strong 3.09.
UPDATE: We were hoping Max Fried would be ready in time for the Cubs series this week, but it appears the Braves are going to keep him out a bit longer. On Tuesday, MLB.com’s Mark Bowman reported that Game 4 will likely be a bullpen day for Atlanta…
Snitker said Thursday's starter will be somebody who is currently on the staff. In other words, it won't be Kyle Wright. So, it will likely become a bullpen game.
— Mark Bowman (@mlbbowman) April 27, 2021
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