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National League wild card game pitching matchup: Jon Lester vs. Kyle Freeland

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How will one of baseball’s most experienced postseason arms fare against a talented 25-year-old in his first postseason appearance?

Pittsburgh Pirates v Chicago Cubs
Jon Lester looking for signs during his last start against the Pirates
Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

So it comes to this, the 95-win Cubs find themselves in the wild card game after losing 3-1 to the Brewers Monday and ceding the division for the first time in three years. It took an eight-game winning streak from the Brewers, but ultimately the Cubs fell in game 163 and now they find themselves in the most mercurial game in sports: a one game playoff.

As fate would have it, the Rockies found themselves in an similar situation, they were chased down by a surging Dodgers team late and despite going 9-2 in their last 11 games, their 5-2 loss in game 163 sends them to Chicago.

Both teams find themselves in tiring circumstances. The Cubs have had one actual off day in a month an a half. For the Rockies, this will be their third game in three different time zones in three days. It’s going to be a particularly brutal fight, so I wanted to take a look at at the probable pitchers and bullpens to see what they might tell us heading into the wild card game.

Jon Lester

The Cubs’ ace has thrown more postseason innings (148) than any active pitcher and he’s second to only CC Sabathia in games started (Lester has 21 to Sabathia’s 22). He’s tied for thirteenth all-time in postseason wins with nine. Only Sabathia (10) and Justin Verlander (11) have more postseason wins among active pitchers. To put this slightly differently, there are very few, if any, active pitchers more prepared to start a one game playoff than Jon Lester.

Lester was named to the All-Star team for the sixth time in 2018. Even though his second half was not as pretty as his first half, he’s righted the ship in September, Lester’s month by month splits are below.

Jon Lester stats by month

Name IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP Avg. LOB% ERA FIP xFIP
Name IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP Avg. LOB% ERA FIP xFIP
Mar/Apr 33.0 7.36 3.55 1.09 .253 .222 78.1% 2.73 4.56 4.73
May 30.0 8.10 2.70 1.20 .282 .239 88.8% 2.70 4.10 4.23
June 32.0 5.63 2.81 0.56 .171 .155 95.2% 1.13 3.76 4.65
July 30.2 7.34 4.99 2.05 .340 .310 69.9% 6.46 6.26 5.18
Aug 26.1 6.84 2.39 2.05 .358 .327 71.4% 5.81 5.40 4.51
Sept 29.2 9.10 2.43 0.30 .342 .257 87.1% 1.52 2.39 3.23
Select stats by month Fangraphs

In fact, September was Lester’s best month and it’s not particularly close. While he seemed to be fighting bad peripherals for most of 2018, in September his K/9 raised to over nine and his BABIP indicates if anything he’s getting a little unlucky. As you can see from his game logs, he hasn’t had a really bad outing in September:

September game logs
Baseball Reference

Two more ways to look at this data before we turn to the Rockies’ starter tomorrow. In September batters are getting fewer hits off of Lester and when they get hits they are hitting for less power. Below you can see Lester’s batting average and slugging against for 2018 by month:

Batting average against Lester by month
Brooks Baseball
Slugging percentage against Lester by month
Brooks Baseball

The Cubs basically need September Jon Lester to show up in October, and they really need him to show up against the Rockies if they are going to win the wild card game.

Kyle Freeland

Kyle Freeland will make his first postseason start on short rest against the Cubs on Tuesday at Wrigley Field. As I read up on the 25-year-old Rockies pitcher who is currently in his second MLB season, I found the below write up from Fangraphs particularly interesting:

That’s one guy who came to mind. But since this is a post about Kyle Freeland, there’s another, maybe more suitable comp. I know that Tom Glavine is in the Hall of Fame. I do not want to suggest that Kyle Freeland is absolutely as good as Tom Glavine was. But, Glavine got one year into the pitch-tracking era before hanging them up. Here’s how he located, even at 42 years old:

It’s a similar idea. Compared to Rivera, Glavine had a fuller repertoire, and he had it out of necessity. But his whole game was bouncing around between edges. And I’ve mentioned Rivera and Glavine, and I’ve shown you their heat maps, because this is what you find when you look up Freeland’s performance:

Glavine-Freeland heatmap comparison
Fangraphs

As a Cubs fan who remembers the ease with which the Braves, including Tom Glavine, dispatched of the 1998 Cubs, my heart sank a bit reading that comparison. And don’t even get me started on the Mariano Rivera comparisons that are also embedded in that article.

However, in many ways the roles here are reversed. The Cubs are the veteran playoff team toeing the rubber with Lester, who has almost a full season’s worth of postseason experience. Additionally, despite the pitch location similarities, the Rockies are the upstart banking on a young arm that’s never pitched more than 160 innings prior to this season. Freeland enters the game at 202⅓ innings pitched for 2018 compared to 156 last season. He never came close to 200+ innings in the minors.

The Cubs beat Freeland the only time they faced him in 2018, but he’s come a long way since that April 30 start. Interestingly, that was also a matchup against Lester at Wrigley Field:

Freeland v. Lester boxscore from April
Baseball Reference

Adam Ottavino worked a hitless frame for the eighth in that game so you can look at the totality of the Cubs offense against Freeland below:

Cubs offense against Freeland on April 30, 2018
Baseball Reference

Honestly, I’m not sure an April outing against Freeland is all that indicative of what the Cubs can do against him tonight. April was by far his worst month:

Kyle Freeland splits by month and home/away

Name IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP Avg. LOB% ERA FIP xFIP
Name IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP Avg. LOB% ERA FIP xFIP
Mar/Apr 34.0 7.94 3.18 1.32 .274 .239 75.0% 4.24 4.37 4.21
May 31.2 7.11 2.56 0.85 .267 .229 85.4% 2.56 3.76 4.15
June 32.2 7.16 3.03 0.83 .287 .244 81.5% 3.03 3.77 3.95
July 28.1 6.04 3.81 0.64 .253 .222 86.0% 2.54 4.43 5.44
Aug 37.2 10.04 3.58 0.48 .309 .227 86.3% 2.15 2.90 3.52
Sept 38.0 7.34 2.61 0.47 .313 .257 82.3% 2.61 3.08 4.31
Home 93.2 8.26 2.98 1.06 .269 .226 90.3% 2.40 3.97 3.98
Away 108.2 7.21 3.23 0.50 .299 0.246 77.4% 3.23 3.41 4.43
Select stats by month and home/away Fangraphs

The Cubs can take some solace in the fact that Freeland’s stats are slightly worse away from Coors. Only his HR/9 numbers are notably better outside of Colorado, but that’s about it as far as solace goes. He was 6-0 in seven starts in September and hasn’t given up more than four earned runs in a start since July 21.

Freeland game by game September
Baseball Reference

The bullpens

The wild card game looks like it’s set up to be another pitchers’ duel unless something unexpected happens (and who knows, because, baseball). It’s very possible that this game will wind up being decided by the bullpens. The teams look pretty similar on a lot of stats bullpen wise, and where there are differences (fewer HRs allowed by the Cubs, fewer left on base by the Rockies) they can likely be chalked up to park effects.

Cubs and Rockies bullpen stats

Team W L SV IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP LOB% GB% HR/FB ERA FIP xFIP WAR
Team W L SV IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP LOB% GB% HR/FB ERA FIP xFIP WAR
Rockies 32 29 51 517.0 9.14 3.78 1.06 .304 67.1% 45.8% 12.9% 4.63 4.06 4.04 3.9
Cubs 36 17 46 584.1 8.66 4.20 0.79 .276 76.5% 45.1% 9.4% 3.34 3.90 4.30 3.9
Select bullpen stats Fangraphs

However team stats also don’t take into consideration that only the top of each pen makes the playoff roster. Below you’ll see select stats for the Cubs announced bullpen (which will also include starters Cole Hamels and Kyle Hendricks).

Cubs bullpen select stats

Name IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP LOB% GB% HR/FB ERA FIP xFIP WAR
Name IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP LOB% GB% HR/FB ERA FIP xFIP WAR
Jesse Chavez 37.0 9.97 1.22 0.73 .258 97.0% 39.6% 8.6% 1.22 2.41 2.91 1.0
Pedro Strop 59.2 8.60 3.17 0.60 .222 83.9% 46.1% 7.3% 2.26 3.43 4.08 0.8
Steve Cishek 70.1 9.98 3.58 0.64 .234 83.8% 47.6% 8.5% 2.18 3.45 3.91 0.8
Justin Wilson 54.2 11.36 5.43 0.82 .299 81.2% 34.1% 9.4% 3.13 3.64 4.05 0.5
Jorge De La Rosa 21.0 8.57 3.43 0.00 .246 72.7% 49.1% 0.0% 1.29 2.40 3.89 0.5
Alec Mills 18.0 11.50 3.50 0.42 .250 60.2% 51.2% 6.7% 4.00 2.49 3.15 0.4
Mike Montgomery 26.1 5.47 3.76 0.68 .298 66.3% 63.9% 10.0% 5.13 4.30 4.57 0.0
Randy Rosario 46.1 5.63 4.27 0.97 .294 75.8% 52.1% 13.5% 3.69 4.74 4.65 -0.3
Select stats Fangraphs

I’ve also compiled the Rockies bullpen stats for every active reliever who has pitched at least 10 innings. Additionally, I would expect the Rockies to have Antonio Senzatela available in their pen as a backup option (their wild card roster wasn’t announced at publication time).

Rockies bullpen select stats

Name IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP LOB% GB% HR/FB ERA FIP xFIP WAR
Name IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP LOB% GB% HR/FB ERA FIP xFIP WAR
Adam Ottavino 77.2 12.98 4.17 0.58 .240 76.3% 43.0% 8.6% 2.43 2.74 3.13 2.0
Scott Oberg 58.0 8.84 1.86 0.62 .268 78.7% 56.6% 13.3% 2.48 2.87 2.83 1.3
Wade Davis 65.1 10.74 3.58 1.10 .238 66.9% 41.6% 12.9% 4.13 3.65 3.63 0.9
Seung Hwan Oh 21.1 10.13 2.95 1.27 .240 85.1% 30.8% 11.5% 2.53 3.87 4.05 0.2
Yency Almonte 14.2 8.59 2.45 0.61 .341 79.6% 46.3% 11.1% 1.84 2.96 3.08 0.2
Chad Bettis 11.1 3.18 1.59 0.79 .275 58.8% 53.8% 8.3% 2.38 4.4 5 0.0
Chris Rusin 54.2 7.74 4.28 1.15 .308 56.6% 56.2% 16.7% 6.09 4.64 4.25 -0.1
Jake McGee 50.1 8.23 2.86 1.79 .327 60.3% 39.2% 15.9% 6.62 4.99 4.47 -0.2
Bryan Shaw 54.2 8.89 4.61 1.48 .370 64.8% 48.5% 17.3% 5.93 4.92 4.35 -0.3
Harrison Musgrave 43.1 6.65 4.57 1.45 .231 74.2% 39.3% 14.3% 4.57 5.38 5.15 -0.3
Select bullpen stats Fangraphs

Given the park effects of Coors Field I looked most closely at FIP and xFIP here, which are frankly pretty close player by player. One other thing to keep in mind, in a cruel twist of fate, the Cubs had to use a lot more of their key bullpen arms in game 163 because their game was a lot closer than the Rockies’ game. Key bullpen arms with pitches in parentheses follow.

First the Cubs:

  • Jesse Chavez (16)
  • Justin Wilson (8)
  • Steve Cishek (6)
  • Randy Rosario (6)

Next, the Rockies:

  • Harrison Musgrave (19)
  • Scott Oberg (8)
  • Jake McGee (15).

Freeland vs. Lester will be a must see matchup tonight at Wrigley. The Cubs hold home field advantage and an experience edge. The Rockies have a unique young talent in Freeland and a more rested bullpen. I expect this wild card game to live up to its name.