Chicago Cubs Lineup (9/24/21, Game 1): Contreras Leads Off, Thompson in CF, Steele Starting

The Cardinals come into this matchup as the hottest team in MLB, having won 12 in a row to blast 4.5 games ahead of their nearest competition for the second Wild Card spot. The Cubs, well, they’re still playing because the schedule says they have to and because the draft order needs to be established. With two games today, both teams could further their respective causes.

Willson Contreras will lead off with a lefty on the mound, followed by Frank Schwindel at first Ian Happ in right, and Patrick Wisdom in left. Matt Duffy is at third, Nico Hoerner is at short, David Bote is at second and Trayce Thompson is in right.

Justin Steele has yet to put together a signature start in seven attempts, though he’s come close. He threw five scoreless innings with just one hit surrendered in Minnesota at the start of the month and allowed only two hits to the Brewers over four innings last time out. Never mind that both hits cleared the fence, the stuff will play when it’s on.

However, Steele hasn’t really shown the ability to put hitters away and has walked too many relative to his strikeout numbers. He’s got a tough task ahead of him in this one, so perhaps the chance to play spoiler will bring out his best.

Going for the Cards is 38-year-old lefty J.A. Happ, one of two aged southpaws the Cubs will be facing this weekend. You may have heard of the other one, whose Saturday start is going to be tough to watch. Anywho, Happ had been pitching like something that rhymes with his name prior to being acquired from the Twins, putting up a 6.77 ERA with 21 homers allowed in 19 starts.

Since then, however, his ERA has dropped to 4.33 and he’s given up only eight homers in nine starts. That latter figure isn’t actually that much better, but the idea is that he’s either figured something out or has been the beneficiary of very good luck. Given the Cards’ propensity for devil magic, it’s almost certainly the latter.

Sure enough, a .332 BABIP against in the earlier sample has dropped to .256 since the trade even as his xFIP has stayed nearly identical (5.27 to 5.23). That metric is meant to be viewed like ERA, except that it eliminates defense and home runs. In short, it tells us what a pitcher’s ERA should be by stripping away certain outliers that are beyond his control.

Happ will only top out around 91 or 92 on the gun, but he isn’t your typical southpaw junkballer. He throws the four-seam around 54% and the sinker at over 17% percent, giving him a significantly higher fastball percentage than anyone else in the league who’s logged at least 100 innings. Adrian Houser, who the Cubs faced recently, is next at 67.4% and Lance Lynn is at 62.8% for the White Sox.

Happ throws his slider around 15% and change at almost 12%, then he’ll mix in a rare curve. The lack of breaking ball usage is a little weird for a lefty, but Happ has never been a big curveball guy. None of those pitches are particularly effective and he’s getting barreled up at an incredibly high rate of 11.9% that is second-worst among 118 pitchers who’ve met the above innings threshold.

Hitters from both sides are handling Happ pretty well, but righties are clearly able to rake against him like nobody’s business. I’m talking a .296/348/.550 slash with 26 of the 29 homers he’s given up. When he pitches on the road, though, left-handed hitters carry a .362/.423/.574 slash with a .424 wOBA.

All the numbers say the Cubs should be able to hang crooked numbers, so it may come down to whether Steele can prevent the Cards from doing the same. And now I’ve jinxed it. First pitch is set for 1:20pm CT on Marquee and 670 The Score, with ESPN carrying it for you out-of-marketers.

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