TOP PLAY (WPA)
Will Smith entered the top of the eighth in relief of Jeremy Jeffress. Smith inherited two baserunners, Addison Rusell and Dexter Fowler. Smith was able to retire rookie Kyle Schwarber with a swinging strikeout on a 0-2 slider. Chris Denorfia followed up with a flyout to right field, almost escaping the threat. With Anthony Rizzo at the plate, on a 1-1 count, Smith served up a four-seamer right over the plate. Rizzo wasted no time crushing the innards out of the ball, putting the Cubs up 3-2 and wasting a gem from starter Jimmy Nelson (+.605 WPA).
The home run given up by Smith was uncharacteristic of him, as he has only given up one other home run this season. After setting up with a slider and changeup off the plate, the fastball looked like it was a pitch that had missed its spot.
The home run pitch was in the middle of the zone, just above the knees, exactly where Rizzo has been destroying baseballs all season. He has also been hitting over .300 against lefties in 2015. All of this resulted in the key moment of the game.
BOTTOM PLAY (WPA)
The Cubs started the top of the eighth, trailing 2-0. Jeremy Jeffress had trouble locating his fastball, as he pitched three-straight balls to Addison Russell. On a 3-1 count, Russell hit a single up the middle. Fowler’s at-bat resulted in a single as well, putting runners on first and second. Counsell sent out Will Smith to relieve Jeffress in hopes of getting out of the inning unscathed. With Kyle Schwarber at the plate, Smith delivered a fastball that was hit foul. Smith followed with an 82 mph slider that landed for a strike. With the count in his favor, Smith pitched another low-80s slider that got Schwarber to whiff, putting the innings end within one out (-.097 WPA).
It was solid pitch sequence by Smith. Schwarber, who made his major-league debut last month, struggles against breaking pitches. Granted, there is not a lot of data to work with, but in the month that he has been playing in the bigs, Schwarber’s whiff rate against breaking pitches has increased from 8.33 percent in June to 23.08 percent in July. Smith, whose slider is making left-handed batters look foolish, used the pitch much to Schwarber’s disadvantage.
Most of the positives in this game will be mired by the fact that the Brewers blew the lead with one out left in the eighth. I get that. But it should be pointed out that Jimmy Nelson pitched one-hit ball through the top of the seventh inning. The only hit he allowed happened in the top of the second when the dastardly Anthony Rizzo smacked a double to left. Aside from the lone hit, Nelson only issued two walks through his first six innings — he would eventually walk one more batter before his night was over. Through 104 pitches, though, Nelson was in control.
TREND TO WATCH
Looking at the entire season, Nelson is pitching about as well as we can expect. However, his a 3.97 ERA, 4.09 FIP, and 3.99 DRA does not tell the whole story. With the exception of a rough June, the batting average against his hard and breaking pitches has been pretty good for a back-end pitcher. It’s one of the main reasons why scouts suggest his upside is that of a number-two or number-three starter.
Digging deeper, however, while the batting average against Nelson has fluctuated, the isolated power against his pitches has steadily decreased.
Batters may continue to get a hit off of Nelson, but when they do and if this trend holds, expect them to be weakly hit. It’s one of the main reasons why he has posted a 1.64 ERA in the month of July. He’s poised to put together a banner second half, hopefully giving him momentum for the 2016 season. The Brewers need him to develop into a quality starting pitcher, and he’s starting to flash his high-end potential this month.
COMING UP NEXT
Taylor Jungmann will face off against Jason Hammel. Jungmann is pitching well-beyond expectations. For those of us with a rooting interest in the team, it is difficult to temper those expectations, when he has been one of the better pitchers in the rotation, especially when he is part of the contingent that represents the future.
Fortunately for the Brewers, who have struggled offensively as of late, Hammel has been struggling since the end of June. In the past month, Hammel is sporting an ugly 4.10 ERA. Some have suggested that he hasn’t looked the same since returning from injury, and the numbers reflect that concern. The Brewers will look to capitalize on Hammel’s recent skid and right the ship.
First pitch is at 7:10 pm CT.