Chicago Cubs Lineup (4/26/24): Mervis DH, PCA in Center, Imanaga Starting

Fresh off their sweep of the Astros at Wrigley, the Cubs are in another historical landmark to take on the Red Sox in Boston. It’ll be Theo Epstein’s former team against his current team, which I suppose is also his former team, though he’s no longer running baseball ops. That job belongs to Craig Breslow, who has very strong Cubs ties of his own from his time in Chicago as pitching director and assistant GM.

It’s fitting that tonight’s matchup features two pitchers currently performing at Cy Young caliber in the early going, with Shōta Imanaga toeing the rubber for the Cubbers. God, that was awful. Why didn’t I delete that as soon as I typed it. Maybe I’ll edit it out before I publish.

In any case, Imanaga just surrendered the first earned runs and first homer of his MLB career during his last start against the Marlins. He still tied a career high with six innings pitched and ended up getting the win to move to 3-0 in four starts, which was nice. Imanaga also struck out five batters with no walks as he continues to display a propensity for throwing strikes.

The Red Sox have a 105 wRC+ against lefties coming into this game, right in the middle of the pack, but their 30% strikeout rate is the highest in MLB. If Imanaga sharp tonight, this sets up well for him.

We can’t say the same for Cubs hitters, who are up against righty Kutter Crawford and his 0.66 ERA through five starts. That number clearly isn’t sustainable, but the expected stats still show that Crawford has been pitching really well. He appears to have figured something out after bouncing around between Triple-A and the bigs since debuting in 2021, and the improvement doesn’t seem to be coming from just one pitch.

The 28-year-old has a very balanced attack that features three pitches thrown with nearly identical frequency. As his name indicates, he loves his cutter and throws it 29.4% of the time. The four-seam has the exact same usage and both pitches live in the upper third of the zone with the fastball sitting 93-94 mph and the cutter around five ticks below.

Crawford goes to the sweeper about 27% of the time and takes quite a bit off, so it’s coming in at about 81-82 mph and working across the zone to target that glove-side edge right in the middle. If there is one pitch that might be key to unlocking the effectiveness of the others, it’s the splitter he’s got working very well. He incorporated it into his repertoire this spring and it’s such a fit because it offers a different movement profile from his other offerings.

Though it doesn’t have the drop you may think of with other splitters like the one Imanaga showcases, Crawford’s offspeed stays arm-side and lands mainly just off of middle-middle. Some of them will run to the edge of the zone and there will be a few that get depth, but it’s a pitch he only throws about 9% of the time to “open up the other side of the plate.”

He’s also got a spike curve that he throws just 5% of the time, even though that’s the pitch he’s shown delivering in his profile image.

After pitching to weird reverse splits — LHH had way lower average with better slug than RHH, but with identical .304 wOBA — earlier in his career, Crawford has completely dominated lefties so far. As long as you consider a slash of .073/.177/.073 with a 33.9% strikeout rate to be domination. Crawford has struck out more than one batter per inning on the whole even though his swinging- and called-strike rates aren’t particularly gaudy, a product of an effective lack of command.

Maybe that’s not giving him enough credit for what could just be a tremendous ability to fill up the entire zone and a good portion of the areas outside of it with all three of his main pitches. That leads to him working a lot of deep counts and then fooling a batter with something on a corner or maybe even right down the pipe. I don’t know whether this Cubs lineup can exploit those tendencies as well as they could have at full strength, but I guess we’ll find out.

Again, Crawford is due for a little correction and there’s no reason it can’t start tonight. He gave up seven hits and walked three his last time out against a young Pirates team yet somehow escaped with just one run allowed. I’ll wager that the Cubs will score more than a single tally if he allows that many baserunners in this one.

Nico Hoerner has been terrorizing opposing pitchers and he’s back in the leadoff spot playing second, then it’s Mike Tauchman in right and Ian Happ in left. Chris Morel is at third, Michael Busch is at first, Dansby Swanson is at short, and Matt Mervis is the DH. Miguel Amaya is behind the plate and Pete Crow-Armstrong is back in center.

First pitch from Fenway is at 6:10pm CT on Marquee and 670 The Score.

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