Tuesday Trends: Rotation in Sudden Disarray, Contreras Surging

You know the drill by now, so we’ll dispense with the preliminaries and get right into it…

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Willson Contreras‘ offensive output: For large portions of this season, Contreras found himself counted among a troublingly large group of struggling Cubs stars. As a result of that slow start, his season-long totals still aren’t quite where you want them to be but he sure is trying to change that in a hurry.

Over his last seven games, he is hitting .440/.517/.600, which includes his heroic effort in Friday’s win against the Cardinals. In a lineup where you still just can’t quite trust what you’re going to get from guys who normally produce like Javier Báez and Kris Bryant, Contreras turning it around is no small thing.

Oh, and one more thing on Contreras: ZIt’s not just his bat that’s been strong. His once maligned pitch framing is now at the 85th percentile among his peers at backstop. You can really see that in the way he receives pitches low in the zone. In years past, he was quite “busy” in trying to pull those pitches back up but now he receives them much more convincingly.

Duane Underwood Jr.‘s spot in the pecking order: Among new Cubs relievers coming into this season, there was almost no one I was more excited to see than Underwood. The struggling-starter-turned-shutdown-reliever narrative is a common one, but it really did seem like Underwood had as good a chance as anyone to join the long list of guys in that mold.

After a rough patch early, things have been turning around for Underwood. In his last 6.2 innings pitched over seven games, Underwood has a tidy 2.74 ERA and 11 strikeouts. He’s averaged over 12 strikeouts per nine innings, walking just over two, and his 3.57 expected FIP suggests that he’s gotten far worse results than he deserves.

Holding steady

Ian Happ‘s ability to see (and hit) the baseball: Admit it, you were pretty nervous after Happ’s eye injury. I know I was. Even the possibility that the Cubs might lose the man who has been their best hitter so far stirred emotions bordering on terror. The switch-hitting centerfielder put those worries to rest in a hurry, smacking a pair of home runs in game one of Saturday’s doubleheader.

Happ, who has slashed .351/.429/.946 over his last 10 games, deserves to be right in the middle of the National League’s MVP race. What might at first glance seem to be an unsustainable hot stretch isn’t all that far off from his season-long line of .301/.408/.654.

If you want proof that Happ should be firmly entrenched in the MVP race, compare him to the last Cub to win that award. Happ’s .438 wOBA and 176 wRC+ compare quite favorably to Kris Bryant‘s 2016 slash line of .292/.385.554 along with his 148 wRC+ and .396 wOBA. That Happ is producing like this at an even more premium defensive position says all there is to say about the quality of his season thus far.

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Jon Lester‘s confidence: Age can be cruel to all of us and we always knew the back half of Jon Lester’s contract had the potential to be a bit of a money sink from the moment it was signed. For large parts of the contract’s final half, though, that appeared to be wrong. It looks like age might have finally caught up in the final year of the lefty’s deal with the Cubs.

It was hard to read quotes from his post-game media session after the Cardinals drubbed him for five runs in just 3.1 innings on Sunday night and he admitted that his confidence has gone missing. Unlike the aforementioned Underwood, Lester is getting basically the results he deserves. His 5.80 ERA, 5.58 FIP, and 5.47 expected FIP are all niftily in line with each other and it’s hard to see what the veteran might do to turn things around.

Clearly, Lester can’t see that path right now either.

With only a few weeks remaining in the season, there’s not a lot of time for Cubs players to fully rewrite their 2020 narratives. The only narrative that still matters is whether the club can maintain their tenuous hold on first place and capture their first division title since 2017.

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