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Braves head to the Windy City to face the revitalized Cubs

Braves look to cool off a red-hot Chicago team

Cincinnati Reds v Chicago Cubs Photo by Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty Images

After a slow start following the All-Star Break, the Atlanta Braves have kicked back into gear, winning five out of their last six games by sweeping the Brewers and taking a series against the Angels in Atlanta. They will look to keep up the winning against another team over .500 in the Chicago Cubs, as they head out on the road for a weekend set.

After a middling April and disastrous May, the Cubs sat at 24-31, but since then the Northsiders have heated up, going 31-22. However, even in mid-July it looked like they were going to be sellers, sitting 43-50 after a loss to the Nationals on July 17. Since that loss, they have gone 12-3 in a run that convinced General Manager Jed Hoyer to buy at the Trade Deadline. They made a statement when they acquired Jeimer Canderlario from the Nationals, one of the top rentals on the market. That move has paid dividends so far, as Candelario has gone 8-for-9 over his first two games in his new uniform.

One thing that’s been consistently true, and bizarre, about the Cubs this year is that their record has trailed their production essentially all year. Even right now, the Cubs are underperforming their Pythagorean expectation by seven games (tied for second-biggest underperformance in baseball), and their BaseRuns-derived record by the same margin (third-biggest underperformance in baseball). They’re the only team with a positive run differential and an above-.500 BaseRuns record in their division, but are nonetheless three games out of first in the NL Central and 2.5 games out of a playoff spot. You might be tempted to point out that they have a relatively mediocre bullpen, but mediocre isn’t bad, and the Cubs are probably somewhere between hoping and expecting their fortunes to change substantially down the stretch.

They have been led by old friend Dansby Swanson, who has more or less replicated his production from last season (better xwOBA, worse but still elite defense). He currently has 3.8 fWAR and a 118 wRC+, and has been everything the Cubs could have hoped for so far. Fellow newcomer Cody Bellinger has also been a driving force for the Cubs revival. After winning NL Player of the Month in July, Bellinger has a 141 wRC+ and a 3.1 fWAR, which is a great bounceback after two miserable seasons in LA. However, it’s not all roses, as Bellinger is enjoying a massive xwOBA overperformance, but the Cubs will take it. Nico Hoerner has also had a three-win season, mostly on the back of his outstanding defense at second base.

The pitching’s been more of a mixed bag — 2022 breakout guy Justin Steele has been even better and Adbert Alzolay has been a shutdown late-inning option, but the Cubs have also given about a fifth of their innings to replacement-or-below options (the Braves are at 15 percent).

Friday, August 4, 2:20 p.m. ET (Bally Sports Southeast)

Max Fried (5 GS, 26 IP, 24.3 K%, 5.8 BB%, 60.9 GB%, 2.08 ERA, 3.04 FIP)

Max Fried is finally back! The best team in baseball will improve even more with the return of one of their aces, who has been out for the past three months with a forearm injury. After four rehab starts to build back up, Fried is finally back with the team and set to make his first big league start since May 5. Fried is a master of avoiding hard contact with his average exit velocity allowed ranking in the top decile each of the past three seasons, and it was elite in his five starts on the year, with hitters having an average exit velocity of 84.9 MPH against the southpaw. Fried has a complete arsenal, with multiple quality offerings. His changeup has been particularly good this season, with a 47.5 percent whiff rate, an average exit velocity of 78.9 MPH, and a -11 degree negative launch angle. He has had a lot of success against the Cubs in the past, winning all four starts where he posted a 3.65 FIP and 3.32 xFIP, as well as an amusing 1.57 ERA in the process.

Kyle Hendricks (13 GS, 77.1 IP, 15.3 K%, 3.8 BB%, 46.4 GB%, 3.49 ERA, 3.96 FIP)

Kyle Hendricks has had a bounceback year after a couple down years where he went from one of the National League’s better pitchers to a back of the rotation innings-eater. The big difference? Way fewer homers allowed, though a HR/FB that’s way lower than anything he’s had in the past suggests his success may not last. Still, given that the ball is more juiced this year than last, where he ran a career-high 122 FIP-, suggests that he’s tinkered effectively enough to get back to respectability.

Hendricks’ changeup has long been one of baseball’s best pitches and that has remained the case this season, with a 29.3 whiff rate and xwOBA-against near .200. It has regained some of its extra drop this year, and he has sensibly de-emphasized his four-seamer and curve this year, as those pitches aren’t as effective as his sinker-change bread-and-butter.

One thing that’s been funny about his season is that his fortunes in terms of results have reversed heavily. After missing most of the first two months of the year, Hendricks’ first seven starts featured a 65 ERA-, 85 FIP-, but a 121 xFIP-. Since then, in six starts, he has a 99 ERA-, 101 FIP-, but an 85 xFIP-. The net result is a guy with average peripherals and some HR/FB luck that’s benefited greatly from his defense and sequencing, but it’s funny that his results have gotten way worse as his pitching has gotten better.

The Braves have consistently tormented Hendricks, especially recently. In eight career starts, he has a 6.81 ERA and 6.85 FIP against them, but a fine 4.34 xFIP. Four of those starts have come since the Braves became competitive in 2018, and those numbers inflate to 12.12/11.55/5.86.

Saturday, August 5, 2:20 p.m. ET (Bally Sports Southeast)

Bryce Elder (21 GS, 121.2 IP, 17.8 K%, 7.4 BB%, 53.6 GB%, 3.18 ERA, 4.15 FIP)

After a rough stretch that sometimes had bad results and sometimes didn’t, Bryce Elder has bounced back a bit. His last start was pretty good, as he lasted seven frames in a blowout and was charged with a single run while going walkless for the first time since mid-June. He will look to repeat that against another NL Central opponent in the Cubs. Elder has primarily been a sinker-slider guy, but he is able to mix in his changeup effectively, especially to left-handed hitters. Elder has never faced the Cubs before.

The Cubs starter is TBD, this is Marcus Stroman’s spot in the rotation but he was placed on the injured list with hip inflammation

Sunday, August 6, 2:20 p.m. ET (Bally Sports Southeast)

Charlie Morton (21 GS, 119.1 IP, 24.5 K%, 10.3 BB%, 46.3 GB%, 3.62 ERA, 4.08 FIP)

Charlie Morton put together a quality start with eight strikeouts last time out against the Angels, but he was still subject to criticism due to allowing three homers on fastballs that tailed right into hitters’ happy zones. He allowed six total hits and more critically, walked three batters, so the bases were crowded throughout the outing. Walks have been an issue for Morton all season as can be shown by his double-digit walk rate. He still has his elite curveball to lean on and he has been leaning on it more than ever, throwing it 44.5 percent of the time. He is doing that for good reason, as his fastball has been getting lit up. Despite averaging 95 MPH, the pitch has been hammered to the tune of a .329 opponents average and a .529 opponents slugging percentage; it’s no wonder why his curveball is his most-used pitch. Morton needs to figure out a plan for how to thrive when hitters can wait out his curve and smash his fastball, but honestly, he’s just fine even if he doesn’t make any improvements in that regard.

Justin Steele (20 GS, 115.2 IP, 22.3 K%, 5.1 BB%, 49.6 GB%, 2.65 ERA, 3.12 FIP)

Justin Steele has been the Cubs’ ace this season and is a darkhorse contender for the National League Cy Young Award. He has the second-lowest ERA in baseball this season and has established himself as one of the game’s best with 3.1 fWAR in 115 23 innings so far. Like Hendricks, he has a big FIP-xFIP gap (and his ERA is even lower), but the Cubs won’t complain given how the rest of their season has gone.

He does it almost exclusively with two pitches: a four-seam fastball that is essentially a cutter, as well as a nasty sweeping slider. It’s a tough profile to adjust to, as no one else is quite like Steele. It seems like, on paper, he would struggle against righties because his pitches would break towards their barrels, but he just pounds them inside over and over and doesn’t give them a chance to get their hands extended.

The cutter-fastball thing is his primary offering, being thrown about two-thirds of the time. It has managed contact crazily well so far, with Steele’s average exit velocity allowed ranking in the 89th percentile and his barrel rate ranking in the 80th percentile. He also has terrific control, with his 5.1 percent walk rate falling in the 91st percentile.

Steele had a so-so start against the Braves in his breakout last year, with a 3/3 K/BB ratio in five innings, in a game the Cubs won 6-3.

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