MILWAUKEE – Credit the Cubs’ high-performing pitching staff, their higher performing defenders, their detailed pitching plans of attack – or all of the above.
But what they’ve been able to accomplish against some of the best hitters in the league – and at least two in the other league – is one more indicator pointing toward potential success in the postseason.
The Cubs have faced 10 MVP hitters this season, including at least two – the Giants’ Buster Posey and the Nationals’ Bryce Harper – who could return as playoff opponents.
And as well as they’ve done against every other Tom, Dick and Scooter this year, their success in holding the MVPs to a .206 average and OPS of just over .700 speaks to their ability to effectively neutralize dangerous hitters in close games.
Until Ryan Braun’s ninth-inning homer against debuting rookie Jake Buchanan on Monday, the numbers were .199 and a .670 OPS.
They’re even more impressive when the numbers are removed for Joey Votto, who racked up stats in several lopsided games (the Cubs are 10-3 vs. the Reds this year), or Andrew McCutchen in similar circumstances (they’re 12-3 vs. the Pirates).
When those two division rivals are removed, the numbers against the eight other MVPs faced by the Cubs this year drops to .134 with a .254 slugging percentage and .515 OPS.
“It doesn’t really surprise me, because I think we have pretty good pitchers,” catcher Miguel Montero said. “And those are great hitters. But even if you’re a great hitter, when you face a top of the rotation pitcher, if you go 1-for-3, you had a great day. But big-name hitters, they make their money on the fourth and fifth starters.”
Fifth starters? The Cubs’ No. 5 – Kyle Hendricks – leads the majors with a 2.07 ERA.
“Yeah, we don’t have a fifth starter,” Montero said.
But the Cubs’ success with the big-name guys goes well beyond their pitching ability. Strategy coach Mike Borzello and his assistants put together a scouting report and plan of attack for each hitter more detailed than most teams.
And, like with most teams, he and pitching coaches Chris Bosio and Lester Strode meet each series with pitchers and catchers to go over the opposing hitters, including a focus on the key hitter to make sure doesn’t beat them.
Most of them are on that MVP list – including Posey and Harper (combined 5-for-42 with one extra-base hit against the Cubs this year).
The Cubs pitched around Harper effectively enough to sweep a four-game series at Wrigley Field in May. They swept the Angels in four interleague games this season in large part by holding Mike Trout and Albert Pujols to one infield single in 30 combined at-bats.
“It’s easy to say, to identify that guy,” Hendricks said. “Boz and Borzello give you the good plan of attack in order to approach that.”
“At the end of the day they’ve got to execute pitches,” Montero said.
Why do they seem to do that so well against those bigger hitters in those big situations? In the recent four-game series against the Giants, all four games were decided by one run, and Posey had just one hit in the series.
“I think the pitchers maybe just focus a little bit more on it,” he said. “I keep calling the same games for everybody. But maybe they face a tough hitter, and he knows he needs to be sharp on him. Because if he doesn’t, he’s going to pay for it. Other guys you might take a little bit for granted.”
Like the Brewers’ nondescript leadoff man, Jonathan Villar? He hit two solo home runs to beat the Cubs 2-1 Wednesday night.
Hendricks: “That could be part of it, definitely. And the focus I think as a whole stoff on executing is heightened just because of the level of play we’ve been at. Everybody is pushing each other.
“When everyone is going out there and performing, it pushes you to another level.”