The Royals are in historic Wrigley Field this weekend to play the Cubs with a large contingent of Royals fans expected to attend. The two teams have not matched up since 2011, and they have not played in Chicago since 2001. Since the Thomas Ricketts took over ownership in 2009, he has transformed the franchise best known for their championship drought (their last world title came in 1908). Former Red Sox General Manager Theo Epstein now presides over the club with his protege Jed Hoyer running player personnel. Former Rays manager Joe Maddon is the new skipper, and the team is even renovating 100-year old Wrigley Field, adding a giant new video board in the bleachers this year.
The team has been renovated as well, and after several rebuilding years they now feature a lineup full of very promising hitters, with five of their starters at age 25 or under. Anthony Rizzo, now in his third organization, has finally blossomed as one of the league's top hitters. Twenty-three year old Cuban free agent Jorge Soler has a 116 OPS+ in the first 70 games of his career. But the most hype has come for former first-round pick third baseman Kris Bryant. Bryant is one of the most promising power hitters in the game, showing his might recently by denting the new video scoreboard at Wrigley Field.
The sabermetrically-inclined Cubs mark a strong contrast from the Royals in organizational offensive philosophy. The Cubs are second in their league in walks with a rate of 9.1% and lead the league in whiffs, striking out over 25% of the time. Meanwhile the Royals are by far the worst in baseball at drawing walks with a 5.4% rate, but the best at not striking out with a rate of just 15%.
Maddon will often bat his pitchers eighth, even though they are the worst-hitting pitchers in the National League. Despite Wrigley Field's reputation as a launching pad due to the wind, the Cubs have hit just 19 home runs at the "Friendly Confines" compared to 27 on the road, perhaps due to cold weather. The Cubs can swipe some bases too, and are second in the league with even first baseman Anthony Rizzo serving as a major threat to go. The Cubs defense is slightly below average with the team being very weak up the middle at shortstop with Starlin Castro and in centerfield with Dexter Fowler.
The Royals are quite familiar with new Cubs pitcher Jon Lester, who was given a $155 million contract over the winter. Lester will avoid the Royals, who he lost to in last year's Wild Card game, but the Cubs have the third-best ERA for starting pitchers in the league. Right-hander Jake Arrieta has become a totally different pitcher since being dealt to the Cubs from Baltimore. The former TCU star has developed his slider into a devastating pitch and will throw it 30% of the time. Since the beginning of the 2014 season, only five pitchers in baseball have more fWAR than Arrieta's 7.0.
Jason Hammel is showing last year was no fluke by getting off to a terrific start and posting the fourth-best strikeout-to-walk ratio in baseball at 8.29. Thirty-four year old lefty Tsuyoshi Wada has recently returned from a groin injury and has a 3.18 career ERA in fifteen Major League starts.
Cubs relievers have been average, collectively tossing a 4.07 ERA with the fourth-highest walk rate. Disappointing starters Edwin Jackson and Travis Wood have pitched out of the bullpen and reclamation project Jason Motte has had mixed results. Closer Hector Rondon has converted nine of twelve save opportunities with an ERA of 3.43 and nearly a strikeout per inning.
The Cubs have won nine of their last fifteen and are hungry to compete for a post-season spot this season after years of non-contention. The Royals are reeling and will have to do a better job keeping the ball in the ballpark than they did in New York. Hopefully the winds are blowing in, the flood of Royals fans make it a home game, and the Royals get back to their winning ways.