Ryan Says: Zobrist Right Choice at Leadoff, What to Expect From Tseng

It never is easy, is it? The Cubs had a seven-game lead over the Cardinals less than 10 days ago, but St. Louis trimmed that down to just two games before being shut out by the Reds and falling three back on Wednesday night. With seven games remaining with the Cards — and four remaining with the Brewers, who are 2.5 games back — it really feels like this is going to come down to the final days of the season.

•Probably the biggest thing missing from the 2016 magic to the maddening inconsistency of 2017 has been Ben Zobrist. The cleanup man behind Anthony Rizzo last year, Zobrist hit .272/.386/.446 with 18 home runs and a OPS+ of 121. He lengthened the important part of the lineup, putting another dangerous hitter behind Rizzo, Kris Bryant, and Dexter Fowler.

Nagging injuries have hurt Zobrist this season, and it would be disingenuous to assume that age hasn’t also played a factor. Joe Maddon has refused to give up on the notion of Zobrist in the fourth spot, putting him there 45 times this season. For what it’s worth, Zobrist has a .592 OPS in 198 plate appearances when batting fourth this season.

The emergence of Willson Contreras as a reliable cleanup hitter has helped the situation, and recently the Cubs have found a better use for Zobrist’s talents: The leadoff spot. In 35 games at the top of the order this season, Zobrist has a .356 OBP and a .821 OPS. When leading off as the first batter of the game, he’s hitting .353 with a .371 OBP, and since August 1 in general he’s hitting .297/.391/.432.

If the Cubs are going to make a postseason run, they need their inconsistent offense to score consistently. That now starts with Zobrist. Call it, “You Zo, We Zo.”

•The Cubs surprised a lot of people when they called on 22-year-old right-handed pitching prospect Jen-Ho Tseng to start against the New York Mets Thursday evening. With a slim lead in the division, it was a risky move to turn to a rookie in a situation where winning every game is of critical importance. But the Cubs really like Tseng, and with good reason.

He’s not exactly Kyle Hendricks, but Tseng is meticulous in his game preparation and relies on pitch movement and inducing weak contact to be successful. So the comparisons to Hendricks are understandable in that respect. However, Tseng also throws a bit harder than Hendricks – raising his velocity this season to as high as 94 mph at Triple-A Iowa. The two-time Cubs Minor League Pitcher of the Year posted a 2.54 ERA in 145 1/3 innings split between Double-A and Triple-A this year.

If you wanted to be optimistic about Tseng’s future, you could look at the improved umpiring at the major-league level as a potential boon to his success. Tseng’s movement and control can be deceptive, and umpires in the majors are more likely to call it correctly. Many have claimed a similar phenomenon as part of the reason why Hendricks has been so successful in the big leagues despite a fastball that mostly sits in the upper 80’s.

It could just be a one-and-done deal for Tseng this September, but there are some reasons beyond the chase in the division to be excited about his start against the Mets.

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