The Cubs were dropped unceremoniously in Friday’s series opener, but, unlike Tim Anderson, they were able to get up and deliver a blow of their own to the Braves on Friday afternoon. A big opening frame paved the way to an 8-6 victory that got a little too close for comfort down the stretch before finally being salted away. Now they have a chance to take two of three from the best team in baseball, just like they did when the Rays came to town in late May.
There’s no starter you’d rather have going for the home team than Justin Steele, the man Adbert Alzolay affectionately refers to as Mississippi Fastball. The Lucedale native has ascended to the role of staff ace and now gets the chance to test his mettle against a lineup that can make even the best pitchers weak in the knees like SWV.
Steele has gone at least six innings in each of his last seven starts, compiling a 5-1 record with a 2.53 ERA and 44 strikeouts to just seven walks over 42.2 innings. He’s also gotten grounders at a 50.4% rate, which is how he’s been able to neutralize the 46 hits opponents have gotten against him. Five of those hits have left the yard, which is something he’ll need to avoid this afternoon.
That’s easier said than done against a team that boasts MLB-best marks of a 132 wRC+ and .371 wOBA against lefties, so Steele is going to have to be at his sharpest in this one. Getting some early offense would put him in a position to pitch free and easy, which was the case yesterday. Mike Tauchman once again gets things started in right field, followed by Nico Hoerner at second and Ian Happ in left.
Cody Bellinger is in center, Dansby Swanson is at short, Jeimer Candelario is at first, and Christopher Morel is the DH. Nick Madrigal is at third and Miguel Amaya rounds things out at catcher. This isn’t a lineup anyone would have predicted at the beginning of the season or even a month ago, but it looks pretty darn good.
They’ll be going up against Charlie Morton, who is truly the elder statesman of the staff, one day after facing the youthful Bryce Elder. The juxtapositions don’t stop at the inference of the latter’s surname, as the 39-year-old Morton is still sitting at 95 mph with his fastball seven years after experiencing a big velo bump. He sat mostly 92-93 for his first eight years in MLB, then jumped to 94.2 with Philly in 2016 and got up to 96 with an Astros organization famous for maxing out velocity.
That coincided with a change in pitch mix, as Morton began throwing more four-seams and fewer sinkers starting in 2018. He was at 62% sinkers and just 5% fastballs in 2015 with the Pirates but is now around 33% fastballs and 8% sinkers. His primary offering, however, is the curveball that’s up to nearly 45% as the result of a steady increase over the course of his career. It’s not perfectly linear, but it’s fascinating to see how it’s gone up over time from being just 10% of his repertoire as a rookie.
The hook comes in at 82-83 mph, firmer than the MLB average and harder than Morton has ever thrown it before. He gets elite spin, putting him in the 97th percentile for curves, but the pitch isn’t a big 12-6 looper like Clayton Kershaw‘s. Morton’s breaking ball is really slurvy and has more 2-7 break, often sweeping to finish well below the zone on the lower glove-side corner.
That can lead to problems for him if hitters are picking up on it because it won’t get as many called strikes. Morton works in the strike zone at just a 37.4% clip, the lowest of his career by a big margin and the third-lowest in MLB among qualified pitchers. Elder, whose nibbling the Cubs took advantage of for two early walks, is five spots below Morton with a 38.3% zone rate.
The aged righty has had a tough stretch of late, giving up 11 earned runs over 15.1 innings in his last three starts. He walked 11 batters with just 13 strikeouts in that time and he surrendered six hits in each, so a continuation of those trends could see the Cubs turning the screws quickly. Another trend the Cubs would like to see continue is Morton’s road performance against right-handed batters.
Righties are slashing .316/.375/.402 with a .343 wOBA when they face Morton wearing their home whites, just a massive reverse split over the .221/.328/.317 put up by lefties. They don’t have any homers, however, and 11 of the 13 big flies the veteran has allowed have come in Atlanta. Perhaps the Cubs can change that this afternoon.
And lest you think I’m tsk-tsking David Ross for not playing the platoon percentages, Morton has more traditional career splits. First pitch is at 1:20pm CT on Marquee and 670 The Score.
Here is today's #Cubs starting lineup for the series finale vs. Atlanta!
— Chicago Cubs (@Cubs) August 6, 2023