MLB Regular Season

Matchup: Chicago Cubs at Pittsburgh Pirates

Date/Time: September 15, 7:05 p.m. ET

Pitching Matchup: Jon Lester (9-10, 3.50) vs. JA Happ (9-7, 3.87)

MLB Betting Odds From BetDSI Sportsbook

Moneyline: Pittsburgh -110

Total: 7.5

By the time JA Happ throws the first pitch of tonight’s Cubs vs. Pirates game, one full game will already be in the books in this series. This is the nightcap of a day/night doubleheader after both teams had Monday off. After two righties in the day game, two lefties will take the mound for their respective teams as Jon Lester opposes JA Happ. The line on this game is sure to move based off of the outcome of Game 1 and the lineups for Game 2, but the game is basically lined as a toss-up this morning.

This should be a NL Wild Card one-game playoff preview series. The Cubs entered the day game of this doubleheader trailing by four games for home field advantage in that one-game playoff, but they have a seven-game lead on the San Francisco Giants for the second wild card spot. The Pirates are 2.5 games in back of the St. Louis Cardinals, so the NL Central Division crown is still a possibility for the Buccos and if they can raise the Jolly Roger over the division, they can avoid the one-game playoff, which, of course, would be an ideal situation.

Jon Lester has had an interesting season. Sequencing and batted ball luck have forced him into a lot of ups and downs. Lester’s ERA by month is 6.23, 1.76, 5.74, 1.66, 5.04, and 2.25 in the month of September. Sample sizes that small are always prone to variance as one bad start can skew a month’s worth of work. It should come as no surprise that the BABIPs look similar with monthly batting averages on balls in play against of .424, .259, .355, .260, .361, .212. There’s really no rhyme or reason for it. Lester had some command problems in May and June, when he allowed nine of the 14 home runs he has given up on the season, but he has pitched well for the most part.

In his first full season in the National League, Lester has a 3.50 ERA with a 3.01 FIP and a 3.15 xFIP. He’s been worth over four wins above replacement player to the Cubs. It’s a little bit surprising that his strikeout rate has dropped half a percent with the move to NL, where pitchers hit, and that his walk rate has elevated a tad as well. For the most part, however, Lester is the same front of the rotation guy that he has always been. Amazingly, this is only the second start of the season against Pittsburgh for Lester, who scattered nine hits over seven innings back on May 16. The Pirates are basically in the middle of the pack against lefties, ranked 17th in wOBA and right around league average with a 99 wRC+.

JA Happ, the latest project for pitching coach wizard Ray Searage, has turned things around in a big way. Jeff Sullivan at Fangraphs wrote a fantastic look at Happ and the differences in his performance since he was traded to the Pirates. One of the things that Sullivan wrote about is how favorable the matchups have been for Happ since he was acquired. The Cubs rank 22nd in wOBA against left-handed pitching on the season, though they do have their fair share of right-handed sticks in the lineup. Given the data that Sullivan found, including an increase in called strikeouts and a 10 percent increase in lefties faced, it’s fair to wonder if Happ’s improvements are simply coincidental or if they are sustainable.

In seven starts with the Buccos, Happ has a 1.79 ERA with a 2.23 FIP and a 3.00 xFIP. His strikeout-to-walk ratio went from 2.56 in the AL to 6.00 in the NL, though this is a small sample size of just 40.1 innings of work. Happ also struggled in his first start with the Pirates, so his last six starts have been strong following a side session with Searage when he was skipped in the rotation. One game sample sizes are hard to predict, but this game boils down to whether or not you trust the proven front of the rotation starter or the guy locked in the best stretch of his life.

MLB Prediction: Pittsburgh Pirates

In what I expect to be a close game, the edge goes to the Pirates. They have, in my mind, the more consistent bullpen and have the “X-Factor” in this game. Base stealers are 42-for-50 off of Lester this season. The Pirates stole two bases in the first meeting and should be able to run at will on Lester in this one. Obviously lineup construction for Game 2 matters, so this pick is not necessarily locked in, but given the pitching matchup and the other variables, the pick is the Pirates.