Chicago Cubs Lineup (4/23/24): Happ in LF, Mervis at DH, Wicks Starting

The Cubs are in second place in the NL Central and have the fourth-best record in the league after splitting a series with the woeful Marlins. And while no one is going to feel good about losing those two games, particularly when the first of those came on a blown save, I think it’s fair to say the Marlins are a little better than their record. The same can be said of the Astros, who come to town with a 7-16 mark that currently sits as the second-worst in the AL.

It would be unwise to overlook the perennial contenders, particularly when they boast a 134 wRC+ in 279 plate appearances against left-handed pitchers this season. For what it’s worth, the Cubs are in second with a 138 wRC+ over just 184 PAs. Jordan Wicks is the only southpaw slated to start in this series and he’s got the task of starting things off on the right foot. Or should he start on the left foot?

He’s going to have to have to step it up one way or the other because his performance thus far has left a bit to be desired. The thicc lefty has yet to complete five innings of work and he seems to be nibbling at the zone too often instead of attacking hitters with strikes. Some of that comes from the four-seam he’s throwing a lot more than last year.

Though the heater has gotten a lot of whiffs, Wicks is also spraying it around more than you’d like to see and the amoeba of his heat map has plenty of non-blue shading out of the zone. The sinker is less erratic and only comprises 15% of his pitches, but it’s tailed out of the zone too frequently as well. His curve has been hittable and his slider spittable, so neither are good options at this point.

The changeup remains his best weapon and he still throws it around a quarter of the time, but that’s down nearly six percentage points from last season. Wicks can still be nails if the fastball is working well, but he’s got to have more than two pitches to succeed. That’s particularly true when facing a dangerous offense with the wind blowing out to center/right at 8 mph or greater.

That will help the Cubs as well, particularly as they load up on lefty batters in this one. Nico Hoerner remains in the leadoff spot at second base and Ian Happ returns to the lineup and left field. Cody Bellinger is in center, Michael Busch is at first, Christopher Morel is at third, and Dansby Swanson is at short. Mike Tauchman is in right, Matt Mervis makes his season debut at DH, and Miguel Amaya is behind the plate.

They’ll be facing righty J.P. France, who is making his fifth start of the year after a solid debut season that saw him put up a 3.83 ERA over 24 appearances (23 starts) in 2023. France put up big strikeout numbers across the minors, but those dropped nearly in half once he made the big leagues. His walks dropped as well, so it’s clear that he’s dialed things down just a bit.

That’s a function of moving from a bullpen/swing role to full-time starter, as he can’t just go out and let it eat every night. Not that France is a big velo guy, mind you, just that his mentality is surely a little different now than what it used to be. He’s got a pretty balanced attack with a four-seam (30.5%), cutter (25.9%), change (21.6%), and curve (18.1%), then the occasional sweeper and sinker.

The heat map on France’s fastball resembles a thermal image of a fire, with some flames right in the middle of the zone and then a rising column of irregular smoke tailing up and to the arm side. His cutter is nearly the opposite, with several hot spots up and down the glove-side edge and blue trailing down to lefties’ back feet. His changeup may have the broadest distribution of red I’ve ever seen, a veritable archipelago of locations.

He doesn’t seem to know where his curve is going either, though it’s got fewer strong concentrations of red. Perhaps that’s why it’s his only pitch generating positive value right now.

France has below-average velo on every offering, with most of them falling well below his colleagues. And even though he still throws a bit harder than Kyle Hendricks, the two are similar in that they do a good job of avoiding hard contact. I know that sounds weird to say about Hendricks given all the homers he allows, but it’s true. France stays away from barrels, perhaps because he’s like a knuckleballer in that hitters can’t just sit on a spot, though nearly 50% of the contact is in the air.

That number jumps north of 69% when you account for line drives, meaning his mistakes go for hits. France has allowed six or more knocks in three of his four starts, but two of the four hits he allowed the last time out went for dingers. This is a game in which the Cubs need to be patiently aggressive, forcing France to throw strikes and then punishing mistakes when he makes them.

If they fall into the trap of swinging at his pitches, it could turn into a long night. Following a day off to reset, I feel like this will be one of those games that gets us all feeling better about the offense again. I hope so anyway, because Wicks may well have his hands full.

First pitch is at 6:40pm CT on Marquee, TBS (out-of-market only), and 670 The Score, but a chance of rain could mess with things just a bit. The folks at Cubs Weather say there’s some likelihood for a shower from 4-7pm, after which chances for rain fade. Fingers crossed.

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