Go inside the numbers and matchups that will decide Sunday night’s showdown between the Chicago Cubs and Boston Red Sox (ESPN, 8 p.m. ET), and then vote on the biggest accomplishment of Theo Epstein’s career.
Inside the pitching matchup
When Kyle Hendricks is on the mound: The 2016 National League ERA champ is off to a rocky start this season, but he did throw six scoreless innings his last time out. He didn’t come out on fire last April either, posting a 3.91 ERA, so there may not yet be cause for concern.
What doesn’t look good is that his average fastball velocity is down more than two ticks from last season, from 87.6 to 85.4 mph. The velocity on his cutter is also down (88.0 mph last year, 85.8 this season). He threw 448 cutters last season and only six of them were hit hard. Among the 65 cutters he’s thrown so far, he has already allowed seven hard-hit balls with the pitch.
This season, 27 percent of the balls in play against Hendricks have been hit hard, the second-highest total among starters. Last season only 9 percent of the balls in play against him were hit hard, the best rate by any starting pitcher. — John Fisher, ESPN Stats & Info
When Eduardo Rodriguez is on the mound: Rodriguez has had a busy start to this season, with big improvements in some areas and lots of work left to do in others. He has boosted his strikeout rate each year of his career and has allowed a lower batting average each season, but he has also seen his walk and home runs rates increase every year.
His biggest problem is falling behind in the count. Of the 146 pitchers to make three starts this season, Rodriguez’s first-pitch strike percentage (47 percent) is the worst. Batters only swing at 14 percent of his first-pitch offerings, also the worst. His first pitch has been outside the strike zone 37 times, and opposing batters haven’t swung at any of them. But his swing-and-miss stuff has also kept him competitive. He has the second-highest swing-and-miss percentage in MLB, and he’s also second in that stat on pitches in the strike zone. When he finds the plate, he’s hard to hit.
As far as individual pitches, Rodriguez is throwing his changeup a little bit more in favor of his slider this season, and the changeup has been a huge weapon. He’s allowed just one hit with that pitch so far in 2017. — Fisher
Player in the spotlight
Just a couple of days ago, defending NL MVP Kris Bryant was sporting a league-average wOBA, but he’s showing signs of heating up. Entering Saturday’s game, Bryant was nine for his last 19 with a 1.320 OPS. He’ll be facing a tough lefty in Rodriguez, who this season has stepped up his game against righties (.621 OPS allowed, down from .732 last season). Rodriguez has only faced six lefty batters all season, though he’s been lit up for a 1.467 OPS in those encounters. Still, it seems like teams are reluctant to go lefty-on-lefty with Rodriguez on the mound, something the Cubs can hardly avoid with Kyle Schwarber, Jason Heyward and Anthony Rizzo all fixtures in the lineup. If that puts the onus on Bryant to deliver, that’s fine — Bryant is hitting .474/.583/.737 against southpaws in the early going. — Bradford Doolittle
Something to watch Sunday night
How good is the Cubs’ defense? In 2016, the Cubs led the majors with 82 defensive runs saved (DRS) and turned 74.5 percent of balls in play into outs — also first in the majors, well ahead of Toronto’s 71.7 percentage. Entering Saturday, they were at just 1 DRS and their defensive efficiency ranked 12th at 71.9 percent. Addison Russell has been great at shortstop, and Heyward has been great in right field (although not as good when he plays center). No surprise, the big negative has been Kyle Schwarber at minus-6 DRS in left field, although he’ll probably DH in this game. — David Schoenfield
Eduardo Rodriguez gets whiffs on 38 percent of the swings against him, the second-highest rate in the majors behind only Jacob deGrom (minimum of three starts in 2017). — Fisher
Did you know …
Sunday is the 116th anniversary of the first win in Red Sox franchise history, an 8-6 victory on the road by the Boston Americans over the Philadelphia Athletics. Cy Young threw a complete game, and Boston got him the win by scoring two in the ninth inning to tie it and two in the 10th to take the lead. — Fisher
Who will win?
I like the pitching matchup better for the Red Sox in this one. The left-handed Rodriguez can neutralize that deep group of lefty hitters in the Cubs lineup. Meanwhile, Hendricks has been inconsistent and may struggle to get enough swings and misses against Boston’s high-contact lineup. — Doolittle
Even though he’s coming off a good start, I’m not sure Hendricks is the same Hendricks of 2016 yet. Plus, the Red Sox offense is due to pop a couple of home runs. So with the weather finally warming up in the Northeast, I’ll say the Sox hit three home runs and win 7-3. — Schoenfield
Ranking Theo Epstein’s accomplishments
Without question, Theo Epstein is destined to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. What will cause a debate is which of his career accomplishments will be mentioned first on his plaque.
Helping the Red Sox end an 86-year curse and win the World Series in 2004? Helping the Cubs end a 108-year curse and win the World Series in 2016?
Get your vote in now! Then, ESPN’s Jessica Mendoza, Aaron Boone and Buster Olney will make their picks for Epstein’s greatest accomplishment during Sunday’s game.