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Top stats to know: Cardinals at Cubs

4/8/2015

The 2015 baseball season gets underway at Wrigley Field and features one of the best rivalries in baseball, with the St. Louis Cardinals visiting the Chicago Cubs.

Here are some of the statistical storylines the "Sunday Night Baseball" broadcast crew of Dan Shulman, John Kruk and Curt Schilling will likely be talking about starting at 8 ET on ESPN2.

Cardinals always seem to find a way

The Cardinals posted a plus-16 run differential last season. That is the worst by a division winner since the 2007 Arizona Diamondbacks were outscored by 20 runs.

The Cardinals averaged 3.82 runs per game, which was the fewest by a division winner since the 1973 Mets scored 3.78 runs per game en route to winning the NL East.

The Cardinals won 90 games despite the downturn on offense. That was, in part, because of a vastly improved defense. The Cardinals improved from minus-39 defensive runs saved in 2013 to 64 DRS in 2014.

The defensively rich got even richer. The Cardinals' primary move this offseason was to acquire Jason Heyward, who has been the most productive outfielder in DRS over the last five seasons (98).

Great expectations

The Cubs have improved from 61 wins in 2012 to 66 in 2013 to 73 in 2014, but the expectation is for a bigger jump with a new manager, a new ace and a group of young, talented prospects. ESPN.com’s Keith Law ranks their farm system the best in baseball entering the season.

The Cubs have finished under .500 for five straight seasons. The last time they had a streak of six losing seasons was from 1978 to 1983.

The team has issues to address at the plate and on the mound.

The Cubs scored 855 runs in 2008, the last season in which they advanced to the postseason. In the six seasons since, they have not scored more than 707 runs, and they have scored fewer than 700 in each of the last five seasons. Last season, their hitters had the highest strikeout rate in the majors and scored the fifth-fewest runs per game (3.8).

The Cubs' starting rotation has also been a notable weakness. It ranked 24th in ERA last season (4.11) and has ranked 23rd or worse in three of the last four seasons.

Adam Wainwright stats to know

Adam Wainwright has put a lot of wear on his arm since he returned from Tommy John surgery in 2012.

No pitcher has thrown more innings over the last four seasons (including playoffs) than Wainwright (733 1/3). Next up is Justin Verlander (719). Wainwright is fifth in pitches thrown in that span with 10,933.

Only A.J. Burnett (1,147) threw more curveballs last season than Wainwright’s 895.

Wrigley Field has been a friendly place for Wainwright. He’s 8-1 with a 3.57 ERA against the Cubs there, compared to 3-6 with a 4.63 ERA against them at Busch Stadium.

One notable matchup to watch will be Wainwright against Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo.

Rizzo was 6-for-14 against Wainwright last season, including five line-drive hits. He should find Wainwright’s breaking pitches to his liking.

Rizzo had 52 hits, including 10 home runs, against breaking balls last season, ranking third in the National League in both categories. His rate of missing those pitches was 28 percent, below the major league average of 30 percent.

Jon Lester stats to know

The $155 million contract issued to Jon Lester this offseason is the largest in Cubs franchise history, surpassing Alfonso Soriano’s $136 million deal

What have been the keys to Lester's improving his ERA from 4.82 in 2012 to 2.46 in 2014?

• Improved strikeout and walk rates: Lester has steadily improved his strikeout rate over the last three years (from 19 percent in 2012 to 20 percent in 2013 to 25 percent in 2014) and has reduced his walk rate (from 8 percent in 2012 down to 5.4 percent last season).

• Fewer home runs: He’s allowing fewer homers, too -- 25 in 2012 (good for 3.2 percent of batters faced), and 16 (1.9 percent) in 2014.

• Improvement against righties: Since 2012, Lester has lowered his batting average allowed versus right-handed hitters by 48 points and lowered his OPS allowed by nearly 170 points.

Lester has some familiarity with Cardinals hitters. The player with the most success against him is Jhonny Peralta, who is 11-for-33 with two home runs against Lester in his career.

Peralta, however, did not face Lester last season. Lester had a much more aggressive approach against righties in 2014, throwing inside pitches to them nearly half the time. Two seasons ago, he came inside to righties just slightly more than one-third of the time.