NLDS Preview: Cubs – Cardinals
Before Wednesday night, the last time the Cubs won a playoff game was October 11, 2003. I was on my way to Freshman Homecoming when Aramis Ramirez hit a grand slam in the first inning off of Dontrelle Willis. I went absolutely crazy. The Cubs, behind a rock solid outing from Matt Clement, rode Ramirez and his six RBIs to an 8-3 victory, took a 3-1 series lead and were all but on their way to the World Series for the first time since 1945.
Everyone knows what happened next. I cried myself to sleep the night we lost Game 7, but a fairly young core of Mark Prior-Kerry Wood-Carlos Zambrano-Aramis Ramirez-Moises Alou was still something special. That winter, the Cubs signed Greg Maddux and traded for Derrek Lee. In July, at the trade deadline, they traded for borderline Hall of Fame shortstop Nomar Garciaparra. Yet somehow, some way, everything proved to be all for naught.
The Cubs didn’t make the playoffs again until 2007, when they got swept in the NLDS by the Arizona Diamondbacks. The following year, they recorded the best record in the majors, only to get swept in the first round again by the Los Angeles Dodgers. I was home from college that weekend and punched a hole in my parent’s basement door the night of the sweep. I could not stand the pain and heartbreak any longer and, to make matters worse, I knew the Cubs’ window was closing for good.
As expected, things continued to get worse over the next six seasons, but the day the Cubs swiped Theo Epstein from Boston back in 2011 was the most exciting day I’d had as a Cubs fan in a long time. He’d already done the impossible once, having manufactured two World Series rosters in a four-year span for an organization that hadn’t won one in 86 years. Why not do it again? The Cubs finally had a plan in place, and I was all on board.
By now, you all know the outcome. In a nutshell, the plan has worked – faster than anyone, even Epstein, could have ever imagined. It had been 12 full years – nearly half my life – of misery, devastation and embarrassment before the Cubs finally got a playoff victory. Watching Jake Arrieta record his final out was one of the greatest feelings I’ve ever had. For diehard Cub fans everywhere, the patience is finally paying off.
That said, there’s a long road ahead, and it all starts in St. Louis on Friday night. The 100-win Cardinals and the 97-win Cubs. The two rivals have played against one another 2,363 times but have somehow never faced off in the playoffs before. This is baseball porn for junkies everywhere. Let’s break it down.
Since the All-Star Break, the Cubs are second in the National League in runs scored, averaging 4.72 per game (up from 3.85 in the first half). The Cardinals are 12th at 3.89 runs per game (down from 4.08 in the first half). The two lineups have been trending in slightly opposite directions since August began, likely due to Matt Holliday missing all of August and half of September with a nagging hamstring injury that cost him a month prior.
On the whole, the Cubs have the highest K% in the majors (24.5%), yet the second highest BB% (9.1%). They also rank fifth in the NL in home runs (171). The Cardinals don’t strike out nearly as much (20.6%), but they walk a bit less (8.2%) and don’t have a ton of power (137 HR). The Cubs do play in a much hitter-friendlier park in Wrigley Field than the Cardinals do in Busch Stadium, so if you assess the two teams’ wRC+ (Weighted Run Created + – one of the most important and popular catch-all offensive statistics that attempts to credit a hitter for the value of each outcome rather than treating all hits or time on base equally while also controlling for park effects and the current run environment), they are actually identical. They are also dead even in OBP (.321) and four points off in slugging (Cubs’ advantage).
Not only that, but both the Cubs and Cardinals rank in the bottom four in the MLB in batting average with runners in scoring position (RISP). They are just as horrendous with RISP with two outs, as the Cardinals rank 31st in the league (.201) while the Cubs rank 25th (.211). Yikes.
The biggest point of differentiation that I could find: baserunning. The Cubs have been worth 15.8 baserunning runs, according to Fangraphs, which ranks first in the NL, while the Cardinals have posted 0.6 baserunning runs, a very average number. Not saying this series will come down to baserunning, because it won’t. But it’s interesting nonetheless.
What this matchup really could come down to is health. Yadier Molina, who I f***ing hate, is going to play with a torn ligament in his left thumb (god only knows how he’ll be able to catch major league pitches with that hand); Matt Holliday has only played 10 games since he came back September 17; Randal Grichuk has been ice cold since returning from his injury (.206/.289/.441 in Sept/Oct); and Stephen Piscotty is coming off a concussion.
I am eager to see how Joe Maddon will use his plethora of outfielders. My guess is Austin Jackson gets the nod in right or left field against left-handed pitchers (Game 2 against Jaime Garcia), and Jorge Soler/Chris Coghlan platoon against righties based on head-to-head success or who’s swinging the hotter bat. Either way, with the way the Cubs are seeing the ball at the plate right now, the edge has to go to them.
We all know by know how great the Cardinals starting pitching has been. They lead the league by far in starter ERA at 2.99. Over the course of the year, their pitching staff stranded baserunners at a rate (79.4 percent) that has rarely been seen in MLB history. As a consequence, the Cardinals have won about six or seven more games than expected, given the skill of their pitching staff.
However, the Cubs starters ain’t too shabby either. Not only are they third in the league in starter ERA (3.36), but they also lead the league in team FIP (3.26), which estimates a pitcher’s run prevention independent of the performance of their defense and is based on outcomes that do not involve defense. Solid. More impressive, though, is what the Cubs starters have done over the past nine games: they’ve given up one run.
Wait, what? Let me repeat. The Cubs starters have given up one run in the past nine games.
That’s outrageous. I could end this section right now. But I won’t. Instead of me continuing to force feed stats down your throat, let’s just quickly go through each pitching matchup throughout the series.
Game 1: Jon Lester (11-12, 3.34) vs. John Lackey (13-10, 2.77)
The 36-year-old Lackey has had a great season. He sported an ERA under 2.00 in three of six months this season (May, July, September – every other month) and has been the Cardinals’ best pitcher down the stretch. He also went 2-0 vs. the Cubs with a 1.25 ERA in 21.2 innings. Shit.
Lester, strangely, was also incredible in May, July and September, and he ended the regular season on a high note, George Costanza-style, with his 8 inning/1 run/9 K gem against Cincinnati. More importantly, however, Lester has been arguably the best pitcher, statistically, against the Cardinals this season, especially in Busch Stadium (1-0 with a 1.29 ERA in 2 starts). He has also proven to be one of the best postseason pitchers in our generation with his 2.57 ERA and 1.07 WHIP in 84 innings (1.63/0.98 in 27.2 Divisional Series innings).
This should be a great one.
Game 2: Kyle Hendricks (8-7, 3.95) vs Jaime Garcia (10-6, 2.43)
He hasn’t pitched anywhere close to a full season since 2011 but, when healthy, Jaime Garcia is legit. He is much better at home than he is on the road (1.70/0.89 vs. 3.25/1.23), which is surely why Mike Matheny pushed him up to pitch Game 2 over Michael Wacha. He has yet to face the Cubs this year, though, and is coming off a really shitty outing against the worst team in baseball – the Atlanta Braves. Not sure what to expect from the southpaw.
As for Hendricks, don’t let the numbers fool you. He has been much better than it seems, especially as of late, and he has earned his title as the Cubs’ #3 starter. Without getting too detailed (lol), here’s a snippet from a phenomenal article I read last week by Dave Cameron of Fangraphs:
When Hendricks got to the big leagues, he mixed five pitches; he mostly used his two-seam fastball and change-up, and then worked in a cut fastball as his third pitch, with a curveball and four-seam fastball as his less-often used secondary pitches. And because he pitched very well in his rookie season last year, he carried that same repertoire over to 2015, but some early struggles (by ERA, at least) have seemingly convinced Hendricks to adjust his pitch-mix. Most notably, he’s ditched the cutter.
And probably for good reason. On the season, his cut fastball was called a ball more often than any of his other pitches, generated fewer swings and swinging strikes than anything else he threw, and had the highest home run rate of any of his offerings. By pitch-type linear weights, his cutter was 3 runs below average per 100 pitches, the only one of his pitches that got below average results.
To replace the cutter, he’s upped his usage on both his change-up and his four-seam fastball, and the early results are promising. Here are Hendricks’ numbers since August 1st, since he began life without his cut fastball.
Hendricks Since 8/1
IP BB% K% GB% HR/FB BABIP ERA- FIP- xFIP- 58 8% 25% 54% 18% 0.301 118 90 78
And here are his numbers since the start of September, when he’s really pushed the changes a bit more aggressively, pushing his change-up usage to the highest rate he’s posted in any month since getting to the big leagues.
Hendricks Since 9/1
IP BB% K% GB% HR/FB BABIP ERA- FIP- xFIP- 27 6% 30% 49% 20% 0.258 94 78 63
Game 3: Michael Wacha (17-7, 3.38) vs. Jake Arrieta (22-6, 1.77)
Wacha may have helped me earn a bye in my fantasy baseball league with the way he pitched this season, but he surely didn’t do a goddamn thing to help me win the championship (which I did, by the way). His September was atrocious, as he posted a 7.88 ERA in five starts, two of which came against the Cubs (lasted only four innings and gave up six runs in both). It’s clear that Wacha, who has had shoulder injuries in the past and hadn’t thrown more than 107 innings at the major league level until this season, started wearing down late, which is a very bad sign for the Cardinals. His 6.86 ERA in four starts against the Cubs is frightening….
Especially when you consider who he’s going up against. There are truly no words anymore to describe what Jake Arrieta has done in the second half of the season. He became the first pitcher in postseason history to throw a shutout with at least 10 strikeouts and no walks. He has 21 consecutive quality starts. He has given up four earned runs in his last 97.1 innings pitched (that’s a 0.36 ERA since August 1). Are you shitting me?? The dude is straight up not human. He’s beyond filthy. If there’s any game the Cubs are absolutely winning in this series, it’s Game 3.
(Weird side note that has nothing to do with anything: I read that Jake Arrieta and Matt Carpenter are boys. Like, Arrieta was a groomsman in Carpenter’s wedding. What?)
I’m not going to assess anything after Game 3, as nothing is guaranteed at that point, and pitching matchups will change depending on circumstance. 22-year-old phenom Carlos Martinez is out for the season with a shoulder strain, so the only other starters who will surely see a start in this series if it gets that far are Jason Hammel (10-7, 3.74) and Lance Lynn (12-11, 3.03). Cry Baby Lynn is 0-3 with a 7.64 ERA in four starts against the Cubs. Hammel, whom Joe Maddon seems to have lost complete trust in, is 1-1 with a 5.73 ERA in three starts against the Cardinals and has sucked a fat one the entire second half. Hot garbage.
The Cardinals bullpen has been fantastic all season long. They lead the league in saves and are second only to the Pirates in ERA at 2.82. They have a number of guys that can get the job done (namely their set up man, Kevin Siegrist) thanks to some savvy free agent signings and trades, but the player to watch here is Trevor Rosenthal, their closer. He was second in the league with 48 saves and throws 100 MPH fastballs on the reg. Strikes out nearly 11 guys per nine innings. He has yet to give up a run against the Cubs in eight appearances, striking out 13, walking none and recording seven saves. If he steps foot on the mound, the game is pretty much over.
Another guy to watch is perennial Cy Young candidate Adam Wainwright. He just got back from a brutal torn achilles injury that he suffered in April and is pitching out of the bullpen this October. He seems more preoccupied with the fact that Fox airs too many erectile dysfunction ads, though, so I’ll let him be.
The Cubs, again, are pretty underrated at this aspect of the game. Their bullpen seems to be heavily scrutinized on an annual basis, and deservedly so, but this one has been rock solid. Fourth in the NL in ERA (3.38) and first in FIP (3.37). Individually, Hector Rondon has been fantastic. He’s got the lowest ERA (1.67) of any full-time closer not named Aroldis Chapman and has 30 saves in 34 chances. Then there’s ever so passionate Pedro Strop, the Cubs’ set up man (typically) who has had his moments this season. He has been pretty solid as of late but tends to struggle more often than not in high-leverage situations. What scares me to death are his numbers against the Cardinals: an 11.05 ERA, 2.18 WHIP and .333 Opp BA in 7.1 innings pitched. He certainly an edge-of-your-seat type pitcher, so be weary of the numbers I’ve just presented.
A few other guys to watch: Travis Wood, who has embraced his role as long/middle reliever after losing his #5 starting job back in April, has been super reliable and has seen a massive increase in his K%; Justin Grimm, who was easily the Cubs’ best relief pitcher in the first half of the season (missed all of April due to injury, but still) but has reallllyy struggled with his command as of late (10 walks in nine innings pitched in September); and Trevor Cahill, a former second-round pick who was given one last chance to prove his worth as a major league pitcher when the Cubs him picked up from Atlanta in mid-August. The groundball-inducing Cahill may not be flashy (61.8 GB%), but in 17 innings pitched with the Cubs, he has only given up four earned runs and leads the team in leaving men on base (89.3 LOB%).
As mentioned earlier, the Cardinals are the best team in the league at leaving men on base. Their LOB-Wins (an estimate of how many wins a pitcher has added as a result of stranding runners on base) is a crazy 3.0 (tops in the NL), while the Cubs are at -2.1 (second to last in the NL). This is certainly a stat worth keeping in mind throughout the course of the series.
Is Yadier Molina going to be Yadier Molina? That remains to be seen. If so, he’s the best catcher in the league, both defensively (framing/blocking/throwing out base stealers) and at calling games. The Cardinals’ Jayson Heyward is also unquestionably the best defensive right fielder in the game (22 defensive runs saved – no one else is close; 20.2 UZR, which attempts to quantify how many runs a player saved or gave up through fielding prowess).
As for the Cubs, it’s no secret that Addison Russell has a Gold Glove in his future. He leads the Cubs in DRS from two different positions (19 combined), UZR (13.4) and he wasn’t moved to shortstop permanently until only a couple of months ago. He also wasn’t called up to the majors until late April. This kid’s the real deal.
Overall, both teams are above average defensively, and the Cubs rank third in the NL in UZR (23.4). With Molina a huge question mark behind the plate right now and the Cubs infield playing so well, I’ve got to give the Cubs the advantage here as well.
I don’t care how well Mike Matheny has done since taking over for Tony La Russa in 2012 (four playoff appearances in four seasons and one NL Pennant). How can I not go with Joe Maddon here? The Cubs won 26 more games this season than last season, and Maddon has been the mad genius and calming influence behind all of it. He has had tremendous success throughout his career as well. I would do anything to spend a day with this guy. He’s so cool – we’d totally be boys if we were the same age and went to school together. The mancrush is real. Do I even really need to explain myself further?
I came into this post thinking I might pick the Cardinals to win. After all, they are Cardinals. The fact that the Cubs have an advantage in four of five categories would actually mean something if you replaced the word “Cardinals” on the front of those jerseys with anything else. But it doesn’t. They have played winning baseball for as long as I can remember, and the Cubs surely have not. But I feel a different vibe right now than I’ve ever felt before with the Cubs. They’re scorching hot at the right time, and I think their time has finally come. For the first time in 12 years, the Cubs are going to win a playoff series. It’s gonna happen. Nothing in the world would give me greater joy. I can’t wait.
Prediction: Cubs in 4
Posted on October 9, 2015, in Cubs and tagged advanced statistics, cardinals, cubs, drs, fangraphs, jake arrieta, joe maddon, jon lester, Kyle Hendricks, risp, uzr, wrc+. Bookmark the permalink. 11 Comments.