How fast time flies. Seems like yesterday when I experienced one of the greatest moments of my life as I watched the Cubs clinch their first NLCS berth in 12 years at Wrigley Field. We all know what she wrote next, but even after a sweep at the hands of the Mets, the season went as well as anyone could’ve expected. The Cubs were back – a lurking juggernaut ready to take over the baseball landscape for years to come.
Here we are, one year later, and the Cubs finished the 2016 season with 103 wins and wrapped up the NL Central division two weeks early. Five years ago, I never thought I’d see that day. The thing about baseball, though, is that come Friday night, those 103 wins and that division title mean nothing whatsoever. Baseball is more random than any sport, where shitty players can become unsung heroes and great players can become scapegoats in the blink of an eye. The best team seldom wins. It’s a clean slate, and everyone is back to a level playing field.
Over the past 36 hours, the supernatural nightmare that every Cubs fan deals with has worsened significantly. The Billy Goat Curse is one thing, but the “Even Year” Theory is a whole other, what with the Giants getting hot at the right time and looking poised to win another World Series in an even year. No one wants to play this Giants team, but no one wants to play this Cubs team, either. The Cubs were the best team in the league all season – maybe the best Cubs team ever assembled (anyone born before 1900 want to prove me wrong?) – while the Giants nearly became the first team ever to have the best record in the first half of a season and miss the playoffs entirely. The time is now for the Cubs to write the wrongs of the previous 108 years and solidify themselves as one of the best teams of all time. Will they rise to the occasion, or fall victim to the supernatural and wilt under pressure? I’m very excited yet very nervous to find out.
Let’s get to the matchup.
By all accounts, the Cubs had the best offense in the National League this season. Led by MVP candidates Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant, they finished second to the Rockies in runs scored (808) and OPS (.772), first in walk rate (10.4%) and 10th in strikeout rate (21.1%). For some perspective, the Cubs scored 119 runs more runs than last year and struck out 221 fewer times, emphasizing how much better this team is offensively compared to the 2015 version. They also were, by far, better than any time at avoiding double plays, posting the highest double play efficiency in the league.
The Giants, though, are no slouches either. What they lack in power (only 130 home runs total without anyone hitting over 17), they make up for in patience and grit. They posted a 9.1% walk rate and struck out in only 17.7% of their plate appearances – far less than any team in the league. Just like the Cubs, they grind away during every at bat, placing near the top of the league in pitches per plate appearance and regularly pushing opposing pitchers out of games early. Mainstay catcher Buster Posey is the Giants’ most dangerous hitter in this context, as he very rarely strikes out and regularly puts the ball in play. You saw the Giants do this exact thing against the Mets by forcing Noah Syndergaard out of the game before the eighth inning and feasting on their bullpen to win.
If you think back to last year, you might remember that the Cubs were one of the worst teams in the majors at hitting with runners in scoring position (RISP). This year, however, they improved a lot, jumping from the bottom tier to the middle by slashing .252/.351/.420 compared to the Giants’ .250/.328/.378 line. The two guys to watch here are the aforementioned Rizzo and Giants right fielder Hunter Pence, as they are each team’s most clutch hitter and biggest run producer. Rizzo led the league in plate appearances with RISP and hit .344 in such situations, while Pence hit .321 in far less appearances due to injury. The Cubs are still weak at producing with RISP with two outs, but they have been better than the Giants there as well.
It will be very interesting to see how Joe Maddon continues to juggle the never-ending lineup combinations at his disposal. Assuming he’s healthy, and given his incredible success last October (7-for-19 with three homers and five RBI), I’d anticipate we’ll see Jorge Soler in the lineup and playing left field when a lefty is on the mound (Madison Bumgarner and Matt Moore). Against righties, expect to see Kris Bryant starting in left field and Javier Baez at third base. Whatever the case may be, the Cubs were a far superior team at the plate this season, and their lineup is absolutely loaded from top to bottom. When Jason Heyward finally breaks out, just remember that you heard it here first (and forget you heard that here when he continues to suck).
As I’ll explain later, the Cubs defense is a major reason why the starting rotation holds the lowest ERA (2.96), lowest BABIP (.252), highest strand rate (78.6%) and highest win probability added in the league, all by very wide margins. They also have a top-three K-BB%. Statistically speaking, the Giants rotation has been a step or two behind, but that’s all about to change. Let’s get to the matchups.
Game 1: Johnny Cueto (18-5, 2.79) vs. Jon Lester (19-4, 2.44)
For the majority of his career, Johnny Cueto has been a bona fide ace, and that has not changed since he signed with the Giants last winter. The problem for everyone else in the league is that he’s locked in as the number two starter in their rotation. He had a really strange 2015 season, as he got traded from Cincinnati to Kansas City in July, had the worst couple of months of his career, got shellacked throughout the playoffs and then threw a complete game shutout in the World Series. Because the Cubs are so familiar with Cueto (he has 24 starts against them in his career), it would not surprise me to see the Cubs get to him, as he’s proven capable of imploding. But given his recent success (1.78 ERA in September) and Cy Young-caliber season, it’s safe to assume that he’ll pitch very well.
Lester, of course, was perhaps the best pitcher in the NL this season and had what same say was the best season of his 11-year career. He’s coming off an epic second half (10-1, 1.76 ERA, 0.93 WHIP) and an even better September (5-0, 0.48 ERA, 0.69 WHIP) that led to an NL Pitcher of the Month award. Lester was also phenomenal at home this season, and I don’t see that changing Friday night. There is no one in the Cubs rotation that I trust more than Lester, and his career 2.85 ERA in the postseason has allowed me to sleep like a baby this week.
Game 2: Jeff Samardzija (12-11, 3.81) vs. Kyle Hendricks (16-8, 2.13)
Welcome back, Jeff Samardzija. After a brutal June/July (shocking, I know), Shark settled down and ended up finishing the season very strong. However, in his lone start against the Cubs on September 1, they attacked him in the early going and forced him out of the game by the fifth inning. Like with Cueto, the Cubs are very familiar with Samardzija’s stuff since he, ya know, played for them for seven years. When he’s off, he’s off. When he’s on, he’s decent. He instills no fear in me and should instill no fear in you.
I’m sure you all are aware of Kyle Hendricks’ fairytale season up until this point, so I won’t harp it on much. Precision is Hendricks’ trademark, and after posting a league-leading 2.13 ERA and 24.9% soft-hit rate, Hendricks’ (silent) confidence is through the roof. He owns the best changeup in baseball, and his 1.32 ERA at Wrigley Field was likely one of the driving forces behind Joe Maddon’s decision to start him in Game 2. All of the above gives me reason to believe that this game is going to be all Cubs.
Game 3: Jake Arrieta (18-8, 3.10) vs. Madison Bumgarner (15-9, 2.74)
This is the matchup that will keep Cubs fans up at night. If you are unaware with Bumgarner’s work up until now, then I don’t even know how you stumbled across a baseball-related article, let alone this one. But at just 27 years of age, Bumgarner is already being considered by many to be the greatest postseason pitcher of all time, and his start against the Mets on Wednesday night only added to his legend. In 54.2 postseason innings on the road, Bumgarner has a 0.50 ERA; in 23 win-or-go-home postseason innings, he has yet to give up a single run (yes, this game will be in San Francisco, but that stat is too ridiculous to not mention). He has been an integral part (and in one case, nearly the only part) of three World Series-winning teams, and he never, ever seems to let the moment get to him. It is appalling what he has been able to accomplish, and you have to expect that any game he pitches will result in a loss for the opponent – he’s just that absurdly good in October.
Arrieta concerns me more than any player on the roster, and for good reason. No one expected him to live up to his 2015 season since what he did had never been done before, but he has been pedestrian at best since mid-June and has not looked the same. His walk rate was way up this season (9.6% vs. 5.5% last season), as his command and control haven’t consistently been there for him. He has made it a habit of getting behind in the count, which has not allowed him to throw his nasty slider/cutter effectively. There’s also the belief that Arrieta has been slightly over-rotating during his delivery, which might be nothing but could be something. Nevertheless, if the Cubs lose one of the first two games in the series, they could be in some serious trouble as they head to San Francisco with Madison Bumgarner waiting. That scares the shit out of me.
Game 4: John Lackey (11-8, 3.35) vs. Matt Moore (6-5, 4.08)
Matt Moore was once a highly touted pitcher coming up through the Tampa Bay Rays system, but he has never been the same since his Tommy John surgery in 2014. The Rays gave up on him this season and sent him to the Giants at the trade deadline, where he’s had yet another up and down season. A 3.16 ERA in August rose to 6.56 in September, and it’s hard to say which Moore will show up on a given night. It’s worth noting, though, that although Moore has never pitched against the Cubs, they are the best team in the NL against lefties, and Moore has a tendency to give up homers as well.
John Lackey is an October warrior, and he was brought to Chicago on a two-year deal for this very moment. He has a career 3.11 ERA in the postseason and has pitched in and won multiple World Series games. The man didn’t come here for a haircut – he came here for jewelry. He came here to get it on. Gotta feel great about Game 4.
The Cubs and Giants have the two deepest rotations in the postseason, but having Madison Bumgarner, even if it ends up being for just one game, pushes the needle too far for me. Because of him, the slight edge (and it’s slight)
goes to the Giants.
The Giants’ bullpen is an absolute mess. They led the league in blown saves (30), including nine in September, which nearly cost them a postseason appearance. Per ESPN’s Tim Kurkjian, the Giants lost more games (nine) that they entered the ninth inning with a lead than any team in baseball – five of which came in September. They lost 10 games that they led by three or more runs, most in the major leagues. They have flip-flopped closers multiple times, going from Sergio Romo to Santiago Casilla back to Romo. As mentioned earlier, the Cubs are amongst the best in the league at grinding at-bats and forcing starting pitchers out of games early. If they can continue to emphasize patience at the plate, the Cubs will force Bruce Bochy to go to his bullpen early and often, which could very well end up being the key to the entire series.
The Cubs’ bullpen, on the other hand, has been consistently good all season. As expected, The addition of Aroldis Chapman at the trade deadline has been a massive one. In 26.2innings, Chapman saved 16 games and owns a miniscule 1.01 ERA with 46 K’s and only 12 hits allowed. His 101+ MPH fastball combined with his 91-92 MPH slider makes him nearly unhittable; once he gets the ball, it’s game-set-match.
That said, not everything has been sunshine and rainbows with this unit. Setup man Hector Rondon came out hot after a DL stint for a strained triceps back in August, but he has given up seven earned runs in his last 2.2 innings and finished the month of September with an 8.53 ERA; Pedro Strop missed six weeks in August/September recovering from arthroscopic knee surgery and has only 3.2 innings under his belt since coming back; Travis Wood got rocked by righties this year and turned himself into a LOOGY (Lefty One-Out Guy) for the first time in his career; C.J. Edwards, who looked otherworldly in the first half of the season, had a rough final two months of the season (6.00 ERA in August, 5.79 ERA in September). And yet, I’m not too worried about any of this, and after the second halves Justin Grimm and Mike Montgomery had, the seven of these guys still form arguably the most formidable bullpen in the playoffs.
With respect to Yadier Molina, catcher Buster Posey (catcher) and defending Gold Glove shortstop Brandon Crawford are the two best defensive players in the NL at their respective positions and are the odds-on favorites to win Gold Gloves this season. Crawford, who was second in the NL in defensive runs saved, forms a dynamic double-play combination with second baseman Joe Panik. The outfield trio of Hunter Pence, Denard Span and Angel Pagan was expected to be above average, but each of them regressed this season. Given the experience they all have in the postseason, expect each of them to step it up again.
As for the Cubs, well, they may have the greatest defense of all time. 22-year old Addison Russell has continued to make his case for best shortstop in the NL but trails Crawford for now; Javier Baez is the league’s most valuable swiss army knife, playing plus-defense at three different positions (second base, third base, shortstop); right fielder Jason Heyward a lock to win his fourth Gold Glove in five years; Dexter Fowler has turned himself into an above average center fielder, by FanGraphs standards, by playing a bit deeper this season; and first baseman Anthony Rizzo, who combines fearlessness with grace as well as anyone in baseball, is the most valuable first basemen (from a defensive standpoint) with his league-leading 11 defensive runs saved.
Per Baseball Prospectus, the Cubs, as a whole, led the Major Leagues in Defensive Efficiency by a ridiculous margin. Their score of .745 is the highest by any team since 1982 (San Diego). The gap between the Cubs and the second-ranked Blue Jays is higher than the gap between the Blue Jays and the 27th-ranked Mets. Is that even real? Seems impossible, but I can assure you that it’s not.
Joe Maddon is the f***ing man. He is absolutely incredible at managing a bullpen, developing talent, building a great culture and putting players in the best position to succeed. But as great as he is at all of these things, there is no way he can get the edge here over Bruce Bochy. Bochy has won three World Series championships in the past six years, and he always seems to push the right buttons. Until proven otherwise, Bochy is the best manager in baseball. Period.
Of the three potential Wild Card teams, the Giants were the one team that no one wanted to face. Naturally, it turned out the exact way no Cubs fan wanted it to, but at least the “be careful what you wish for” saying can get tossed out the window. I truly believe the winner of this series will end up getting to the World Series. The Cubs will to find a way to win this one, but it won’t be without some gray hairs and a series of heart attacks.
Prediction: Cubs in 5