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NLDS Preview: Cubs vs. Giants

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Cubs vs. Giants is the most intriguing matchup in the first round.


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.

Hitting

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).

Advantage: Cubs

Starting Pitching

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.

Advantage: Giants

Relief Pitching

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.

Advantage: Cubs

Defense

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.

Advantage: Cubs

Manager 

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.

Advantage: Giants

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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 

 

 

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NLCS Preview: Cubs – Mets

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The Cubs will try to exact revenge on the Mets after what happened in 1969.

It was August 16, 1969. I was zero years old. The Cubs, led by Hall of Famers Ron Santo, Ernie Banks, Billy Williams and Fergie Jenkins, had a nine-game lead in the NL East over the New York Mets. It was, and may still be, the best Cubs team ever assembled – a team that looked destined to get the lowly Cubs back to the World Series for the first time in 24 years.

Then, the Mets got hot. Really, really hot. On September 9 during a Cubs-Mets game in Shea Stadium, the Cubs still held a 1.5 game lead before a black cat ran onto the field, circled around Ron Santo in the on-deck circle, and disappeared underneath the stands. The Mets finished the season on a 36-11 tear, while the Cubs closed off an 8-17 skid in their last 25 and lost the division by eight games.

Whether it was the black cat omen, fatigue, or a mixture of other things, no one really knows. But the Cubs pulled off one of the biggest choke jobs in sports history that season, and they’ve never had a chance to make Mets fans feel that same devastation and heartbreak ever since. Until now.

Since August 1, the Cubs and Mets have been the two hottest teams in the National League (Pittsburgh would qualify had they won the Wild Card game – whoops) – the Cubs being 46-19, the Mets being 40-23 (both including playoffs). On Saturday night, the two teams will face off in the first game of an epic best-of-seven series. The best group of up-and-coming position players against the best group of up-and-coming starting pitchers. The two biggest markets in baseball and sports. Are the Cubs going to finally break through and reach their first World Series since 1945? Let’s find out.

Hitting

I’m going to lose my shit if I hear one more person say the Cubs will win this series because they beat the Mets all seven times they played each other this season. Enough, ignorant people. Enough. This current New York Mets team is a completely different one than the New York Mets team that the Cubs swept twice earlier in the season. Before the All-Star break, the Mets averaged 3.49 runs per game – good for last in the National League (unless you count the Phillies as a Major League team). From then on, a miraculous turnaround ensued, largely thanks to an incredible trade made by GM Sandy Alderson to acquire Yoenis Cespedes from the Tigers at the deadline. The Mets led the National League in second half scoring with 5.11 runs per game. If the Cubs are going to win this series, it surely will have nothing to do with what was done in the regular season.

Cespedes has been so insanely good (.287/.337/.604, 17-44-39 in 57 games) that he worked himself into the NL MVP discussion after only spending two months in the National League. David Wright, the heart and soul of the Mets over the past decade, came back in August after spending four months on the DL and finished with a strong September. These two, alone, give the Mets lineup a whole different dynamic than the one the Cubs faced. On top of that, Curtis Granderson and Daniel Murphy, two veteran players with great track records who struggled more often than not throughout this season, are both scorching hot. Against the Dodgers in the NLDS, Granderson posted a .389/.476/.500 line with five RBI, while Murphy destroyed them with three home runs and five RBI of his own. Right now, this Mets lineup is as potent as any in the league, and it cannot and should not be taken for granted.

That said, if you think the Mets lineup is scarier than that of the Cubs, you haven’t been paying attention. Does it frighten me that the Cubs who, as you know, had the highest strike out rate in the Majors, will have to tee off against two strikeout machines (Jacob DeGrom and Noah Syndergaard) potentially four times this series? Yes. But after what I witnessed in the NLDS, I can safely proclaim that this Cubs lineup is an uncontrollable beast, hitting with more confidence than any Cubs fan could have ever asked for. 10 home runs combined in Games 3 and 4? The first team ever to hit six home runs in a postseason game? Is that even real?

Dexter Fowler is the catalyst to the Cubs well-oiled hitting machine (seventh in the NL in walks and stole 20 bases); Kyle Scwharber is a goddamn freak of nature, obliterating baseballs from Wrigley Field to Bloomington, IN on the reg (before the break, the Cubs ranked 23rd in baseball in OPS against right-handers at .683; they ranked third after the break, when Schwarbino became a fixture, at .783); future MVP candidates Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo, both of whom struggled early on in the NLDS, have righted their ships and are as clutch as can be; and Jorge Soler. Oh, Jorge Soler. The guy who got on base 10 of 13 times and hit two mammoth homers against the Cardinals in the NLDS? Yeah, that guy. Welcome to the big show, big boy.

As I mentioned in my NLDS preview, the Cubs, overall, are one of the worst teams in the league at driving in runners from scoring position (.236) – something that Joe Maddon touched on once again in his interview on PTI on Thursday. The Mets, on the other hand, were middle of the pack (.250) this season. However, most of their damage was done either in the first six innings or with less than two outs. From the seventh inning on, that .250 number dropped to .233 – similar to the Cubs’ .231 average. Even better, with two outs, the Mets (.209) were actually a tad worse than the Cubs (.211) with RISP. Moral of the story: try to keep the Mets off the basepaths early in the game, and feel confident about the Cubs’ chances at getting out of two-out jams.

Advantage: Cubs

Starting Pitching

The Mets have four starters who all legitimately have ace potential for the next ten years. This year, they were led by Jacob deGrom, a late blooming 27-year-old and former Rookie of the Year (last season) whose peripherals were right up there with the likes of Zack Greinke this season. I’ll give you more on him in a minute, but he’s the guy I’m most afraid of right now.

New York’s top three starting pitchers all ranked in the top 11 in the majors in fastball velocity this season. Of pitchers who started at least 20 games, Noah Syndergaard led MLB with an average fastball velocity of 97.1 miles per hour; Harvey was fourth at 95.8; and deGrom ranked 11th at 93.4.

For the Cubs, there’s a silver lining: although they, as a whole, have struggled against fastball pitchers when behind in the count (hit .229 in at-bats ending in a pitch 94+ mph, last in NL), Kris Bryant was in the top 25 in batting average (.330) and slugging percentage (.617) in plate appearances ending against a fastball of at least 94.5 mph, and he was second in the majors with 16 extra-base hits. Kyle Schwarber also went 3-for-8 against flame-throwing Gerrit Cole with a home run in the Wild Card game.

In addition, per ESPN’s Buster Olney, what the Cubs do better than any other team is get deep into ball-strike counts and drive up the pitch count of opposing pitchers. They led the Majors in pitches per plate appearance during the regular season, seeing 3.97 pitches per at-bat. Gotta like this counter attack. Let’s get to the matchups.

Game 1: Jon Lester (11-12, 3.34) vs. Matt Harvey (13-8, 2.71)

A lot of people have been painting Harvey as a guy the Cubs will be able to hit hard. Let’s all chill for a second. Does anyone remember how f***ing good Harvey was in 2013 before sitting out the entire next season recovering from Tommy John surgery? He finished fourth in Cy Young voting and was pegged as the next big thing in baseball. I am certainly not excited to face him.

That said, 2015 hasn’t been as kind to Harvey. The 2.71 ERA looks great and all, but the ERA went up to 3.99 in September/October, and the whole pitch count fiasco was really strange and poorly handled. The Mets were trying to limit his innings down the stretch in order to keep his workload somewhat moderate after he had that surgery. The whole situation really reared its head, but Harvey looked pretty solid in his lone start against LA in the NLDS (5 IP, 2 ER, 7 K). Alderson said Friday that he’s not guaranteed more than one start in the NLCS, but in a seven game series, I’m not buying it. Expect to see him twice if gets to that point.

Jon Lester continued his postseason studliness in Game 1 against St. Louis; the Cubs just couldn’t score that day. I’m fine with the decision to start Lester over Arrieta, as Lester has now had seven days of rest – eight is probably too much. It makes sense and, to be honest, what do you think we’re paying him $155 million for? Exactly these moments. I feel confident in Lester to go out and put us in great position to win Game 1 given his track record of success in October.

And one more thing: for all that talk about Lester’s inability to hold runners on first (he allowed the most stolen bases in the league), the Mets ranked dead last in the NL in stolen bases and second to last in Fangraphs’ speed metric. This is a great thing for Lester.

Game 2: Jake Arrieta (22-6, 1.77) vs. Noah Syndergaard (9-7, 3.24)

For as young as he is (only 23), the rookie Syndergaard may throw harder than any starter in the league. Goldie Locks pumps out 100 mph fastballs like it’s no one’s business and ranked fourth in the NL (min: 100 IP) in K/9 behind Clayton Kershaw, Stephen Strasburg and Max Scherzer. He looked great against LA in both his lone start and relief appearance (11 K in 7.1 total innings).

However, Syndergaard can certainly be got. He was a bit inconsistent throughout the season and had a couple brutal months (June and August). Amongst pitchers who threw at least 150 innings, Syndergaard ranked sixth worst in HR:FB ratio at 14.3%. In his only start against the Cubs, he gave up three runs on six hits and four walks in 5.1 innings. It’s a small sample size, but if the Cubs can get to Syndergaard early, you gotta feel pretty good.

As for Arrieta, well, I’ll still take him in a winner-take-all game over any pitcher still left in the postseason. I don’t care how he looked on Monday against St. Louis. So what if he gave up four runs, matching his total runs given up in his previous 97.1 innings? He’s human. But since August 1, the Cubs have yet to lose a game that Arrieta starts (14-0). When he takes the mound, they expect to win. And I’ll be damned if they lose this one.

Game 3: Jacob deGrom (14-8, 2.54) vs. Kyle Hendricks (8-7, 3.95)

This is where I get worried. deGrom, as I mentioned, was phenomenal this season, and that success has continued into October, as he made Dodger hitters his bitch in Games 1 and 5 of the NLDS (13 IP, 2 ER, 20 K). Amongst starters who threw at least 100 innings, he ranked fifth in the NL in ERA (2.54), fourth in FIP (2.70), and sixth in WAR (5.2). Based on what I saw from him in the NLDS, it’s clear that no moment is too big for him (won both of those games on the road), so pitching in Wrigley Field will not phase him.

But, and this is a big but, deGrom really struggled in two starts against the Cubs this season, giving up 12 hits, six walks, and seven earned runs in only 10.1 innings pitched. Hmmmm…

Kyle Hendricks looked meh against the Cardinals in Game 2 of the NLDS. After giving up a leadoff home run to Matt Carpenter, he settled down and retired 14 of his next 15 batters before allowing back-to-back solo shots in the fifth inning. Joe Maddon has made it clear that the leash with both Hendricks and Jason Hammel will be very short, and he will never be afraid to go to the bullpen if he senses any sort of struggle from these two guys. Hendricks is a decent pitcher with great command, but hitters tend to catch up to his stuff as the game wears on. The Cubs will need to find a way to score some runs on deGrom if they’re going to win this game.

Game 4: Steven Matz (4-0, 2.27) vs. Jason Hammel (10-7, 3.74)

Reigning from Stony Brook, NY, the highly touted 24-year-old Matz was called up to the Majors in June, hit the DL after his second start for two months, then came back in September and pitched pretty well. He has been hit pretty hard his past two starts (16 hits, 6 ER in 10.2 IP), but he has plus stuff and the potential to shut down any lineup. He is the only lefty in the Mets’ rotation, and the Cubs have crushed left-handed pitching in the postseason (.286/.355/.750, 4 HR in 28 AB). Here’s to hoping that continues.

Jason Hammel straight up sucks right now. At this point, he has shown he cannot be relied on to last more than three or four innings. Maddon has no faith in him, and rightly so. He had a huge hit in the clinching game against St. Louis, but he needs to pitch better – it’s as simple as that. I can already see this game turning into a bullpen game very quickly.

After Game 4, the matchups are up in the air. If the matchups play out the way you see above in the first four games, then expect Jon Lester to start Game 5 on normal rest and Jake Arrieta to start Game 6 on an extra day of rest. I’m not even going to attempt to predict what the Mets are going to do, as they’re all over the place right now with trying to manage their young arms. I will say this, though: do not be surprised at all if 42-year-old Bartolo Colon makes a surprise start at some point late in this series.

Advantage: Mets

Relief Pitching

As a whole, the Mets bullpen was average this season (3.48 ERA, 3.60 FIP). They acquired one of the best setup men in the league at the trade deadline in Tyler Clippard, but he struggled mightily in September (6.59 ERA in 13.2 IP) – the worst month he’d had in three years. Former White Sox closer Addison Reed, whom the Mets acquired from Arizona, was unreal in September (0.00 ERA, 15 K in 14 IP), but who knows if he can keep that up given his track record. The guy to really watch is Mets closer Jeurys Familia. This dude is absolutely ridiculous. He’s got a fastball that consistently touches 97-98 mph and counteracts it with a slider that reminds me of Carlos Marmol’s in his prime. After a campaign that saw him post a 1.85 ERA, 86 Ks in 78 innings and 43 saves in 48 chances, the door is all but closed when Familia comes in.

Unsurprisingly, the Cubs bullpen has been fantastic in the postseason. Of the four teams left, this ‘pen pitched the least amount of innings in the Divisional Series, which bodes well considering it will be needed a lot going forward given the lack of trust that Maddon has in the back end of the rotation. They’ve gotten the team out of some big time jams, and Maddon went as far as to pitch every single one of them in the clinching game, where they allowed two runs and struck out 13 in six combined innings. What amazes is that three of the mainstays in this bullpen (Clayton Richard, Trevor Cahill, Fernando Rodney) were designated for assignment at one point this season, picked up by the Cubs and flourished (sup, Chris Bosio). I absolutely love what I’m seeing from this entire group right now and, for the first time ever, I feel confident about my team’s chances when the game is handed to our bullpen with a lead.

Advantage: Cubs

Fielding

I know I touched on Addison Russell’s defensive impact in my last post, but with him being ruled out of the NLCS with a hamstring strain, I have some stats that you need to see from ESPN’s Jayson Stark:

From the day he took over (Aug. 7), Russell led all shortstops in baseball in defensive runs saved (11), according to Baseball Info Solutions.

• Before Aug. 7, the Cubs ranked 20th overall in baseball in defensive runs saved (with minus-13). After they moved Russell to short, they ranked third (with plus-31).

• After the date Russell shifted to short, the Cubs converted 55.5 percent of all ground balls into outs, the fourth-best rate in baseball. Before that, they ranked 11th (with 52.8 percent).

• Arrieta might have been the biggest beneficiary of that upgrade among the pitching staff. Once Russell was installed at short, the rate of ground balls converted into outs behind Arrieta jumped from 60.3 percent to 68.2 percent.

• And Russell made a big impact on Kris Bryant’s defense at third, too. Bryant’s defensive runs saved trampolined from minus-3 before Aug. 7 to plus-17 afterward. And the left side of the infield as a whole went from minus-4 before Russell’s move to plus-38 afterward — the best left-side defense in baseball over the last two months.

I get that Javier Baez is a really, really good shortstop in his own right, but the impact of losing Russell cannot go understated. The Cubs are still pretty solid elsewhere across the diamond, and Maddon will never hesitate to put his best defensive lineup out there when the Cubs have a lead late.

The Mets are not very good in the infield defensively at all. Losing Ruben Tejada at shortstop was terrible for them – his replacement, Wilmer Flores, had a -2.5 UZR this season. Third baseman David Wright had a -4.1 UZR – one of the worst ratings amongst those who qualify at the position. And first baseman Lucas Duda – nah.

The outfield is their strength defensively. Rookie Michael Conforto is great, and Yoenis Cespedes has an absolute canon. You cannot run on him. If you try to do so, may the odds be ever in your favor.

Advantage: Cubs

Manager

Mets manager Terry Collins is in his 11th season as a manager. This is his first postseason appearance.

Cubs Manager Joe Maddon is in his 10th season as a manger (he ironically replaced Terry Collins as interim manager of the Angels in 1999 after he was fired). This is his fifth postseason appearance and second in the LCS.

Terry Collins is notoriously known for being a terrible bullpen manager (please read this great Grantland piece here if you love baseball); Joe Maddon, as evidenced in the NLDS, is not.

Give me Maddon. The man crush continues to grow.

Advantage: Cubs

—————————————————————-

It’s not going to be easy, and I can truly see this series going either way. Both teams are very evenly matched, and both teams could find themselves playing this deep into October for the next 5-10 years.

The death of the black cat is upon us. This is our time. This is our year.

Prediction: Cubs in 6

NLDS Preview: Cubs – Cardinals

Cubs-vs.-Cardinals-NLDS

The Cubs and Cardinals will face off in the postseason for the first time in their storied history.

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.

Hitting

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.

Advantage: Cubs

Starting Pitching

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

Well then.

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.

Advantage: Cubs

Relief Pitching

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.

Advantage: Cardinals

Fielding

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.

Advantage: Cubs

Manager 

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?

Advantage: Cubs

———————————————————-

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  

2015 Preview – Chicago Cubs

***This article was written by Matt Stevens***

The 2014 MLB season was a pretty bad one for the Chicago Cubs. Even though they were able to get a glimpse of the future with some of the youngsters putting up decent numbers at times, they still finished with just 73 wins. All that being said, optimism is certainly alive and well heading into spring training. The question is, do the Cubs really have a chance at winning the National League Central?

Every single team in the National League Central will go into 2015 feeling like they can win it. The most consistent teams in the last few years have been the St. Louis Cardinals, the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Cincinnati Reds. All 3 of those teams have made the playoffs at least once in the last 2 years, and they look to be strong on paper heading into the upcoming season. All a person has to do is look around baseball to see that a bad break or two could open things up for challengers.

Chicago will be one of the youngest teams in the game in 2015, and it is their youth that gives plenty of people optimism. Not only does Chicago have the top position prospect in the game in Kris Bryant ready to break out, but guys like Addison Russell and Javier Baez could be major contributors in FanDuel fantasy baseball leagues. Even when you look at their veteran leaders Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo, they are only just beginning the prime of their careers.

Pitching is going to be a little bit of a wild card for the Chicago Cubs, but they do feel confident that new free-agent signing Jon Lester will be a very strong ace in the rotation. He has been one of the most consistent left-handed pitchers in the game, and he is also known as a pretty nice guy to have in the clubhouse. He should be able to help bring along some of the younger players on the team as they try to put a contender together.

As of right now, Chicago is loaded with young, promising talent. Some fans might want to see them keep it all together, but chances are at some point Chicago will dangle one or a couple of them as trade bait. If this team is contending by the middle of the year, they could decide to give up one of their younger assets to get a veteran to help down the stretch. Thanks to the way they have built their minor-league system, they can afford to do something like that.

Winning in the National League Central was never going to be easy, and 2015 is no different. Chicago has a new manager in Joe Maddon who has been able to have success with a much smaller payroll in Tampa Bay. He might not be ready to make the Chicago Cubs pennant winners just yet, but it would not be surprised at all to see them right around or even north of .500.

Talkin’ Baseball: Analyzing the Cubs’ Trades

chi_u_jed_theo_cr_6001

Jed Hoyer (left) and Theo Epstein (right) have been, by far, the most active executives on the trade market.

The City of Broad Shoulders’ Adam Levy and Josh Frydman team up for another COBS Podcast, dissecting the Cubs deadline deals, including the Matt Garza and Alfonso Soriano trades, and what other moves might be coming.

Listen Here: COBS PODCAST CUBS DEADLINE DEALS

The Ratings Game

CABRERA. DAVIS. PUIG. THE STORYLINES ARE THERE: SO WHY AREN’T THE RATINGS? THREE POSSIBLE SOLUTIONS TO DRIVE UP THE GAME’S POPULARITY…

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Dodgers Outfielder Yasiel Puig has taken the baseball world by storm over the past six weeks, yet casual fans haven’t seemed to notice much.

We’ve reached the traditional finish to the first half of the major league baseball season (even though nearly 60 percent of the season has been played), and boy, what a first half it has been. The storylines include the reigning triple crown winner Miguel Cabrera putting up video-game numbers (.365/.458/.674, 30 HR, 95 RBI–according to MLB Stats he could go hitless in his next 79 at-bats and still hit better than .300), a guy in Chris “Crush” Davis who hit more home runs by the break than anyone besides Barry Bonds (and his 37 are four less than he’s had the last three seasons COMBINED), a 22-year-old kid from Cuba named Puig who hasn’t stopped lighting up Hollywood since his call-up in June, becoming ESPN’s new lovechild in the process, and five of the six division races separated by just 2.5 games or less. It’s going to be a fun second half. So why aren’t more people watching?

According to Awful Announcing, MLB on Fox failed to draw a 2.0 rating in each of its first six telecasts this season (for perspective, Nascar’s Sprint Cup Series race at New Hampshire on Sunday did a 2.8 rating–on TNT). ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball dipped as low as a 1.2 for a Memorial Day matchup with the Braves and Mets. The ratings plunge has been a trend in the past decade. Take a look at these charts from SportsBusinessDaily.com:

FOX MLB SATURDAY REGULAR-SEASON TREND
YEAR
RATING
VIEWERS (000)
’12
1.7
2,500
’11
1.8
2,744
’10
1.8
2,700
’09
1.8
2,700
’08
2.0
2,900
’07
2.3
3,312
’06
2.4
3,348
’05
2.6
3,606
’04
2.7
3,727
’03
2.7
3,600
’02
2.5
3,445
’01
2.6
3,377
MLB REGULAR-SEASON GAMES ON ESPN
YEAR
VIEWERS (000)
’12
1,156
’11
1,449
’10
1,386
’09
1,607
’08
1,693
’07
1,775
“SUNDAY NIGHT BASEBALL” ON ESPN
YEAR
VIEWERS (000)
’12
1,784
’11
2,294
’10
2,177
’09
2,458
’08
2,617
’07
2,752
TBS SUNDAY MLB TELECASTS
(EXCLUDES TIEBREAKERS)
YEAR
VIEWERS (000)
’12
448
’11
556
’10
557
’09
614
’08
624

In Chicago, as of June 11th, the Cubs regular season games averaged a 1.7 rating on Comcast SportsNet, down 15 percent from that point last season, according to sportsmediawatch.com. White Sox games have been even worse–averaging a 1.3, down 24 percent from a year ago. Now, since both teams stink, this isn’t exactly shocking news. Baseball is a regional sport, and ratings in markets like Detroit and St. Louis, where the teams are contenders, continue to soar. But is winning the only thing causing the casual fan to switch from Man vs. Food to Sale vs. Cabrera? I think baseball is far behind its major sports counterparts in attracting fans to games beyond the scope of their home teams. MLB isn’t doing everything it can to capitalize on the national narratives it has going for it currently. The overall health of the sport is fine (the last nine seasons, 2004-2012, have produced the nine-most attended seasons in baseball history, according to Forbes), but the television ratings downward slope and overall image of the game should cause some alarm bells to go off. Here are some possible solutions.

LENGTH MATTERS

The most obvious and fixable problem with baseball is the length of the season. 162 games plus a month of playoffs is ridiculous in the current culture. Folks already complain about the length of games (as of last month, games averaged 2:57:53, which would tie the all-time high set in 2000, according to the Boston Globe). Combine that with the interminable season schedule, and the society of now and instant gratification is bound to turn away. Of course, purists will always argue the beauty of the game can be found in its nuances, which can only be played out in a space without a clock and a season that stretches six months. But Major League Baseball, contrary to popular belief, has actually adopted new rules and policies several times in its 137-year history, and one of them has been schedule length.

The modern 162-game schedule has now been in place for 51 years, back when there were only 18 teams in the league. From 1888 to 1961, the league schedule went back-and-forth from 142 games to 154 five different times (with a five-year switch to 132 games in 1893). Baseball has always employed the longest season of the major American professional sports for several reasons: it’s not as physically taxing as football or hockey; there is natural rest allotted for players taking the most toll on their bodies (starting pitchers) by only playing every four-to-five games, etc. Baseball is a grind, but to imagine an NBA player playing 40 minutes a night for 162 games a season is nearly impossible.

The solution? Chop off the first and last months of the season, and play a 96-game slate starting May 1st. Suddenly, you remove the cold, miserable April games played in climates like Cleveland and Minnesota who use outdoor stadiums meant for warm summer months, not games where this happens.

You also create urgency right off the bat and keep fans (and players) more engaged with pennant races that don’t last three times as long as a Kardashian marriage. Look what happened when both the NBA and NHL shortened their seasons because of separate lockouts. They went from 82 games to 66 and 48, respectively, and the regular season felt more entertaining to fans, an experience to savor instead of just a heavy, time-consuming appetizer to digest before the postseason. Those shorter seasons crammed too many games into such a short period of time, creating sloppy play and resulting in too many injuries that routinely found critics blaming the season length. However, this wouldn’t be the case in baseball. Teams already play six to seven games a week for six months and, if they are lucky to survive that, play three seven-game series to determine a champion. It’s a lot of baseball in a cramped time frame.

By cutting 40 percent off the regular season slate, baseball can now breathe a little bit, and still play more games than any of the Big Four leagues. With the reduced game-schedule, every team would get one off day a week (either Monday or Thursday), ensuring no stretches of 20-plus games in a row for some teams without an off day. Removing the rainy (and sometimes snowy) April from the docket also cuts down on postponed games that have to be rescheduled during the season. The real ratings trouble happens at the end of the season, when football kicks off again and fans turn their attention elsewhere. With the new shortened schedule, the regular season would end in late August, allowing fans to fully invest in pennant races without NFL or college football games interfering yet. The MLB playoffs would be in September, but playoff games should only be scheduled on Tuesday-Saturday, as to not overlap with the NFL, which would no doubt diminish ratings (we’ll take our chances with the college football crowd on Saturdays).

While we decrease the regular season length, we can then extend the playoffs by adding more teams. MLB already made a wise choice last season adding the second wild card team, allowing five teams from each league (33 percent total) into its postseason. This still lags behind football (12 total playoff teams, or 40 percent of the league), and far behind the NBA and NHL (16 total playoff teams, 53 percent). The NBA and NHL playoffs are long as it is, so I’d be in favor of six teams from each league making the postseason as opposed to jumping up to eight. With this format, the only logical way to work things out is to give each division winner a playoff spot, along with the next three best teams in the league, regardless of division. The two teams with the best records will get byes into the second round (again, this could mean they come from the same division, a la the Pirates and Cardinals this season). The three seed would play the six seed in a best-of-five series, the four seed getting the five seed also in a best-of-five. The lowest seed remaining plays the top seed in a best-of-seven, with the other two teams playing each other. The NLCS, ALCS and World Series would also be best-of-seven.

FLEX APPEAL

Along with a shorter season schedule, the major networks airing MLB games in primetime need to do a better job of showcasing the top players and teams in the game as the season goes along. For instance, Yasiel Puig was called up on June 3 and instantly ignited the league with his 5-tool arsenal rarely seen so early in a player’s career. Bar none, he was the most talked about player during the last six weeks. However, not one ESPN Sunday Night Baseball game (the equivalent to the NFL’s Monday Night Football telecast) included Puig’s Los Angeles Dodgers. Why not? The league set its Sunday night games through mid-July way back on May 29–five days before Puig’s call-up. Bad luck? Certainly. But what the MLB and ESPN should have done is employ a flex schedule similar to what the NFL and its Sunday night showcase on NBC work out.

Flex scheduling begins Week 11 in the NFL, and ensures the fans a marquee matchup for the final quarter of the season. It’s a smart, ratings-driven tactic that has worked. According to NFL.com, the announcement of which game gets “flexed” comes no later than 12 days before the scheduled matchup. If the NFL can change a game time with that short of a turnaround, there’s no reason the MLB can’t as well. And the league shouldn’t wait until the second half of the season to do so, either. Not one Sunday Night Baseball game in the final five weeks of the first half (and the first week of the second half coming up this Sunday), included Miguel Cabrera, Chris Davis or Yasiel Puig, the three biggest player storylines going this season. Instead, we were force-fed two Yankees-Red Sox match-ups (which I can probably speak for most when I say those outside the East Coast are tired of), and not one, not two, but three games featuring the St. Louis Cardinals, which is understandable because of their record but overkill in that amount of time. Baseball has to continually look to showcase its best stories and talent during its marquee stage week-in-week-out, and it starts with flex scheduling more in tune with the NFL.

MARKET ME

Finally, player marketing needs to improve. The NBA is commonly regarded as the league of stars because we see those players in the flesh, unencumbered by helmets or hats. We see their faces more, and therefore we recognize and identify with them easier (unlike some Mets fans have been able to do with their own Matt Harvey). The best NBA players are also the ones we see most often on our TVs when they aren’t in a game (think Chris Paul and his State Farm commercials, Blake Griffin and his KIA ads, Derrick Rose and Adidas, Lebron and Nike, etc.) But where are the baseball stars? The best player in the league, Miguel Cabrera, hasn’t hit it out of the park with endorsers for a couple of reasons, both of which I don’t agree with.

The first is the language barrier. Cabrera is Venezuelan, and doesn’t speak perfect English. So what? He’s the best hitter on the planet and should be the face of the sport. Does Chris (or Cliff) Paul speak in his State Farm ad? Nope, its voiced over by a narrator. There are ways around the language gap, and it shouldn’t be used as an excuse to not highlight the game’s best talent. The other reason companies aren’t flocking toward Cabrera with seven-figure endorsement deals is because of his past off-field issues. Cabrera has a sketchy history with alcohol abuse, arrests–he was charged with DUI in 2011 and in 2010–and domestic violence, as his GM had to pick him up from a police station in 2009 after Cabrera fought with his wife (drinking involved). However, that was before his Triple Crown season of 2012, and his current first-half of unprecedented greatness. If Josh Hamilton can get endorsement deals with Vita Coco water after overcoming his off-field issues, there’s no reason why Cabrera, a player out of Hamilton’s league at this point, can’t grab a bigger endorsement deal and more TV face time.

If the only difference is their skin color, that’s unfair. Bryce Harper is a budding star–and white–and naturally, he’s a key component to MLB’s marketing campaign. And he should be, with such big-name sponsors as Under Armour. But more stars, no matter their ethnicity, need to be highlighted across media platforms. From what I’ve seen, baseball stars are still trailing their football and basketball counterparts in this crucial area to increase the sport’s popularity beyond a regional game.

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These aren’t the only areas of the game that need to be improved, of course, but they are a start. I think the media as a whole can do a better job highlighting the game (I’m looking at you, ESPN, running more off-season NFL, NBA and college football news during the summer than baseball stories). I also think generating more interest in the fantasy baseball game (or wagering on baseball in general) can be explored because we all know how much that drives football ratings on Sundays in the fall. If you have more than just a rooting interest on the line, you are bound to watch more games which don’t involve your favorite team.

Baseball is a stubborn sport. Change spreads through its pores slowly. I love the history and uniqueness of the game as much as any fan, but I also recognize its lag behind other sports nationally. Keeping every element of the game the same for the sake of  “we’ve always done it this way” won’t cut it anymore. New rules on video replay and the added wildcard team are steps in the right direction to raise the game’s profile. I hope they continue.

The second half of the season should be filled with compelling division races, another triple crown chase and a potential 60 home run season. Just make sure to tune in, or you might just miss it.

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