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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
He was coming off a 2011 season in which he posted a meager 4.84 ERA and got demoted to AAA for two months during the middle of the season. There were flashes throughout his rookie season in 2010 when everyone thought he was coming into his own as a starter, but not before a miserable regression kicked in and saw him settle in as a mediocre bullpen option for the Cincinnati Reds. Dusty Baker and co. decided to give up on this former second-round draft pick and ship him to Chicago in exchange for every Cub fan’s favorite (or second favorite) pitcher, Sean Marshall, who was quickly becoming the NL’s best non-closing relief pitcher. Clearly, Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer saw something in this soon-to-be bust named Travis Wood, and at this point in time, their instincts have proven to be spot on.
It’s been four long years since the Cubs had a pitcher of any sort make the All-Star team, but the hard work, patience and humility of Travis Wood has finally broken that slump. Last season was certainly another rough one for Wood, but whatever ‘Secret Stuff‘ Chris Bosio chose to feed him this past spring has paid dividends out the wazoo, as the memories of Cubs fans (including myself) throwing fits of rage upon hearing the news of a Wood-for-Marshall swap are now miles and miles away. He has completely transformed himself from a replacement-level pitcher (WAR of -0.1 and 0.7 the past two seasons, respectively) to one of the most valuable pitchers in the National League through the first half of the season with a WAR of 3.0, good for ninth overall in the National League, according to Baseball Reference.
On top of that, Wood’s eighth-ranked ERA (2.69), sixth-ranked WHIP (0.98), and second-ranked H/9 (6.1) amongst NL starters have him in the mix for a healthy raise from his current $527,500 contract as he heads into the 2014 offseason eligible for arbitration. Wood also leads all of Major League Baseball with 16 quality starts (6+ innings, 3 ER or less) – yes, more than Clayton Kershaw, Adam Wainwright, Matt Harvey, etc. – and has only had one non-quality start the entire season (94% quality start percentage), which came against Cincinnati, coincidentally, on May 25th. Words can’t do Wood’s first-half performance justice; he has simply been sensational and one of the lone bright spots for the Cubs this season. Put him on a team that can actually score some goddamn runs (Cubs score 3.18 runs per Wood start, ranking him fifth to last in NL run support average), and that five-win total likely increases by three, four, or even five.
What, exactly, has led to this sensational transformation, you ask? The most obvious change lies in the pitches that he’s throwing. Wood is throwing slightly fewer four-seam fastballs, curveballs and change-ups while mixing in more cutters and sliders, per Fangraphs:
As you can see, the increase in sliders is dramatic. Historically, Wood has shied away from throwing his slider to right-handed hitters, whom he has struggled to pitch against over the years, and has chosen to rely heavily on his four-seamer to get ahead of batters or throw a strike when needed. This season, Wood is generating more whiffs from righties by improving his slider location (down and in, as opposed to leaving it up and over the plate like last year), likely leading to his career low home run percentage (1.9%), extra base hit percentage (5.8%), line drive percentage (20.5%) and home run to fly ball ratio (5.7%) overall. In addition to his slider success, Wood is leaving runners in scoring position stranded more often than ever (.254 RISP BAA in 2012; .203 RISP BAA in 2013) and walking the least amount of batters (7.6% BB%) of his career since his rookie season.
Outside of his pitch selection, Wood’s release point has also slightly changed, which Fangraphs pointed out in the link above, as his arm angle is a little bit closer to his body this season compared to last season. This may or may not have anything to do with Wood’s improvement, but it’s quite possible that such a mechanical adjustment was pointed out by, and worked on with, Chris Bosio throughout the offseason.
Whether Wood can keep up this kind of success remains to be seen. It’s more likely than not that his league-leading .211 batting averages on balls in play (BABIP – how many of a pitcher’s balls in play go for hits) will regress towards his career rate of .265, leading to an ordinary second half as opposed to another great half like the one we’ve witnessed thus far. Until then, however, it’s time we appreciate the impressive transformation of Travis Wood and applaud him for his All-Star performance over the past three months. The 26-year-old southpaw is finally breaking through and showcasing why he deserves to be a potential building block, albeit as a third or fourth starter, for a franchise expected to break through on its own just two years from now.