You all know the narrative by now. The Cubs – the best offensive team in the National League (sorry Rockies – you play in Coors Field) – got stymied over the past couple of weeks by superior left-handed pitching. They had to face the likes of Madison Bumgarner, Matt Moore, Clayton Kershaw and Rich Hill and simply could not produce any offense against them. Anthony Rizzo, Addison Russell, Dexter Fowler and Ben Zobrist all couldn’t hit, evidenced by a 21 inning scoreless streak, and Cubs fans became increasingly concerned once the Dodgers took a commanding 2-1 lead in the NLCS. In the fourth inning of Game 4, Ben Zobrist laid a bunt down the third base line, reached first base, and the complexion of the series changed for good. The Cubs started to score some runs, rocked the best pitcher on the planet (Clayton Kershaw) and rode their bats to the World Series.
Even with that brutal stretch of hitting, the Cubs have still been arguably the best team in the playoffs with runners in scoring position, slashing .284/.337/.469 and driving in 35 runs in 81 at bats – a big improvement over their regular season performance (albeit in a much smaller sample size). They’ve also been better than the rest of the field when behind in the count, posting a .526 OPS – which would’ve ranked third in the NL this year and is much better than last year’s NL champion New York Mets – and driving in 24 runs in said situations. The biggest key for the Cubs will be to get runs on the board early in games, as the Indians’ starting rotation is depleted by injuries while their bullpen is as good as any we’ve ever seen in a postseason. The Cubs have struggled in a number of games this postseason to score early, but after the way they hit Kershaw early on Saturday, you have to like their chances of building on that trend. And oh, by the way, they’re getting Kyle Schwarber back to DH in Cleveland and pinch hit in Chicago after a miraculous six-month recovery from a torn ACL and LCL. Kirk Gibson, anyone?
On the other side, the Indians are a fantastic offensive team led by two of the best young players in the game (Francisco Lindor – great video on his friendship with Javy Baez – and Jose Ramirez) and three very powerful veterans (Carlos Santana, Mike Napoli and Jason Kipnis – a Northbrook native and former Cubs fan himself). Shutting them down will be no easy feat. The Indians have been great this month at putting up early runs, but they also have not had to face a pitching staff as good or as deep as that of the Cubs. What transforms this Indians’ offense them from simply good to a well-oiled machine is their baserunning.
The Indians were, by far, the best in the AL at baserunning efficiency, and that ability was pivotal in big moments of the first two rounds of the postseason. They are the best in the business at taking the extra base, and they have tremendous speed. Rajai Davis, their leadoff hitter and top platoon player against lefties, led the AL with 43 stolen bases – just two less than the Dodgers had as a team this season. As a whole, the Indians stole 134 bases – good for best in the league – and will try to exploit the slow deliveries of Jake Arrieta and John Lackey, as well as Jon Lester’s base-throwing yips. Their habit of taking the extra base on should-be singles and risky tag ups has helped get them to where they are now.
All that said, the Indians now face a team that is historically great on defense, and how the Cubs handle keeping base runners honest and limiting damage in high leverage situations will go a long way in determining who comes out on top.
Advantage: Cubs by the slightest of margins
Before September, the Indians had the best and most formidable starting rotation in the AL. Within three weeks, they lost two top-of-the-rotation starters – Danny Salazar to a forearm strain and Carlos Carrasco to a broken hand. Neither has pitched for the club since hitting the DL, but Salazar has been added to the World Series roster and has a good shot to start in Game 4 on a pitch limit (65-70 pitches). That could either be a good thing or a bad thing for the Indians, and we’ll likely find that out on Saturday night at Wrigley Field.
Here’s how the probable match-ups shape up:
Game 1: Jon Lester (19-4, 2.44) vs. Corey Kluber (18-9, 3.14)
This is the most intriguing pitching matchup the series has to offer, and it’s not particularly close.
Is there any pitcher on the planet right now that you’d rather have starting Game 1 of the World Series over Jon Lester? The Co-MVP of the NLCS is 2-0 this postseason with a 0.86 ERA and 0.76 WHIP in three starts spanning 21 innings. He is cementing his name in franchise and league history with his playoff dominance and now owns a 2.50 ERA in 19 career postseason games (17 starts). Of those 17 starts, he has gone seven innings or more 10 times, has lasted less than six innings only three times and has given up two runs or fewer 11 times. With incredible fastball command and a knack for getting out of stressful situations, Lester has become one of the best postseason pitchers ever; it’s hard not to feel super confident when he’s on the mound.
Opposite Lester, the Indians will be starting the 2014 American League Cy Young winner, Corey Kluber, who has been dominant in his own right this postseason with a 0.98 ERA and 20 strikeouts over 18.1 innings. After Clayton Kershaw, he has been the best pitcher in the majors over the past three years by fWAR. He has a nasty breaking ball that some define as a curveball while others define it as a slider. Nevertheless, his “breaking ball” has the most horizontal movement of any slider in baseball, and he got whiffs on 27.7% of them (highest in the league). He also had the third-best cutter in the league this season – a huge weapon for him against lefties – and has great command, owning a top-15 walk rate over the past three years. His fastball, however, is the weakest part of his arsenal, so one can only hope that he somehow gets behind in counts early on and is forced to resort to his fastball for strikes.
Game 2: Jake Arrieta (18-8, 3.10) vs. Trevor Bauer (12-8, 4.26)
The Cubs have lost Arrieta’s last three postseason starts, all of which came on the road. He has given up exactly four earned runs in three of his last four such starts and a combined four home runs. Coincidentally, Arrieta’s ERA was nearly a full run better at home (2.62) than on the road (3.59) this season, but he will be taking his talents outside of the Friendly Confines once again (and again in Game 6 if necessary). No, it does not sound promising, but here’s a couple of silver linings: 1) Arrieta has proven he can take over a game at will too many times to count, and 2) Trevor Bauer just isn’t very good.
Oh, Trevor. If you hadn’t heard, Mr. Bauer sliced his right pinky when trying to fix his drone a day before his start against Toronto in the ALCS, got pushed back to Game 3 and bled all over the mound in the first inning before having to come out. Why in god’s name you’d be screwing around with drone blades before the biggest moment of your life that requires throwing a baseball is beyond me, but I digress.
If you dive into the numbers, you will find a very flawed pitcher who has struggled with consistency throughout his four plus-year career. After a killer first half of the season, Bauer got rocked over his last 15 starts, posting a 5.36 ERA, 1.44 WHIP and .270 batting average against. More importantly, he was much worse at home (4.73 ERA) than on the road (3.67 ERA), and that trend continued in Game 1 of the ALDS against Boston when he gave up six hits and two home runs. It’s highly possible Bauer would not be in the playoff rotation had the Indians not suffered any injuries, but there he’ll be, starting Game 2 of the World Series.
Game 3: Josh Tomlin (13-9, 4.40) vs. Kyle Hendricks (16-8, 2.13)
Before Saturday night’s start, Professor Hendricks was coming off his fourth straight meh postseason performance in four tries (four walks and six hits in 5.1 innings, although he gave up only one run), and people began to quietly wonder if he was just going to end up as one of those pitchers who owned the regular season but couldn’t consistently get it done in October. After Saturday night, that BS narrative completely changed, as Hendricks put on one of the most spectacular performances I’ve ever seen in person and led the Cubs to the NL pennant. Even Clayton Kershaw compared him to Greg Maddux. Per the Elias Sports Bureau, the Cubs faced the minimum number of batters in that game, the second time that has happened in a nine-inning game in postseason history. The other instance is Don Larsen’s perfect game in the 1956 World Series. Hendricks also became the seventh pitcher to toss at least seven scoreless innings to clinch the NLCS. He now owns a 1.65 ERA over 16.1 innings this postseason and will take that with him to Wrigley Field on Friday night.
On the hill for the Indians will be Josh Tomlin who, like Bauer, has had a roller coaster career and never really settled in as a trusted starter until the first half of this season when he went 9-2. But also like Bauer, Tomlin got shelled in the second half of the season, putting up an abysmal 5.59 ERA, 1.28 WHIP and .285 batting average against. He has been borderline fantastic since the start of September, however, having never given up more than two earned runs in any of his six starts in that span. Manager Terry Francona’s hope is to have Tomlin get through just five innings and, given his recent success, that seems to be realistic. The Cubs will have to take advantage of Tomlin’s brutal lefty/righty splits (.229/.247/.424 against lefties; .299/.323/.496 against righties) and his vulnerabilities with runners on base (opponents hit .309/.344/.539 in such situations) if they’re going to get him out of the game any earlier.
Game 4: Danny Salazar (11-6, 3.87) vs. John Lackey (11-8, 3.35)
I’m going to keep this short and sweet. John Lackey – it’s time for you to get your shit together, cowboy. You’re one of the best modern day postseason pitchers. You can yell and pout all you want at your teammates and the umpires for missing a ball or botching a call, but at the end of the day, you’re getting paid $32 million for these very moments, so it’s on you. Command the strike zone, be a leader of men and get your ass through the fifth inning (or god forbid you get through the sixth inning – it’s been over a month) for god’s sake. This will be your final shining moment of the 2016 season, so make it count.
As for Salazar, I touched on him a bit earlier. It’s impossible to know what we’re going to see from him, but I will say that when he’s on, he’s a strikeout machine with some of the best stuff in the league. As a baseball fan, you unfortunately won’t get to see much of it due to his likely shortened start. As a Cubs fan, you can (hopefully) breathe a sigh of relief.
This is the facet of the game that I’ve been losing sleep over. The Indians have hands down the best bullpen in MLB, led by ALCS MVP Andrew Miller – possibly the best relief pitcher in the league over the past few years – whom they acquired at the trade deadline. Miller, like Chapman, came over from the Yankees in a blockbuster trade, and he has been nothing short of sensational. Since September 7, he has yet to give up a run, and in 11.2 postseason innings thus far, he has given up only five hits, two walks and struck out 21 of the 41 batters he has faced. He has one of the game’s very best sliders (just wait until you see this thing), which he throws 60.6% of the time and throws a deadly four-seem fastball the rest of the time. Terry Francona will not shy away from going to Miller early and often as evidenced by his four outings of two or more innings this postseason. On top of that, Francona also has at his disposal the game’s hottest closer in Cody Allen, who has given up just one measly run and has saved 14 games since August 21, as well as the heavily-utilized Bryan Shaw and groundball specialist Dan Otero.
As for the Cubs, I expect that you’re quite familiar with their bullpen by now. It has not necessarily been smooth sailing, as a number of guys struggled while working in unusual roles, namely Pedro Strop, Hector Rondon and Aroldis Chapman. The biggest concerns are Rondon, who has a 9.45 ERA over the past three months and seems to have lost Joe Maddon’s trust, and Chapman who, for whatever reason, can’t seem to pitch well in more than one inning and certainly can’t pitch well when inheriting runners. One thing to watch closely is how often he is getting ahead in counts. Check out this chart below from ESPN’s Sam Miller:
Pretty eye-opening, don’t you think? It goes without saying that if and when Chapman gets behind in any counts going forward, I’ll surely have the feeling of wet feces seeping down my leg.
Lastly, C.J. Edwards left Game 4 of the NLCS after experiencing tightness in his hamstring, but it sounded minor and he should be ready to go in Cleveland. He has yet to give up a run in 3.2 scoreless innings, so we’ll need him.
In my NLDS preview against the Giants, I provided an in-depth analysis of just how good this Cubs defense is – probably the best of all time – and I’m sure you noticed if you just started watching more intently this month. With the Indians likely to be very active on the base paths, the Cubs defense will be plenty busy, and it’ll all start up the middle with the magical combination of Javy Baez and Addison Russell.
The Indians are no joke either when they take the field. They ranked second in the AL in defensive efficiency and they were second to the Cubs overall in converting groundballs into outs. Shortstop Francisco Lindor is unquestionably the best player at his position in the AL and could very well be the best defensive player in all of baseball. The Lindor-Kipnis double play combination is top notch. But whereas the Cubs have virtually no weaknesses across the diamond (unless Jorge Soler starts in the outfield), the Indians are fairly weak in the outfield, and their arms will certainly be tested. A big plus for them is catcher Roberto Perez, who does a great job with the pitching staff and rated as the second best pitch framer in the AL this season.
There’s no doubt that my man crush for Joe Maddon is real. Outside of a couple of decisions I questioned (like taking out Jon Lester early in Game 1 of the NLCS), I would trust this man with my life. The life, the attitude and the positive vibes he brings to the clubhouse are intangibles that cannot be measured but have proven invaluable. He earned the nickname “The Mad Genius” for good reason, and it’s not just for his appearance. In my mind, he is the best manager in baseball – except, of course, for the man he’ll be managing against this week.
Terry Francona was Joe Maddon before Joe Maddon. Maybe not as eccentric, but the demeanor and the likeability factor was always second to none. He is a fantastic baseball mind who competed with Maddon for the Red Sox managerial gig in 2003 (interviewed by Theo Epstein, of course), only to seize it and go on to win two World Series championships. He earned himself a heroic reputation in a city that had also been starved of a World Series for the prior 86 years. Francona is 8-0 in the last two fall classics he has managed in, and this season he has guided an Indians team that lost it’s star outfielder, starting catcher and (arguably) top two starting pitchers to the World Series. He has locked himself into the Hall of Fame and deserves the benefit of the doubt on this one.
After having my heart broken too many times to count, I’ve gone through 27 years of my life with a pessimistic outlook on the Cubs, almost always seeing the glass half-empty. But today, I sit before you with more confidence than I’ve ever had. The Cubs are going to win the World Series. I truly believe that. There’s something magical going on right now. This is our year. This is our time.
Prediction: Cubs in 5