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
How fast time flies. Seems like yesterday when I experienced one of the greatest moments of my life as I watched the Cubs clinch their first NLCS berth in 12 years at Wrigley Field. We all know what she wrote next, but even after a sweep at the hands of the Mets, the season went as well as anyone could’ve expected. The Cubs were back – a lurking juggernaut ready to take over the baseball landscape for years to come.
Here we are, one year later, and the Cubs finished the 2016 season with 103 wins and wrapped up the NL Central division two weeks early. Five years ago, I never thought I’d see that day. The thing about baseball, though, is that come Friday night, those 103 wins and that division title mean nothing whatsoever. Baseball is more random than any sport, where shitty players can become unsung heroes and great players can become scapegoats in the blink of an eye. The best team seldom wins. It’s a clean slate, and everyone is back to a level playing field.
Over the past 36 hours, the supernatural nightmare that every Cubs fan deals with has worsened significantly. The Billy Goat Curse is one thing, but the “Even Year” Theory is a whole other, what with the Giants getting hot at the right time and looking poised to win another World Series in an even year. No one wants to play this Giants team, but no one wants to play this Cubs team, either. The Cubs were the best team in the league all season – maybe the best Cubs team ever assembled (anyone born before 1900 want to prove me wrong?) – while the Giants nearly became the first team ever to have the best record in the first half of a season and miss the playoffs entirely. The time is now for the Cubs to write the wrongs of the previous 108 years and solidify themselves as one of the best teams of all time. Will they rise to the occasion, or fall victim to the supernatural and wilt under pressure? I’m very excited yet very nervous to find out.
Let’s get to the matchup.
By all accounts, the Cubs had the best offense in the National League this season. Led by MVP candidates Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant, they finished second to the Rockies in runs scored (808) and OPS (.772), first in walk rate (10.4%) and 10th in strikeout rate (21.1%). For some perspective, the Cubs scored 119 runs more runs than last year and struck out 221 fewer times, emphasizing how much better this team is offensively compared to the 2015 version. They also were, by far, better than any time at avoiding double plays, posting the highest double play efficiency in the league.
The Giants, though, are no slouches either. What they lack in power (only 130 home runs total without anyone hitting over 17), they make up for in patience and grit. They posted a 9.1% walk rate and struck out in only 17.7% of their plate appearances – far less than any team in the league. Just like the Cubs, they grind away during every at bat, placing near the top of the league in pitches per plate appearance and regularly pushing opposing pitchers out of games early. Mainstay catcher Buster Posey is the Giants’ most dangerous hitter in this context, as he very rarely strikes out and regularly puts the ball in play. You saw the Giants do this exact thing against the Mets by forcing Noah Syndergaard out of the game before the eighth inning and feasting on their bullpen to win.
If you think back to last year, you might remember that the Cubs were one of the worst teams in the majors at hitting with runners in scoring position (RISP). This year, however, they improved a lot, jumping from the bottom tier to the middle by slashing .252/.351/.420 compared to the Giants’ .250/.328/.378 line. The two guys to watch here are the aforementioned Rizzo and Giants right fielder Hunter Pence, as they are each team’s most clutch hitter and biggest run producer. Rizzo led the league in plate appearances with RISP and hit .344 in such situations, while Pence hit .321 in far less appearances due to injury. The Cubs are still weak at producing with RISP with two outs, but they have been better than the Giants there as well.
It will be very interesting to see how Joe Maddon continues to juggle the never-ending lineup combinations at his disposal. Assuming he’s healthy, and given his incredible success last October (7-for-19 with three homers and five RBI), I’d anticipate we’ll see Jorge Soler in the lineup and playing left field when a lefty is on the mound (Madison Bumgarner and Matt Moore). Against righties, expect to see Kris Bryant starting in left field and Javier Baez at third base. Whatever the case may be, the Cubs were a far superior team at the plate this season, and their lineup is absolutely loaded from top to bottom. When Jason Heyward finally breaks out, just remember that you heard it here first (and forget you heard that here when he continues to suck).
As I’ll explain later, the Cubs defense is a major reason why the starting rotation holds the lowest ERA (2.96), lowest BABIP (.252), highest strand rate (78.6%) and highest win probability added in the league, all by very wide margins. They also have a top-three K-BB%. Statistically speaking, the Giants rotation has been a step or two behind, but that’s all about to change. Let’s get to the matchups.
Game 1: Johnny Cueto (18-5, 2.79) vs. Jon Lester (19-4, 2.44)
For the majority of his career, Johnny Cueto has been a bona fide ace, and that has not changed since he signed with the Giants last winter. The problem for everyone else in the league is that he’s locked in as the number two starter in their rotation. He had a really strange 2015 season, as he got traded from Cincinnati to Kansas City in July, had the worst couple of months of his career, got shellacked throughout the playoffs and then threw a complete game shutout in the World Series. Because the Cubs are so familiar with Cueto (he has 24 starts against them in his career), it would not surprise me to see the Cubs get to him, as he’s proven capable of imploding. But given his recent success (1.78 ERA in September) and Cy Young-caliber season, it’s safe to assume that he’ll pitch very well.
Lester, of course, was perhaps the best pitcher in the NL this season and had what same say was the best season of his 11-year career. He’s coming off an epic second half (10-1, 1.76 ERA, 0.93 WHIP) and an even better September (5-0, 0.48 ERA, 0.69 WHIP) that led to an NL Pitcher of the Month award. Lester was also phenomenal at home this season, and I don’t see that changing Friday night. There is no one in the Cubs rotation that I trust more than Lester, and his career 2.85 ERA in the postseason has allowed me to sleep like a baby this week.
Game 2: Jeff Samardzija (12-11, 3.81) vs. Kyle Hendricks (16-8, 2.13)
Welcome back, Jeff Samardzija. After a brutal June/July (shocking, I know), Shark settled down and ended up finishing the season very strong. However, in his lone start against the Cubs on September 1, they attacked him in the early going and forced him out of the game by the fifth inning. Like with Cueto, the Cubs are very familiar with Samardzija’s stuff since he, ya know, played for them for seven years. When he’s off, he’s off. When he’s on, he’s decent. He instills no fear in me and should instill no fear in you.
I’m sure you all are aware of Kyle Hendricks’ fairytale season up until this point, so I won’t harp it on much. Precision is Hendricks’ trademark, and after posting a league-leading 2.13 ERA and 24.9% soft-hit rate, Hendricks’ (silent) confidence is through the roof. He owns the best changeup in baseball, and his 1.32 ERA at Wrigley Field was likely one of the driving forces behind Joe Maddon’s decision to start him in Game 2. All of the above gives me reason to believe that this game is going to be all Cubs.
Game 3: Jake Arrieta (18-8, 3.10) vs. Madison Bumgarner (15-9, 2.74)
This is the matchup that will keep Cubs fans up at night. If you are unaware with Bumgarner’s work up until now, then I don’t even know how you stumbled across a baseball-related article, let alone this one. But at just 27 years of age, Bumgarner is already being considered by many to be the greatest postseason pitcher of all time, and his start against the Mets on Wednesday night only added to his legend. In 54.2 postseason innings on the road, Bumgarner has a 0.50 ERA; in 23 win-or-go-home postseason innings, he has yet to give up a single run (yes, this game will be in San Francisco, but that stat is too ridiculous to not mention). He has been an integral part (and in one case, nearly the only part) of three World Series-winning teams, and he never, ever seems to let the moment get to him. It is appalling what he has been able to accomplish, and you have to expect that any game he pitches will result in a loss for the opponent – he’s just that absurdly good in October.
Arrieta concerns me more than any player on the roster, and for good reason. No one expected him to live up to his 2015 season since what he did had never been done before, but he has been pedestrian at best since mid-June and has not looked the same. His walk rate was way up this season (9.6% vs. 5.5% last season), as his command and control haven’t consistently been there for him. He has made it a habit of getting behind in the count, which has not allowed him to throw his nasty slider/cutter effectively. There’s also the belief that Arrieta has been slightly over-rotating during his delivery, which might be nothing but could be something. Nevertheless, if the Cubs lose one of the first two games in the series, they could be in some serious trouble as they head to San Francisco with Madison Bumgarner waiting. That scares the shit out of me.
Game 4: John Lackey (11-8, 3.35) vs. Matt Moore (6-5, 4.08)
Matt Moore was once a highly touted pitcher coming up through the Tampa Bay Rays system, but he has never been the same since his Tommy John surgery in 2014. The Rays gave up on him this season and sent him to the Giants at the trade deadline, where he’s had yet another up and down season. A 3.16 ERA in August rose to 6.56 in September, and it’s hard to say which Moore will show up on a given night. It’s worth noting, though, that although Moore has never pitched against the Cubs, they are the best team in the NL against lefties, and Moore has a tendency to give up homers as well.
John Lackey is an October warrior, and he was brought to Chicago on a two-year deal for this very moment. He has a career 3.11 ERA in the postseason and has pitched in and won multiple World Series games. The man didn’t come here for a haircut – he came here for jewelry. He came here to get it on. Gotta feel great about Game 4.
The Cubs and Giants have the two deepest rotations in the postseason, but having Madison Bumgarner, even if it ends up being for just one game, pushes the needle too far for me. Because of him, the slight edge (and it’s slight)
goes to the Giants.
The Giants’ bullpen is an absolute mess. They led the league in blown saves (30), including nine in September, which nearly cost them a postseason appearance. Per ESPN’s Tim Kurkjian, the Giants lost more games (nine) that they entered the ninth inning with a lead than any team in baseball – five of which came in September. They lost 10 games that they led by three or more runs, most in the major leagues. They have flip-flopped closers multiple times, going from Sergio Romo to Santiago Casilla back to Romo. As mentioned earlier, the Cubs are amongst the best in the league at grinding at-bats and forcing starting pitchers out of games early. If they can continue to emphasize patience at the plate, the Cubs will force Bruce Bochy to go to his bullpen early and often, which could very well end up being the key to the entire series.
The Cubs’ bullpen, on the other hand, has been consistently good all season. As expected, The addition of Aroldis Chapman at the trade deadline has been a massive one. In 26.2innings, Chapman saved 16 games and owns a miniscule 1.01 ERA with 46 K’s and only 12 hits allowed. His 101+ MPH fastball combined with his 91-92 MPH slider makes him nearly unhittable; once he gets the ball, it’s game-set-match.
That said, not everything has been sunshine and rainbows with this unit. Setup man Hector Rondon came out hot after a DL stint for a strained triceps back in August, but he has given up seven earned runs in his last 2.2 innings and finished the month of September with an 8.53 ERA; Pedro Strop missed six weeks in August/September recovering from arthroscopic knee surgery and has only 3.2 innings under his belt since coming back; Travis Wood got rocked by righties this year and turned himself into a LOOGY (Lefty One-Out Guy) for the first time in his career; C.J. Edwards, who looked otherworldly in the first half of the season, had a rough final two months of the season (6.00 ERA in August, 5.79 ERA in September). And yet, I’m not too worried about any of this, and after the second halves Justin Grimm and Mike Montgomery had, the seven of these guys still form arguably the most formidable bullpen in the playoffs.
With respect to Yadier Molina, catcher Buster Posey (catcher) and defending Gold Glove shortstop Brandon Crawford are the two best defensive players in the NL at their respective positions and are the odds-on favorites to win Gold Gloves this season. Crawford, who was second in the NL in defensive runs saved, forms a dynamic double-play combination with second baseman Joe Panik. The outfield trio of Hunter Pence, Denard Span and Angel Pagan was expected to be above average, but each of them regressed this season. Given the experience they all have in the postseason, expect each of them to step it up again.
As for the Cubs, well, they may have the greatest defense of all time. 22-year old Addison Russell has continued to make his case for best shortstop in the NL but trails Crawford for now; Javier Baez is the league’s most valuable swiss army knife, playing plus-defense at three different positions (second base, third base, shortstop); right fielder Jason Heyward a lock to win his fourth Gold Glove in five years; Dexter Fowler has turned himself into an above average center fielder, by FanGraphs standards, by playing a bit deeper this season; and first baseman Anthony Rizzo, who combines fearlessness with grace as well as anyone in baseball, is the most valuable first basemen (from a defensive standpoint) with his league-leading 11 defensive runs saved.
Per Baseball Prospectus, the Cubs, as a whole, led the Major Leagues in Defensive Efficiency by a ridiculous margin. Their score of .745 is the highest by any team since 1982 (San Diego). The gap between the Cubs and the second-ranked Blue Jays is higher than the gap between the Blue Jays and the 27th-ranked Mets. Is that even real? Seems impossible, but I can assure you that it’s not.
Joe Maddon is the f***ing man. He is absolutely incredible at managing a bullpen, developing talent, building a great culture and putting players in the best position to succeed. But as great as he is at all of these things, there is no way he can get the edge here over Bruce Bochy. Bochy has won three World Series championships in the past six years, and he always seems to push the right buttons. Until proven otherwise, Bochy is the best manager in baseball. Period.
Of the three potential Wild Card teams, the Giants were the one team that no one wanted to face. Naturally, it turned out the exact way no Cubs fan wanted it to, but at least the “be careful what you wish for” saying can get tossed out the window. I truly believe the winner of this series will end up getting to the World Series. The Cubs will to find a way to win this one, but it won’t be without some gray hairs and a series of heart attacks.
Prediction: Cubs in 5
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
What a hectic few weeks it has been for the Chicago Cubs front office. There has been excitement, disappointment, optimism and pessimism, but after all the trade rumors and insanity that have swallowed up the attention of actual MLB games, it’s finally time for everyone to relax and look forward to the future of this ball club. Sure, it would’ve been nice to see us net some prospects for the likes of Alfonso Soriano, Bryan Lahair, Matt Garza and others before the trade deadline ended, but at least the Epstein/Hoyer duo didn’t stand completely pat. Let’s break down the deals that went down over the last couple of days.
Geovany Soto to Texas Rangers for RHP Jacob Brigham: Dear lord, what in the world happened to Geovany Soto? Once upon a time, just four years ago, he was one of the most valuable players on the Cubs roster. In a league where good catchers are more difficult to come by than it is for Skip Bayless to say something remotely intelligent, we thought we had found our backstop for the next 10+ years. Soto won NL Rookie of the Year in 2008 and finished 13th in NL MVP voting. Since then, he has tested positive for marijuana and has never been the same player. Over the past two seasons, he has posted .228/.310/.411 and .195/.278/.345 splits, respectively. Embarrassing. I think it’s safe to say that, at this point, Soto would probably be best suited to sell dope than hit baseballs at the major league level. I’m glad he’s finally gone. Wellington Castillo: it’s your time to shine, my friend.
As for Jacob Brigham, some sources were pretty surprised that the Rangers were willing to part ways with a high-ceiling pitcher like him. According to Baseball Time in Arlington, the 24-year-old Brigham features plus-plus arm strength and has the ability to strike out a lot of hitters (230 K’s in 238.1 innings over past two seasons at Double A Frisco). His two legit major league pitches (fastball and curveball) “make him a likely candidate to become a max-effort, power reliever.” He’ll need to improve his command, though, if he’s going to get to the majors any time soon. Given how atrocious Soto has been in a Cubs uniform over the past couple years, I’d say this is a low-risk, medium-reward (medium may be pushing it, but there’s nothing in between low and medium) type trade. For a team desperate to add as much pitching as it can get (especially in the bullpen, where it ranks 26th in the majors in ERA at 4.41), this was a deal that probably can’t hurt.
Paul Maholm and Reed Johnson to Atlanta Braves for RHP Arodys Vizcaino and RHP Jaye Chapman: No disrespect to Maholm — he’s been nothing short of phenomenal the past month+ for the Cubs (5-0 with a 1.00 ERA and 32 K’s over past seven starts, including six consecutive starts going at least 6 IP and allowing 1 or fewer runs), and I truly appreciate the effort and hard work he has put in for such a bad team — but boy, will I miss Reed Johnson. Here’s a guy who has done nothing but good things for the Cubs the past four out of five years (played for the Dodgers in 2010) and absolutely anything that was ever asked of him. He’s as hard-nosed a ballplayer as you’ll find, and he signifies everything that’s right with the game of baseball and what it means to be a great teammate. I have no doubt that he’ll thrive in his new home in Atlanta, and Braves fans (all five of them) will love his versatility and what he brings to the table.
Aside from all my sappy bullshit, this was arguably the best trade the Cubs made simply because of one name: Arodys Vizcaino. Coming into 2012, ESPN Senior Baseball Analyst Keith Law had him ranked as his 14th — repeat, 14th — best prospect. Sure, he had Tommy John surgery in March that ended his 2012 season before it started, but given the way that pitchers have effectively come back from the surgery over the past decade or so (most notably Stephen Strasburg, John Smoltz, Ryan Dempster, Chris Carpenter, Tim Hudson, Josh Johnson, among many others), I think it’s a risk absolutely worth taking. Here’s a brief scouting report on Vizcaino from Law:
When healthy, Vizcaino throws 92-96 mph as a starter, with an out-pitch curveball, showing slider velocity but with two-plane action and depth. He has good arm speed on his changeup and was very effective against left-handed batters in the minors in 2011, a testament to that pitch given his arm slot, which is a little below three-quarters. (Pitchers with lower arm slots are easier to pick up for opposite-handed hitters.)
If Vizcaino can stay healthy, and that’s obviously a huge “if,” we’re talking about a 21-year-old guy who has the potential to become a No. 2 starter or better, and all we had to give up to get him was an extra outfielder and a back-end of the rotation kind of pitcher who was never going to be a part of the rebuilding process anyways. He, in addition to Jaye Chapman (3.52 ERA, 60 K’s in 53.2 IP for Triple A Gwinnett this year) — an organizational arm who can become a back-end reliever for the Cubs’ bullpen — is a great return for what we gave up. Let’s cross our fingers and hope that Vizcaino can come back as strong as ever next spring.
Ryan Dempster to Texas Rangers for 3B Christian Villanueva and RHP Kyle Hendricks: There’s no need to get into the events that went down with Dempster last week, as I’m sure every Cub fan by now knows what happened (if you don’t, it’s time to rise and shine and get out from under that rock you’ve been living under). The way he handled the situation about being traded to Atlanta was poor to say the least and, in all honesty, he acted like a total pansy. He completely screwed the Cubs out of getting a potential No. 3 starter in the near future in Randall Delgado because of his 10-5 rights, so I think it’s fair to say that most, if not all, Cubs fans are very upset with Dempster.
However, even after the way he went out, we can’t dismiss the great things Dempster did for this organization over the past 8.5 years. When the Cubs surprisingly asked him to become their full-time closer in 2005, he went out and saved 85 games in a three-year span. When the Cubs reverted him back to a starter in 2008, he finished his first season back in the rotation with a 2.96 ERA, made the All-Star team, placed sixth in NL Cy Young voting, and helped lead the Cubs to the best record in the NL. Sure, the end of the Dempster era may have left a bitter taste in our mouth, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t acknowledge what he has done for us. I’ll definitely miss him, and if the Rangers end up winning the World Series this season, I’ll be happy for him. He deserves it.
In terms of the trade, it’s not as great as we would’ve liked it to be. But, if Theo and Jed didn’t see something special in these guys (mostly Villanueva), they wouldn’t have even considered the trade in the first place. Whether keeping Dempster and receiving a compensatory first round pick for his free agent status after the season would’ve been a better option remains to be seen, but most people find Villanueva and Hendricks to be a reasonable return.
Villanueva, a 21-year-old third baseman out of Mexico, ranked No. 100 on Baseball America’s Top 100 prospects list entering the season. He “has a broad base of tools that include a solid bat, potential average power, fringe to average speed with good instincts on the bases and standout defense with soft hands and a strong arm at third base.” He’s currently hitting .285/.356/.421 with 10 home runs and 59 RBI’s at high Class A in Myrtle Beach, but he’s not very patient at the plate, just like many of the other Cub prospects. Hopefully he can continue to develop, improve his approach at the plate and make it to the majors in a few years.
As far as Hendricks is concerned, there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot to like. He has been very solid in Myrtle Beach as well and has shown great command (only 15 walks in 131 IP), but Keith Law isn’t too high on him:
Hendricks is more of an organizational starter, 87-89 mph with an average cutter and changeup and below-average curveball but good command and a repeatable delivery and arm action. The right-hander could surface as a fifth starter, but his stuff is probably too fringy for that.
Hendricks is young (22 years old), so there’s definitely room to grow and get better, but it sounds like a No. 5 starter could be his ceiling. As of now, this was a decent trade for the Cubs and a great one for the Rangers. But, in Theo and Jed I trust. Given their track record, it wouldn’t surprise me to see any of these guys become something much greater than expected. Only time will tell. In the meantime, we can only hope for the best for our former Cubs and stay optimistic (or pessimistic if you’re that kind of person) about the prospects we received in return.