The Cubs are the best team in baseball, and it’s not particularly close.
It should be no surprise that they’re in the World Series except for this funny little statistical nugget – this is only the fourth time in the last ten seasons that baseball’s best team has made the Fall Classic. In that same time period, the same number of Wild Card teams have made it the World Series.
The Cubs were at or near the top of several impressive statistical categories this season – best ERA in Major League Baseball, by far the best defense, and the third most runs scored in baseball.
Unlike the Indians, whose pitching staff limped into October literally gushing blood from gruesome drone-related exit wounds (along with various forearm strains and broken fingers), the Cubs ride into the World Series on the backs on the four pitchers who did most of the lifting all season.
This is a staff that was far better than any other big league team in ERA this season. The gap behind their MLB-best 3.15 ERA and runner-up Washington (3.52) was the same as the gap between Washington and the 7th ranked Indians (3.86).
The four starters that they’ll use in the World Series (Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks, Jake Arrieta and John Lackey) made a combined 122 starts for the Cubs, or 75% of their games. By comparison, an Indians rotation of Corey Kluber, Josh Tomlin, Trevor Bauer and Ryan Merritt made 90 starts this season, or just over half of the Indians starts. The most optimistic among us may substitute Danny Salazar for Merritt and observe that they’ve made 114 starts but it’s impossible to argue that the Cubs pitchers aren’t coming into this series on somewhat more solid firmament, health-wise.
The Cubs haven’t published their Series rotation yet, but Kyle Hendricks’ 88 pitch gem on Saturday night will likely earn him a full four day’s rest, setting up Chicago’s rotation in this order: Lester, Arrieta, Hendricks and Lackey. Let’s look into each four to see what Indians hitters are up against.
But before we do, let’s talk about defense
Seriously, what is going on with the Cubs defense? While defensive metrics are notoriously finicky, there’s no debate that any measure of the Cubs defense is instantly smitten. UZR, which attempts to measure runs saved by each player before summing into a team total, says that the Cubs 73 UZR was twice as good as the Indians’ 35.6 UZR. And the Indians were very good – they finished 4th in the Majors in UZR.
That the Cubs did this while shifting less than any other team in baseball is surprising, even though no one seems to know exactly what kind of benefits or drawbacks the shift creates. That Joe Maddon, who helped instigate the shift’s league-wide use while he ran the Tampa Bay Rays is now the anti-shift leader is just puzzling.
Anyway, instead of diving into batted ball info for each starter, it’s important for you to know this: the Cubs allowed by far the lowest BABIP in the league at .255. The next best was Toronto at .282. In this particular statistic, Toronto was as close to the 27th ranked Mets (.308) than they were to the Cubs.
If we understand that BABIP simply measures the opposition’s batting average on balls that they put in play, we can easily see that the Cubs are just historically good at turning any batted ball into outs. Do they do this by inducing weak contact? Or is a matter of defensive positioning while eschewing the shift? N0 one seems to know for sure.
But check this out:
Four Cubs starters ranked in the top eight of MLB’s BABIP rankings:
Marco Estrada – Blue Jays – .234
Dan Straily – Reds – .239
Jake Arrieta – Cubs – .241
Kyle Hendricks – Cubs – .250
Justin Verlander – Tigers – .255
John Lackey – Cubs – .255
Max Scherzer – Nationals – .255
Jon Lester – Cubs – .256
Oh, and Chicago’s fifth starter, Jason Hammel, ranked 13th at .267.
I don’t think we’ve ever seen such clear evidence that Chicago’s apparent game plan of inducing the opposition to hit the ball right to them has worked. How do they do this? Perhaps no one knows, but the Indians have seven games to figure out how to beat it.
The 32-year-old lefty and co-MVP in the NLCS has been putting together a sneaky case for Hall of Fame consideration since his debut with the Red Sox in 2006. We should really start and end with the fact that the guy’s a cancer survivor, but let’s just keep this strictly on the field before everyone’s overwhelmed by the feel-good Cubs’ story-lines.
Lester earned his post-season bonafides by pitching the clinching game in the 2007 World Series under Terry Francona’s tutelage. He’s also thrown a no-hitter in May of 2008.
Career Post-season: 19 games (17 starts), 8-6, 2.50 ERA, 1.017 WHIP in 119 innings.
Career World Series: 3-0 in 3 starts, 0.43 ERA, 16 baserunners allowed in 21 innings (0.762 WHIP)
Career vs. Indians: 7-1 in 15 starts, 3.03 ERA, 109 baserunners allowed in 95 innings (1.147 WHIP)
Career at Progressive Field: 4-0 in 8 starts, 3.72 ERA, 58 baserunners allowed in 48.1 innings (1.200 WHIP). His 10.6 K/9 his highest at any stadium where he’s made multiple starts.
Lester opens the series for the Cubs and has pitched to a 3.17 ERA in 17 road starts compared to a 1.74 ERA at Wrigley Field. Lester was a beast down the stretch, though, going 10-1 with a 1.76 ERA after the All-Star Break this season.
How does he attack?
According to Fangraphs, Lester is primarily a fastball/cutter guy, and he used his fastball more this season than he has since his 2006 debut with Boston (58.6%) with an average velocity of 92.1 mph, which is right in line with his career averages. He also mixes in a curve that he’s throwing less with age (12.6%) as well as the occasional change-up (5.7%).
How do you beat him?
In Game 5 of the NLCS, the Dodgers seemed to put forth a bold game plan on attacking Lester – make him throw the ball. They took 20 foot leads off first base and bunted in his general direction as much as possible. Since 2014’s Wild Card game, it’s been no secret that Lester struggles with any throw that’s not a delivery to the plate. He doesn’t like to throw to first to hold runners, and when he fields bunts, he occasionally does this.
Lester’s throwing issues have been so well-documented that it’s actually kind of strange that opposing teams haven’t been pushing the issue more often. Lester allowed 44 stolen bases last year, by far the most in the Majors, but actually decreased that number to 28 this season. The presence of catcher David Ross likely helps keep the opposition honest, but how much can he do if the runners are lining up in starting blocks on a steal attempt?
Most strangely for anyone who noticed Lester bounce the ball 15 feet in front of Anthony Rizzo in his last start, Lester didn’t make a single error in 2016. Who knows, maybe he’ll win the Gold Glove. #baseball.
Look for the Indians to exploit this weakness in Game One at Progressive Field on Tuesday night. The Tribe led the American League with 134 steals this season and have put on a base-running clinic against the Red Sox and Blue Jays so far this postseason.
It wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Indians run at every opportunity against Lester. Huge leadoffs at first base, double steals, hit & run, the works. Something tells me the Francona-led Indians won’t be shy about trying to exploit this perceived weakness.
The 26-year-old Hendricks came out of relative obscurity to give the Cubs not only another young All-Star caliber player locked up for years to come, but perhaps their second consecutive Cy Young Award winner. Hendrick’s 2.13 ERA led the National League and nearly halved his 2015 ERA of 3.95 despite posting similar peripherals in walks and strikeouts per nine.
Hendricks is another Cubs starter who exhibited strong splits in favor of pitching at Wrigley Field this season, and he’ll likely line up for Game 3 at home. He was a decent 7-6, 2.95 ERA on the road but was 9-2 with a 1.32 ERA in the friendly confines. He had more strikeouts per nine at Wrigley (8.4 vs 7.7) and his K/BB rate was far superior at home (6.36 vs 2.70).
Career Post-season: 1-1 in 5 starts, 2.88 ERA, 0.92 WHIP. Pitched a two-hit shutout into the 8th inning in pennant-clinching Game 6 against Dodgers
Career World Series: None
Career vs. Indians: Hendricks has never faced the Indians in his short career
How does he attack?
Hendricks excels at inducing weak contact, and he does so with an underwhelming fastball that he throws nearly two-thirds of the time while rarely managing to hit 90 mph. His average fastball velo of 87.8 is Tomlin-esque and he works the fastball to set up an 80 mph change-up and the occasional curveball.
Hendricks was the best in baseball in inducing weak contact (24.9%) which is a fantastic skill to have when you’re pitching in front of the Cubs’ defense. As mentioned earlier, the Cubs defense gobbles up batted balls better than any team in baseball and Hendricks’ dribbler-inducing fastball and off-speed stuff is designed to lead hitters right to Javy Baez and friends.
Even if a comedown from Arrieta’s Cy Young 2015 season was inevitable, 2016 Arrieta was still worthy of an All-Star selection along with 18 wins and a league-best 6.3 hits allowed per nine innings.
If Arrieta does pitch Game 2 at Progressive Field, the Cubs will at least lose the advantage of having the best hitting pitcher of the Series in their line-up. Arrieta is a career .188/.221/.298 hitter and has hit a pair of home runs each of the past two seasons along with a Division Series home run this season against some guy named Madison Bumgarner.
Career Post-season: 2-2, 4.11 in 5 starts, 1.011 WHIP
Career World Series: None
Career vs. Indians: 1-1, 8.69 ERA in 4 starts. He’s allowed 19 runs in 19.2 innings with a 1.932 WHIP. Three of those starts came between 2010 and 2012 when he was an Oriole and before he fully became “Jake Arrieta – Cy Young dude”
Career at Progressive Field: Pitching for Buck Showalter’s Orioles in 2010, Arrieta allowed five runs in six innings and picked up the win in a 14-8 slugfest.
How does he attack?
Arrieta greatly increased his reliance on a 94 mph fastball this season while easing off of his cutter/slider (18% vs 29% last season) and also mixes in a curve (12%) and a change-up (5%). Fangraphs’ Jeff Sullivan examined this topic in August and it’s worth wondering what’s happened to Arrieta’s secondary offerings to cause him to rely more on the fastball.
What we can say for certain is that it’s thrown Arrieta’s platoon splits way off. Let’s compare his Cy Young 2015 season with this past summer:
OPS vs righties: .557
OPS vs lefites: .449
OPS vs righties: .557
OPS vs lefties: .612
You could say that Arrieta is exactly as good as he was last season against righties, but lefties saw a huge bump in production. This is encouraging for a versatile Indians’ line-up that could put lefties in seven out of nine line-up spots on Wednesday night.
Lackey may be the grizzled veteran of the Cubs’ rotation at the age of 38 (as of today, 10/23 – happy birthday John!) but he put forth another solid campaign in 2016 going 11-8 with a 3.35 ERA. Lackey seems fully revitalized after an ugly stint in Boston that terminated in the summer of 2011 when he posted a 6.41 ERA and led to Tommy John surgery.
Lackey is the staff’s most experienced post-season pitcher and he’s already won two rings with the 2002 Angels and 2013 Red Sox. As a rookie with the Angels in ’02, he was handed the ball in Game Seven and beat the Giants with five innings of one-run ball, handing a 4-1 to the bullpen which they would not relinquish.
Career Post-season: 8-5, 3.26 ERA in 25 games (22 starts), 1.256 WHIP
Career World Series: 2-1, 3.42 ERA in 6 games (4 starts), 1.405 WHIP
Career vs. Indians: 8-9, 3.92 ERA in 20 starts, 1.399 WHIP
Career at Progressive Field: 3-5, 2.94 ERA in 8 starts, 1.308 WHIP. Lackey has pitched in 34 ballparks, and his K/9 of 5.5 is the third worst of any of these parks. Lackey’s last appearance at the Prog last season as a member of the Cardinals was a memorable one – for Corey Kluber. Lackey was outpitched in a 2-0 loss as Kluber racked up 18 K’s against Lackey’s Cardinals on May 13th.
How does he attack?
Never a huge velocity guy, Lackey has proven incredibly consistent in his career concerning his pitch selection. His average 91.7 mph fastball is actually tied for the fastest heater of his career and faster than the velocity that he threw early in his career in Anaheim. He uses his slider off of his fastball about a quarter of the time, and then mixes in the occasional curve (12.2%) and change (5.3%).
Like his rotation-mates, Lackey takes advantage of his defense to help suppress run scoring but unlike his teammates he actually saw a bump in strike-out rate in 2016. His 8.6 K/9 matched his career high from 2005 when he was 26 years old.
Like most right-handed starters, Lackey exhibits a preference for facing same-sided batters. His career splits are .707 against righties and .741 against lefties. His 2016 was better than his career averages against both sides, probably because of the Cubs exceptional defense. He posted a .609 OPS against righties and .694 against lefties.
So what did we learn?
It’s a bad idea to hit the ball in play against the Chicago Cubs. And the Cubs rotation seems built to make you do exactly that.
Well great, so how do you beat them?
Draw walks, of course. No problem. Bunt the ball at Jon Lester and see if he throws it to Drew Carey? Sure, for Game One. Call the “home run play”? Easier said than done.
Unlike any time all season, these teams have up to seven games to attack and counter-attack and it will be exciting to see how the Indians plan to overcome the Cubs defensive prowess in this World Series.