Posted by Jonah Gardner on October 25, 2016
Two teams, united by 176 seasons of heartbreak and disappointment, sit four games away from a title.
In terms of scale, those are the only numbers that really matter for the 2016 World Series. In terms of stakes, they couldn't possibly be higher. Either the longest or second longest active title drought in MLB will come to an end in the next nine days, as the Cleveland Indians square off against the Chicago Cubs.
Talk of curses and superstition aside, both teams show that making the World Series is a matter of smart team-building and good fortune. Winning it is a different matter.
As we've seen the last few years, anything can happen over the course of a seven game series. The Minnesota Twins won 5 of 7 against the Texas Rangers this year. The World Series can turn on a random grounder, a managerial decision that backfires, or a player like David Freese turning into Babe Ruth for one night.
But that doesn't mean we can't take what we've learned about these teams so far this year to find some storylines to watch for. Over a 162 game series, we'd almost certainly expect these factors to come into play and influence the outcome. Over seven, the title could be decided by just one of them.
The Cubs and Indians' clearest road maps to victory are somewhat starkly opposed.
For the Cubs, the plan will be to get as many innings from their loaded starting rotation as possible. Chicago was the only playoff team whose rotation had a lower Earned Run Average than their bullpen and, by Wins Above Average, they had the best starting rotation in the majors.
That advantage becomes even easier to press in the MLB Postseason, when Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks, and Jake Arrieta can all make two starts in a series. They'll need it, given that the bullpen has been the most mortal part of the 2016 Chicago Cubs. They were 19th in WAA from their relievers, with the pen actually costing Chicago a win versus what an average bullpen would do
(As an aside, keep in mind that WAA is a higher baseline than Wins Above Replacement. A replacement player is a quad-A type player who any team can acquire, essentially, for free. An average player, who is actually around 2 WAR, is more valuable.)
The Cubs' starting rotation wasn't just good by 2016 standards, it was historically excellent. Since 1990, just three teams, besides this year's Cubs, had a rotation ERA under 3.00. That's because, as good as the pitching has been, Chicago's also received a boost from their dominant defense.
By Defensive Runs Saved, the Cubs' defense was 35 runs better than the second best defensive team, the Houston Astros. That's a larger gap than the one from second place Houston to the seventh place Los Angeles Angels.
A lot of that is due to Maddon's preferred middle infield duo of Javier Baez and Addison Russell, who each posted individual DRSes over 15. It's also thanks to Jason Heyward. The beleaguered outfielder may have a .312 On-Base Plus Slugging this postseason, but he was the Cubs' second-best defensive player this year, behind Russell, which explains why Maddon has continued to start him.
Of course, while Heyward could provide ultimately positive production with a .631 OPS (even if it's nowhere near the level of his contract), its much tougher to do with an OPS that's half that.
Will Maddon stick with him? His replacement in Game 6 of the 2016 NLCS, Albert Almora, has produced defensive numbers on par with Heyward's in a small sample size, but combined it with offense that's above league average (thanks to a 102 OPS+). Jorge Soler has also been better with the bat, but his fielding is pretty rough. It may give Joe Maddon pause that Cleveland as a team has been better against lefties this year, but Game 1 starter Corey Kluber hasn't, giving Maddon less incentive to push for a platoon advantage until later the game.
However, assuming Chicago's strong pitching and defense holds, the question is whether Cleveland is equipped to combat it. The numbers look positive for Cleveland fans; the Indians had the fifth best OPS against starting pitchers this year and were the second best team the first time through the order.
While the Cubs, unsurprisingly, had the best ERA the first time through the order, their advantage is less pronounced than is seems. Their OPS+ against was 10% better the first time through the order, which is tied for the fifth best in the majors in that split. In other words, while the Cubs' rotation was better when facing hitters the first time, it wasn't an especially strong advantage.
Joe Maddon is also an aggressive manager. Despite having the best rotation in the majors, the Cubs were tied for eighth in starts of 100+ pitches. While Maddon won't need to worry about saving his starters' arms, if the Indians can work counts (7th in pitches per PA) and pressure Chicago's starters on the basepaths (2nd in extra base taken and stolen base percentage), they can get into the Cubs' bullpen early enough to do some damage.
A quick note about the basepaths, given that Jon Lester is starting Game 1. One of the major storylines in his last start was the Los Angeles Dodgers' inability to truly punish Lester for his difficulty in holding baserunners. He probably won't get as luck against Cleveland.
The Dodgers were simply not especially well-suited to taking advantage of that particular hole in Lester's game. While they were a little above average in baserunning as a whole, only three teams stole fewer bases than LA, and only three had a higher rate of getting caught stealing.
The Indians, on the other hand, were the best baserunning team in the majors this year. They earned 13 more runs, over a full win, on the basepaths than the Dodgers. And the biggest weakness in their game was pickoffs. The Indians were caught stealing 31 times (an 81% success rate) but picked off 9, only tied for 9th fewest. Lester's going to have to maintain order on the basepaths without a tool that's proven especially effective against this team.
If the roadmap to a Cubs' win looks like their pennant-clincher, where Hendricks got the first 22 outs and Aroldis Chapman took the last five, Cleveland's may look more like Game 3 of the ALCS. While perhaps not that extreme, Cleveland is going to need their bullpen to get a lot of outs if they want to win the title.
Fortunately, this October has shown that they're more than up to the challenge. Cleveland has already had 13 reliever appearances with at least four outs in the postseason, as many as the Kansas City Royals had last year and seven shy of the MLB postseason record.
That's going to be important because relief pitching gave the Cubs trouble this year. Teams usually fare a little worse against relievers, but the Cubs were particularly bothered by them. Their OPS was seven percent worse against relievers versus their total OPS and they dropped from third in overall OPS+ to seventh in OPS+ against relievers.
Obviously, the Cubs will be particularly concerned with Andrew Miller. The ALCS MVP has 21 strikeouts this postseason, seven away from tying the record for most postseason strikeouts by a reliever. Only five Cubs have even faced Miller before, and while Ben Zobrist hit a homer off him, that was in 2011.
When Miller has gotten into trouble this year, it's come more from fly balls than grounders. Here's every appearance where he gave up a run this season:
While the ground ball distribution seems a little more random, there's only one appearance where he gave up a run without giving up a fly ball.
That's good news for Chicago, who had the fourth lowest grounder-to-fly ratio in the majors, and especially good news for Kris Bryant, who was seventh lowest among all hitters in that stat and will almost certainly face Miller given the way Terry Francona has been using him this postseason.
We covered stealing a bit already, but I can't emphasize how much Cleveland should make that a part of their game plan. The Indians were 25-10 when they stole at least two bases and 10-2 when they stole at least three.
What's more, the Cubs' troubles with baserunners go beyond Lester; the Mets were the only team to allow more stolen bases than Chicago. Second base is the best place for Cleveland to target. While the Cubs were tied for fourth in stealers caught going to third, they were 10th in catching thieves on their way to second.
We've all read Moneyball and know that it's usually not wise for teams to risk outs in order to manufacture a single run with small-ball, but this series may be the exception. The Cubs gave up three runs or fewer 96 times this year. That's 10 more than any other team, as well as just the sixth time since 1990 that a team has kept the opponent under four that many times in a year.
The Indians' best chance seems to be to run the Royals' playbook and work on the basepaths to keep things close and then turn it over to the bullpen to hold the lead. The problem is that the Cubs are superior to last year's New York Mets in just about every facet of the game.
The cruelest and most exciting part is that all of this preparation could end up being completely meaningless. In a seven game series, just about anything can happen, up to and including a franchise ending over 100 years of misery.