NLCS Preview

Posted: 10/15/2016 by levcohen in Baseball

Since before the season started, baseball’s central question has been: is this the year for the Cubs? They started the year with the most talented team in baseball, and they owned the best record for basically the entire season. But none of that will matter if they can’t bring a championship back to the North Side of Chicago for the first time since 1908. They’re through the first of three hurdles, as they closed out the Giants in four games with a late rally in San Francisco. But while they snapped San Fran’s even year streak, things will only get tougher for them. Next up is Clayton Kershaw and LA. I’m going to go over this series just as I did the last one, starting with each team’s pitching staff (because pitching wins championships!) and then moving on to the bats and my prediction.

The Cubs had what was undoubtedly the best and deepest rotation in baseball this year. Naturally, then, they also have what is undoubtedly the best and deepest four man playoff rotation. The biggest thing to note going in is that the Dodgers have a very lefty-heavy lineup. Justin Turner is their only everyday player who bats from the right side, and he’s joined by switch hitter Yasmani Grandal (better as a lefty), three lefties, and three platoons. With that in mind, the Cubs should feel especially good about throwing Jon Lester out there for Game 1. Not that they wouldn’t anyway. Lester shut down the Giants, throwing eight extremely efficient innings of five hit ball in a 1-0 win. That lowered his ERA over his last 13 starts to 1.32, and the Cubs are now 11-2 in his last 13 starts and 25-8 in games he’s started this season. In his two starts against LA, he threw 15 innings, gave up seven hits and a single run, and struck out 16 while walking two. In 115 career at bats against the southpaw, current Dodgers are slashing .174/.234/.235. He also has a 1.62 home ERA after the NLDS and a career 2.63 playoff ERA in 106 innings.

Kyle Hendricks was hit by a comebacker in the forearm during the NLDS, but he’s good to go for Game Two. That’s good news for the Cubs, as Hendricks easily paced MLB with a 2.13 ERA this season (Clayton Kershaw didn’t qualify). He’s a righty who’s likely to face eight lefties (including Kershaw), which is a slight concern given that he did post better numbers against righties. But he was stellar in his single start against the Dodgers this season, allowing just three hits in eight innings, and it’s hard to really doubt a pitcher who posted a 2.13 ERA and a 1.32 home ERA. With that being said, he will be pitching against Clayton Kershaw, so he’s going to have to be on his game.

Jake Arrieta’s the #3 starter, which says all you need to know about the rotation. He wasn’t as good this season as he was last year, but he still posted a 3.10 ERA and limited both lefties and righties to a .194 average against. He shut out the Dodgers in his one start against them over seven innings, and he threw six strong innings against the Giants in the NLDS.

Then there’s John Lackey, who’s 37 years old, was consistently strong all year, and has a career 3.22 playoff ERA in 21 postseason starts. A few concerns: his road ERA was 4.37, he was much better against righties than lefties, and he gave up nine baserunners and three runs in four innings against the Giants. At the very least, the Dodgers should plate a few runs against him, which is more than we might be able to say tonight against Lester.

The bullpen isn’t as dominant. The Cubs finished just 19th in bullpen WAR during the regular season (although they were tied for eighth in ERA), and they blew the third game of the NLDS. With that being said, the back of their bullpen is pretty scary. Aroldis Chapman is Aroldis Chapman (this year’s version: 1.55 ERA, 90 strikeouts in 58 innings), Hector Rondon also throws 100 mph, and Pedro Strop has posted sub-3 ERAs in each of the past three seasons. As long as the starters can pitch into the sixth inning, the bullpen should be solid.

The Dodgers will send Kenta Maeda to the mound against Lester. Maeda started his rookie season really well, but he had a 3.99 ERA in his final 26 starts before giving up four runs in three innings against the Nationals. This seems like a mismatch, although it’s worth noting that Maeda was much better the first time seeing a team than the second or third time, and he didn’t face the Cubs at all this season. I could see things going pretty well one or two times through the lineup, but if he faces guys like Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant for a third time, look out.

Clayton Kershaw will start the second game of the series after starting two games and closing a third in the NLDS. Kershaw is easily the best pitcher in baseball, and the Dodgers will obviously feel great about their chances to win whenever he’s on the mound. Of course, he has struggled in the postseason throughout his career, posting a career 4.79 ERA in 77 innings. I still expect a dominant performance from Kershaw whenever he starts, but that’s a large enough sample to make me at least a bit more wary of another poor performance.

36 year old Rich Hill will start after Kershaw, and he reminds me of Hendricks in that he has been dominant this season despite not having great stuff. Hill had a 2.12 ERA and a 1.00 WHIP this season in 110.1 innings, and he got 13 strikeouts in seven innings over the course of two starts against the Nationals. He also gave up five runs, but I thought he looked pretty good. Hill’s also only given up one run at Dodger Stadium in three starts there after being traded from the Athletics, and he has the advantage (like Maeda) of facing many of the Cubs for the first time (aside from David Ross, the Cubs have just five career at bats against him). I’m actually pretty confident that he can at least keep things close against Arrieta.

Then there’s rookie Julio Urias, a former top prospect and future ace. Urias will be the first 20 year old to start a playoff game since Bret Saberhagen in 1984. He also didn’t go more than six innings once this season and gave up five earned runs and three homers in his first start against the Cubs. He shut Chicago down in a 3-2 win the second time he faced them, and the Dodgers were 10-5 in his starts this year. Urias is unlikely to be asked to pitch more than five innings, and he’ll only start one game this series, which minimizes his importance. But he posted a sub-2 ERA in both August and September, and it’s possible that he could shut down Chicago’s bats for six innings. More likely, I think, is four or five innings of two run ball before the Dodgers turn to their bullpen.

Speaking of that bullpen, the Dodgers finished third in baseball in bullpen WAR and first in ERA. In the NLDS, they had mixed results. They shut down the Nationals for four innings to preserve a 4-3 lead in Game One. Then, they gave up a single run in 3.2 innings in Game Two, although Jose Lobaton’s three run homer off Rich Hill had already put the Nationals ahead for good. In Game Three, Kenley Jansen bizarrely gave up four runs in the ninth inning after entering the game with the Dodgers down by a single run. But in Game Four, Jansen closed out the Nationals with a clean inning to help preserve another one run lead. And in the deciding game, manager Dave Roberts entrusted the pen with the final 6.1 innings, and they responded by holding the Nationals to two runs. Grant Dayton did give up a two run shot to Chris Heisey, but then Jansen (2.1 innings) and Kershaw (the final two outs) closed out the game. So they were pretty good — but far from perfect — against the Nats. I think they’ll have to be even better against the Cubs in a series likely to feature a lot of low scoring games. They’re going to do everything they can to maximize the innings thrown by Jansen and Joe Blanton, who may be good enough to serve as their version of Cleveland’s Andrew Miller and Cody Allen. The bullpen is certainly better than Chicago’s, but it’s not good enough to erase the Cubs’ rotation advantage.

Chicago’s starting lineup is also significantly better than LA’s. The Dodgers really only have three hitters who are likely to scare an opposing pitcher: Corey Seager, Justin Turner, and Adrian Gonzalez. Meanwhile, the Cubs’ lineup goes six or seven deep, starting with OBP maestro Dexter Fowler and continuing perhaps through seven-hole hitter Javier Baez, who had six hits in the NLDS, including a homer that was the only run of Game One. They hit just .200 in round one, though, evidence that all the talent in the world may not amount to anything in a short series.

All Chicago’s clear talent advantage means is that the Dodgers are going to have to rely on clutch hitting to keep the series close. They showed against the Nationals that they can win close games, as all three of their wins came by a single run. The fact that they advanced despite getting two subpar starts from Clayton Kershaw is also very encouraging. Kershaw surely needs to be better in his two NLCS starts than he was in his NLDS ones, because it’s unlikely that they’ll score enough to win when their starter gives up three (Game One) or five (Game Four) runs. But even if Kershaw pitches two brilliant games, the Cubs are just too strong from top to bottom. I think it’ll be a low scoring series that goes the distance, but Chicago will edge out Los Angeles and advance to the World Series. Cubs in seven.

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