World Series Preview

Posted: 10/24/2016 by levcohen in Baseball

One of the two longest active World Series droughts is about to be broken. Everyone knows about the Curse of the Billy Goat and that it’s been 108 years since the Cubs won it all. To give this a bit more context: a week before the Cubs won their last World Series, the Austro-Hungarian Empire annexed Bosnia and Herzegovina. Three weeks after they last won, William Howard Taft became president. It’s been a long time. A lesser known fact: the Indians own the second longest World Series drought. The last time they won was in 1948, when two of their best players were Larry Doby and Satchel Paige, which is notable because 1948 was the year they broke the Indians’ color barrier (and the year after Jackie Robinson’s debut). The Cubs are pretty clear favorites to end their drought, opening at -190 to win. Since I did a general analysis of each of these teams before the League Championship Series’, I’m going to look at some more specific matchups and things to watch.

  • The Cubs must get on top early, because the Indians are almost unbeatable when they jump out to an early lead. They’ve taken a lead in the first three innings five times this postseason, and they’re 5-0 in those five games. Otherwise, they’re 2-1. But that’s a super small sample size. How were they when jumping in front in the regular season? Well, including regular season play, the Indians have won 87.7% of the games in which they’ve led after three innings. That’s a 142 win pace. The average team wins 72.9% of the time when ahead after three. That’s a 118 win pace. So the Cubs need to score early. To do that, they’ll need to solve an Indians’ rotation that’s been bizarrely effective. Even without Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar (more on him in a minute), the rotation has given up just eight runs in the entire postseason. Trevor Bauer and Josh Tomlin may each start two games, and Bauer in particular has looked shaky (even before he cut his finger on a drone). Chicago needs to capitalize on having huge starting pitching advantages after Corey Kluber pitches in Game 1, because otherwise they’re going to need to score runs against Andrew Miller.
  • The main reason for Cleveland’s extreme success when they take an early lead is obvious: their bullpen is dominant, and should continue to be dominant. In particular, Andrew Miller is dominant, and should continue to be dominant. Miller’s thrown exactly 172 pitches in the playoffs. 107 of those pitches have been sliders, and the other 65 have been fastballs. 32 of the pitches have been whiffed at, while five have ended in hits (three singles, two doubles). The result? 11.2 innings, five hits, two walks, 21 strikeouts, and no runs. You know who else has been pretty darn good? Cody Allen. Allen’s pitched in the same six playoff games as Miller (all wins). He’s thrown only 148 pitches and has gone only 7.2 innings, but he has also given up no runs and just five hits (three singles, two doubles). His curveball, in particular, has been devastating. He’s thrown it 63 times, and gotten 13 whiffs. In at bats ending with the curve, opponents are 1-12 with six strikeouts. I’m less confident in Allen than I am in Miller for two reasons. The first is simply that Miller is the better pitcher. The second is that the Cubs didn’t seem fooled by Clayton Kershaw’s curveball, so I’m not sure Allen will be able to rely as heavily upon the curve as his strikeout pitch as he has so far.
  • It seems likely that both Kyle Schwarber and Danny Salazar will be activated for the World Series. This isn’t getting much attention, but it could prove pivotal. Salazar’s addition, in particular, seems likely to have a pretty large impact. Remember, Salazar was a leading Cy Young candidate through June, when he began having arm trouble. Look at these splits:
    Salazar through June (15 starts): 6.2 innings per start, 10-3, 2.22 ERA, .569 OPS against
    Salazar from July 1 on (10 starts): 4.4 innings per start, 1-3, 7.36 ERA, .925 OPS against
    For a guy coming off a 3.45 ERA season, the second half swoon, which included two DL stints, has to be a result of an injury. It’s now been a month and a half since he last pitched, and the Indians surely wouldn’t bring him back if he weren’t fully healthy, right? It remains to be seen whether he makes a start (Game 4 would seem the most likely time) or whether he’s used in long relief (after a non-Kluber start). I’d wager on it being the latter. Three or four good innings in middle relief would be invaluable as a bridge between Bauer or Tomlin and Miller/Allen.
  • The Indians haven’t scored more than six runs in a game this postseason and are averaging just 3.4 runs per game. Meanwhile, the Cubs haven’t allowed more than six runs in a game and are giving up just three per game. I don’t think either of those things change in this series, because the Cubs have such a deep rotation and because Francisco Lindor (.924) is the only Cleveland regular with a playoff OPS above .681. That doesn’t mean the Indians can’t win the series. They’re 7-1 in the playoffs because they’ve shown the ability to jump to and maintain small leads. But if there’s a blowout game in this series, I think the Cubs will be on the winning side. It might actually not be the worst idea for the Indians to go into one game this series planning on withholding Miller and Allen unless they hold a late lead. So if it’s Game 4, and the Cubs are up 3-2 in the seventh inning, why not just bring in someone else, even though the game would still be within reach? The Indians have other talented relievers, and they won’t be able to throw out their two studs every night. This might be a good way to maximize the innings and impact the two can make.
  • Prediction: Coco Crisp and/or Rajai Davis will become huge factors in this series. Why? Because they’re fast (674 career combined regular season steals), and because Chicago pitchers cannot hold runners on. Everyone knows about Jon Lester’s refusal to throw over to first, but he isn’t the only one who’s had trouble. Lester, Jake Arrieta, and John Lackey rank first, fourth, and seventh in stolen bases allowed since the start of 2013 (100, 80, 77 respectively). The Dodgers stole just 45 bases during the regular season, 27th in baseball. In six games against the Cubs, they stole nine bases without being caught. That includes three steals against Arrieta, two against Lester, and three against Aroldis Chapman. The Indians stole 134 bases this season, fourth in baseball, and have the two speedsters I noted above along with Francisco Lindor, Jose Ramirez, and Jason Kipnis, each of whom stole at least 15 bases this season. This will be a factor.
  • DEFENSE. The Cubs have great arms and great bats, but they’re best at fielding. They were easily the best defensive team in baseball this season (82 defensive runs saved, with the Astros coming second with 51), and they make a ton of flashy and important defensive plays. The Indians are pretty good, too. Led by Lindor, their shortstop, they ranked fourth in ultimate zone rating behind the Cubs, Astros, and Angels. We might see some pretty low BABIPs (and averages) in this series.
  • Home runs will be the decider. With runs at a premium and both defenses playing well, which team can hit the ball out of the park more? I thought the Blue Jays would beat the Indians because of their power, but Cleveland out-homered Toronto 6-2 and out-scored them 12-8. And the Cubs have bashed 12 homers so far in the playoffs and given up just four. So both teams like hitting it out of the park, and both will need to do so in order to generate offense in this series.
  • A quick reminder: even though the Cubs finished the regular season with a better record than the Indians, Cleveland has home field advantage because the AL won the All-Star game. It’s a stupid rule, but I don’t expect it to be a deciding factor in who wins this series. The Cubs are good enough to win on the road, and they’ll win this series if they play their best baseball.

My prediction: I’m not going to get too cute here. The Cubs are the team with the better rotation, the better lineup, and the better defense. They don’t have Andrew Miller or Cody Allen, but Aroldis Chapman is a nice consolation prize. I kind of get the feeling that Josh Tomlin and/or Trevor Bauer is going to get bashed, and that Kluber might pull a Clayton Kershaw in the NLCS (really good once, pretty bad his other start). This time, it really is the Cubbies’ year. Cubs win in 6.

  1. quadrangular says:

    I hope you’re right!

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