It’s official, hell has frozen over and it has finally happened: The Cubs and Indians are in the World Series. Whether or not you would have believed it even a few years ago doesn’t matter anymore. We’re on the precipice, and only one team is going to end its nearly three-quarters of a century or over-a-century championship drought. There are can be only one, and the World Series is the Cubs’ to lose.
Saying the Cubs have the advantage when it comes to their starting lineup in the series is selling things a bit short. Thanks to injuries to Cleveland’s starters, the Cubs have had the deepest rotation throughout the playoffs and the Indians haven’t yet faced a rotation like Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks, Jake Arrieta and John Lackey.
Lester may not throw the ball to first, but teams haven’t yet figured out how to capitalize on that this year, or this postseason (even if they really, really should). Over the regular season, he came in 2nd in the NL in ERA (2.44), 7th again in FIP (3.41), 3rd in WHIP (1.02) and held opponents to a .209 AVG (tied for 4th with Madison Bumgarner). In the postseason, well, he’s been even better. Over his 21 innings so far, he’s pitched to the tune of a 0.86 ERA and 0.76 WHIP while holding batters to a .189 AVG. We’re not just talking the small sample size of this year’s playoffs, either. Over his career 119 innings, he has a 2.50 ERA, a 22.4 K% a 2.6% BB% and a 1.02 WHIP. He’s basically Madison Bumgarner in the postseason, even if nobody has noticed.
And it’s not like things get a whole lot easier after Lester. In the second rotation spot, the Cubs start Hendricks, who, like Lester will be getting some Cy Young votes, but has actually been a (slightly) better pitcher than Lester on the year, with a 2.13 ERA (1st in NL), 3.20 FIP (4th), 0.98 WHIP (2nd) and held opponents to a .196 AVG (3rd). Then, there’s Arrieta: 3.10 (10th in NL), 3.52 FIP (7th), 1.08 WHIP (7th) and held hitters to a .194 AVG (1st). Then, just when you get to the final rotation spot, it’s not like things get that much easier with Lackey: 3.35 ERA (12th in NL), 3.81 FIP (16th), 1.06 WHIP (6th) and held batters to a .213 AVG (6th).
When your fourth starter is as good as Lackey, it’s going to be tough for the opposition to score runs. Which is going to be one of the key storylines to watch this series for both teams, because, as we already know, Cleveland’s bullpen has been lights out this postseason.
Fortunately for the Cubs, they have an advantage when it comes to scoring runs, so they’re likely to be able to get an early lead and keep Andrew Miller out of games or at least neutralize the threat he poses in his innings when you are trying to come from behind. In their last five games in their respective LCS (we’ll discount the Cubs’ 8-run Game 1 to keep things even), the Cubs have scored 29 runs (and that’s including the fact that they were shutout in Game 2). The Indians scored a total of 10 runs in their 5-game series. While the fact that they were able to down Toronto while scoring so few runs speaks to the talent of the pitching for Cleveland in the series, the Cubs’ hitters aren’t going to allow them to squeak by scoring so few runs.
Anthony Rizzo may have struggled in his series against the Giants, but he came back to life against the Dodgers and hit .320/.370/.640 in the series with 7 hits, 2 doubles and 2 home runs in last three games. The fact that the only lefties that Cleveland has to throw at Rizzo are Andrew Miller and Ryan Merritt will no doubt help Rizzo continue to punish pitchers, as the Indians won’t be able to take advantage of Rizzo’s platoon splits (126 wRC+ against lefties and 154 wRC+ against righties this year) most of the time. Rizzo might have been a weak spot in the lineup during the Division Series, but that didn’t continue against the Dodgers and doesn’t look to continue against the Indians.
Kris Bryant will probably win the MVP this year and he’s shown no signs of letting up in the postseason this year. His .333/.409/.538 line in the playoffs sets things up for Rizzo to drive him in. And it’s not like the Cubs’ lineup is top-heavy or anything. Javier Baez has been one of the biggest stories of the postseason and is hitting .342/.366/.526 through both series. Willson Contreras is hitting .400/.429/.550 in October. Dexter Fowler hit .333/.333/.556 in the NLCS. The Cubs, as a whole, have a lot more power in their lineup and the longball has made a huge difference in this postseason.
Ben Zobrist and Jason Heyward have been struggling, but that’s basically it for the holes as of late in the Cubs’ lineup (with Addison Russell recovering from a torrid NLDS to hit .273/.273/.591 against the Dodgers). The key to the Indians’ game plan in the prior two series was to get an early lead and then get the game over to Miller and the bullpen as quickly as possible unless Corey Kluber is on the mound. While that may have worked against the Red Sox and their heavy hitters, the Cubs’ rotation is far superior to Boston’s and the Cubs are going to make the Indians’ plans to get the ball to their relievers with a lead very, very difficult to execute in every game.
There are some things that the Indians do better than the Cubs. The Indians were one of the the best baserunning team in baseball this year, leading the AL with 134 SB and an 81.21% success rate. The Cubs were not good at holding runners, but, the thing is, those players have to actually get on base for the Indians to be able to even take advantage of it, and the starting rotation, along with Aroldis Chapman, who together combined to pitch 69% of the innings this far into the postseason, just don’t allow that many baserunners. While the Indians certainly have the advantage in this section of the game, it’s not going to be enough to push them past all the other areas where the Cubs are better. Not to mention the fact that that their success in the regular season hasn’t carried over to the postseason, where the Cubs are 100% successful with 3 steals in 3 attempts, but the Indians are only 3 for 5.
While the Indians' defense was one of the best in its league, the Cubs had the best defense in either league this year, which certainly helped out those stats that we saw earlier when we were talking about the pitchers. It’s not just limited to the highlight reels that Baez keeps putting up either. The team as a whole hasn’t allowed an unearned run since September 29, you know, so the Indians are going to have to make sure their runs are scored on the up-and-up.
Joe Maddon isn't making headlines the way that Indians manager Terry Francona is this postseason and that’s partially by design. Francona has had to get “creative” (or just, you know, do the smart thing, even if it breaks with tradition) with his bullpen use in order to make up for the injuries that Cleveland has suffered in the starting pitching department. While he certainly deserves credit for that, Maddon has been able to manage the game with less aplomb, given that the team he has to work with is the best team in baseball.
There are some other factors that are going to be at play in the series, too, like the lack of the DH when the games are in Chicago and the resultant loss of either Mike Napoli or Carlos Santana for Cleveland. More important might be that, due to the fact that there will be a DH in the other games, Chicago will surprisingly be able to roll out Kyle Schwarber to hit in those games. While it’s been awhile since he faced MLB batting (April 7), this is still the guy who hit 4 home runs in 9 postseason games last year and is certainly not a hitter to be treated lightly.
At the end of the day, the Cubs are healthier (like totally healthy, with the return of Schwarber) and deeper. The Indians may have some advantages in a couple of areas, notably the bullpen and baserunning, but these aren’t going to be enough to push them over the top in a best of seven series. While it’s wise to remember that baseball is always going to baseball, the Cubs are here for a reason: they were the the best team in the regular season and they still have the best team. Small-sample-size shenanigans aside, while it’s certainly not time to celebrate the end of the curse, there’s every reason to believe that the Cubs are going to win this series and the longest championship drought in professional sports.