If you have read (or written) about baseball in the last two weeks, there is a high probability the Chicago Cubs have been featured. We all know they were the best team during the regular season and haven’t won a World Series since 1908, but that by no means makes them the overwhelming favorite against the Cleveland Indians.
The Indians, who have gone 68 years since their last championship, quietly have professional sports’ second-longest title drought for a club that has remained in one city. If they weren’t playing the Cubs, and if the Cavaliers didn’t win the NBA title four months ago, ending Cleveland’s misery would be this month’s narrative of choice.
It’s easy to overlook the fact that the Indians have lost just one game this postseason -- a 5-1 loss to the Toronto Blue Jays in Game 4 of the ALCS -- but as we’ve learned in recent years, a champion is often the team playing their best baseball at the right time. The Cubs might have been the better team from April to October, but the Tribe have won 10 of their last 11 and will host the Fall Classic thanks to the quirky home-field rules.
The Cubs, meanwhile, needed a ninth inning rally to finish off the San Francisco Giants in four games and Madison Bumgarner might have been looming in Game 5 on short rest. Chicago fell behind the Los Angeles Dodgers 2-1 after three games before waking up for three straight wins and a 23-6 edge in runs scored. The Indians have had a better postseason and all of the pressure is on the Cubs. There is absolutely nothing that will change that.
A hot streak, home field (Cleveland tied for the second-best home record in baseball) and less pressure aside, the Indians are really, really good.
Corey Kluber, who will start Game 1, has been tremendous over 18.1 innings this month. After posting a 3.14 ERA, 9.5 K/9, 3.98 K/BB and 3.26 FIP during the regular season, Kluber has further tightened the strings with a 0.98 ERA and 9.8 K/9 in his first postseason run. The Klubot will get at least two appearances in this series and as much as any starter in this series, he has the chance to completely shut down an offense for seven-plus innings. In his most recent start against the Cubs, on Aug. 24, 2015 at Wrigley Field, Kluber struck out 11 and allowed just one run on four hits in 7.2 innings. That Chicago offense had Kyle Schwarber, who has defied the odds to return from injury in time for this series.
As good as Kluber is -- he’s the clear choice as the No. 1 on two-thirds of Major League teams -- he may not even be the best pitcher on his own team.
Andrew Miller has been historic for Terry Francona in October, pitching in six of Cleveland’s eight games. Over 11.2 frames, the bearded left-hander hasn’t allowed a run while striking out 21 (!) and walking just two. Think the Cubs are an entirely different animal? Eh, not so fast. Miller had seven strikeouts in four innings in the ALDS against the Boston Red Sox, who scored 70 more runs and bested the Cubs by 40 points in OPS during the regular season. The Blue Jays were no offensive pushover either. They slugged 22 more home runs than the Cubs and had a similar slash line (.248/.330/.426 to .256/.343/.429).
Miller’s heroics have overshadowed what actual closer Cody Allen has done in the playoffs. He hasn’t allowed a run to cross the plate in 7.2 innings and has 12 strikeouts to his credit. Allen hasn’t allowed an earned run since Sept. 21 and hasn’t blown a save since Aug. 17. He surrendered a crooked number only three times in 2016 and two of those instances came in the season’s first three weeks.
If the Indians can get a quality outing from their starters, Miller and Allen have the stuff and fortitude to lock down the final innings.
The key for Cleveland will be getting enough out of Josh Tomlin, Trevor Bauer and Ryan Merritt (as a long man or starter) over the next 10 days.
Tomlin has been good, but threw just 85 and 68 pitches in his two playoff starts. Cleveland’s chances of winning will increase significantly if he can continue to pitch effectively, while also stretching himself out for another inning. That would allow Francona to continue to lean on Miller/Allen without further overtaxing them.
Bauer/Tomlin aren’t in the same baseball zip code as Jake Arrieta and Kyle Hendricks, but they aren’t facing Chicago’s pair of right-handers in a one-on-one battle. One great performance from one of these two might be all the Indians need to win it all.
Francona doesn’t have the hitters Joe Maddon has at his disposal, but they produce just as well offensively without as many household names. The Cubs scored just .191 more runs per game than the Indians over the full season, only 14 more home runs and the two clubs finished with relatively close OPS numbers (.772 to .759).
In late-October games that often come down to one decisive late-inning at-bat, the Indians are just as capable of turning the outcome on a single pitch as the Cubs. Chicago had nine players with 10 or more home runs, while Cleveland had seven. Mike Napoli and Carlos Santana combined to slug 68 home runs, just three fewer than Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo (71).
Another important factor in this series will be how Francona finds ways to get both Napoli and Santana at-bats when it shifts to Wrigley Field. Napoli logged 423 plate appearances as a first baseman (221 as a DH), while Santana was more heavily involved as a DH (405 PAs to 279 at first).
How about the battle of the middle infielders?
Chicago’s combination of Addison Russell and Ben Zobrist combined for 56 doubles, 39 home runs and 6.5 oWAR over 298 games. Meanwhile, Jason Kipnis and Francisco Lindor contributed 71 doubles, 38 home runs and 7.5 oWAR in 314 games. The Indians’ duo, which led the club in full innings, combined for 3.6 dWAR. Russell and Zobrist combined for 2.3 dWAR for the Cubs.
The biggest offensive advantage on either side in this matchup will be Cleveland’s ability to be aggressive on the bases. Even if Lester weren’t scheduled to be on the mound twice, the Indians would have an edge. They led the American League (second overall) in stolen base percentage and percentage of extra bases taken in 2016.
Chicago was successful on only 66% of steal attempts (25th) and stole just 66 bases (20th) overall. During instances in which runs are hard to come by, the Indians will better be able to squeeze one out.
The narrative swirling around the 2016 World Series will continue to be Cubs-centric until the Indians charge the mound in celebration. At least now when it happens, you won’t be surprised.