And just like that, the curse was lifted. All it took was one of the most exciting games in the history of baseball. With more folks watching than tuned in for a game for the last 25 years, it wasn’t a sacrificial goat that lead to Bill Murray looking so damn happy. Rather, it was simply an organization that built the best team it could, gave its players the best chances to succeed and had enough luck to keep the train on track as it chugged along towards the Cubs’ first championship in 108 years.
Now, the offseason is here and the logs are being chopped and a few have already been thrown into a rapidly warming stove. Teams are shuffling managers, declining options and making trades. There will be many dark and cold months without baseball to talk about these things, though, so before we shut the door on this season, let’s take a few minutes to pause and reflect on some of the biggest lessons we can take away from the 2016 World Series.
The Sabermetric Skirmishes Might (Mostly?) Finally Be Over
Perhaps the fact that Ben Zobrist was responsible for the 10th-inning double that sealed the Cubs’ victory was the ideal conclusion to the seemingly eternal war of sabermetricians vs. strawhats. Zobrist has long been the type of player that was emblematic of the old-school vs. new-school divide when it comes to talent evaluation and certainly hasn’t received the “star treatment” that other players of his quality receive, even if he most certainly should have.
Even if he always flew under the radar before despite being currently 31st in active players by bWAR with 42.3 (just behind Adrian Gonzalez and Troy Tulowitzki, for reference), Zobrist led all of baseball in fWAR from 2009 to 2012, thanks in large part to his sabermetric skillset, including his defensive versatility and elite plate discipline. While the Cubs weren’t able to land him in 2015 (despite their best intentions) and they had to wait until after Zobrist helped the Royals win their first World Series in 20 years, the Cubs snatched him up this past offseason, signing Zobrist to a four-year, $56 million contract that will take him through his age-38 season. The notion of signing a player like Zobrist to that kind of contract would have been unthinkable not that long ago, but it’s safe to say that the Cubs are pretty happy with their World Series MVP investment right about now.
But Zobrist and his contributions are just one example of the way in which Theo Epstein and company have used analytics to dominate other teams. Their focus on drafting the best available hitters with their their high draft picks accumulated through losing or tanking, however you want to think about it, was part of it, along with positional versatility, defense, on-base percentage and many other of the newer school trains of thought. All teams now have sabermetric folks in their offices now and, while it’s not as if other teams don’t fit somewhere into the analytical mold, but no team has won a World Series with such a publicly displayed lofty regard for new-school thinking in its roster construction.
The Cubs are a testament to what happens when you combine such new-school thinking about baseball with big market pockets and, needless to say, it is a scary picture for the other teams in the NL Central and the other teams they’ll likely be facing in the postseason over the next few years, at least. Of course, there’s always going to be a heaping help of luck involved for any team to win the World Series. After all, you can do as much diligence as you want on your players’ health, but the Cubs team definitely caught a break in that department, which brings us to our next lesson.
The Indians Just Rewrote the Rules for the Postseason
While you can certainly attribute some of it to scouting and training, it’s pretty clear that the Cubs had some amazing luck in the form of being the healthiest team I can remember heading into the playoffs. That was before they got Kyle Schwarber back in time for Game 1 of the World Series, making them pretty much completely healthy. The Indians were the exact opposite of the Cubs in terms of health going into the series.
Cleveland was missing so many players by the time the postseason started, it was tough to envision them making a deep run. Even if they had been without Michael Brantley since May and managed to pull off the platooning that is necessary for small market team to succeed in spite of such a loss, their starting pitching was absolutely ravaged. While the way in which they used platoon advantages to construct their offense was far from earth-shattering, the way in which they were able to their pitching staff throughout the postseason is probably going to change the game in the postseason going forward.
We’ve seen the Dodgers start Clayton Kershaw on short rest plenty of times, and we’ve seen Madison Bumgarner clinch a World Series pitching in relief on short rest. We haven’t really seen anything like what Terry Francona did this postseason, with one trustworthy starter in the form of Corey Kluber and a couple of shutdown relievers in the form of Andrew Miller and Cody Allen, with that trio pitching over half of Cleveland’s postseason innings. Maddon even looked like he was already treading down this path with his aggressive use of Aroldis Chapman. While the gambit didn’t work out in the end (for either manager, with Chapman looking gassed and the Indians unable to hold on for one more game), Francona deserves the postseason manager MVP, going almost as far as Maddon but with far less resources with which to work.
This postseason brought out the worst in some managers, and it brought out the best in Francona. Whether or not all those extra innings end up doing damage to the pitchers that threw them, we may never know, as getting a clear picture about pitchers and health is, in case you haven’t noticed, a fairly tough endeavor. The fact that Francona got his team so close to baseball’s pearly gates by giving his best pitchers the ball and riding them as long as he could, over and over again, may have been born of necessity, but the fact that he used them at the most opportune times, rather than sticking to conventional reliever usage roles, is something that he deserves a lot of credit for and something that we shouldn’t be surprised to see a lot more of going forward.
Baseball Always Gonna Baseball
This World Series served as a reminder of many things, not the least of which is that the baseball gods are the same as they ever were. Obviously, the man to homer off Chapman was Rajai Davis, who has, over 11 years, homered 55 times over 3999 plate appearances, meaning there was about a 1% chance he would hit a homerun off any pitcher, much less Chapman (thereby saving baseball fans from any guilt they would have experienced watching Chapman, and his accompanying baggage, save the World Series for the Cubs). Obviously, 39-year old, retiring journeyman/personal catcher David Ross, who had 10 home runs all season and was only in the game because starter Jon Lester came in to pitch out of relief, hit a homerun off of relief-god Miller to help his team come mount a comeback.
The baseball gods do not care for your notions of “curses.” They don’t really care about anything, and it’s easy to graft narratives into places where there are none. The baseball gods may seem to favor chaos, but, occasionally, they will actually allow the best team in baseball to win it all. The Cubs were that team this year and they did. Now, most of us (who aren’t Cleveland fans) can sit back and enjoy the fact that the Cubs have ended the longest drought in professional sports. Of course, it goes without saying that the Cubs also an extremely young team with boatloads of money and we should all fully expect to be sick of them very soon. For now, though, we should all just appreciate that we just witnessed an amazing series and the end of an era.