With the Nationals failing to advance past the NLDS for the fourth time in six years, the Cubs earned a repeat of last year's NLCS against the Dodgers. If you were hoping for any sort of excitement in the NLCS this year, you're out of luck, both because it's a repeat of last year and because both these teams came into the season as postseason favorites. However, as we'll get to shortly, these are not the same teams that met each other here last year. Before we get to that, let's get some big picture stuff out of the way, shall we?
Unlike yesterday in our ALCS preview, the actual vs. expected records do shed some light on these two teams. The Dodgers won 104 games this season, with a Pythagorean record that suggest they overperformed by a couple of games and a BaseRuns record that says they overperformed by three. Either way, they were a 100+ win team. The Cubs get a slight boost from their Pythagorean record, which says they should have won 94, but their BaseRuns record is the same as their actual record at 92 wins.
Again, unlike the analysis of the Yankees and Astros' season series record, the Cubs and Dodgers' 2017 results are telling. Los Angeles took the season series 4-2, and they scored 3.7 runs per game versus 1.8 for the Cubs. The Cubs also failed to win a single game at Dodger Stadium, who had the best home record in MLB (57-24), and it looks like Los Angeles is primed to milk the home field advantage they earned during the regular season.
Of course, those facts don't necessarily mean anything in a best-of-seven series. Plus, both teams made significant upgrades before the trade deadline, with the Dodgers adding Yu Darvish and the Cubs adding Jose Quintana, so there's that (and some other roster moves) to factor in as well. So we're going to take take a spin through different aspects of the teams and see who has the better chance to pull off the series for the honor of the NL pennant.
By fWAR (30.1), the Dodgers had the second best lineup in baseball this season, with only the Astros ahead of them. Houston, however, was not a great defensive team this year and their offense was ranked so highly because of what they did at the plate. The Dodgers' players, on the other hand, gained a lot of their value from being great defensively. Dodgers hitters were 4th in baseball by wRC+, but were 2nd in baseball by DRS (48).
That's not to belittle their offense's offensive contributions, though. While they don't have a single player who's quite had an MVP season, Corey Seager (.295 /.375/.479, 127 wRC+, 5.7 fWAR) and Justin Turner (.322/.415/.530, 151 wRC+, 5.5 fWAR) both come pretty close. Chris Taylor (.288/.354/.496, 125 wRC+, 4.7 fWAR) shocked everyone with his breakout season, even if he's struggled quite a bit since September rolled around. Cody Bellinger (.267/.352/.581, 138 wRC+, 4.0 fWAR) is a lock for NL MVP and Yasiel Puig (.263.346/.487, 117 wRC+, 2.9 fWAR) quietly became pretty darn good again. Logan Forsythe (.263/.346/.487, 90 wRC+, 1.7 fWAR) has probably been the biggest disappointment in the lineup, but that's a testament to how deep a lineup it is. There really aren't any glaring holes anywhere on the field for them.
The Cubs followed a similar trajectory in terms of offense plus defense to come up with the 5th best offense in MLB by fWAR (26.7). Their team wRC+ was 101, good for 8th in MLB, but they were the 4th best defensive team by UZR (22.8).
Unlike the Dodgers, the Cubs do have a likely MVP candidate in Kris Bryant (.295/.409/.537, 146 wRC+, 6.7 fWAR). Anthony Rizzo (.273.392/.507, 133 wRC+, 4.0 fWAR) wasn't quite as good as he was last year, but he was still one of the best first basemen in MLB. Ben Zobrist (.232/.318/.375, 82 wRC+, 0.3 fWAR) turned in a very disappointing season, but Ian Happ (.253/.328/.514, 113 wRC+, 1.8 fWAR) crushed baseballs while playing acceptable defense at second base and all over the outfield. Oh, and Willson Contreras was one of the best hitters in baseball during the second half (.305/.407/.586, 157 wRC+). Overall, though, the Cubs' offense was very, very good, just not as balanced and deep as the Dodgers'.
The Dodgers' rotation was the fifth best in baseball by fWAR (16.7), as they collectively turned in a 3.39 ERA/3.74 season. Obviously, any discussion of Dodgers starters starts with Clayton Kershaw. He has a checkered reputation in the postseason, more goat than GOAT, but he's been started on short rest so many times it's easy to lose count. That didn't happen in the NLDS this year (unlike the past four division series), thanks to the Dodgers' sweep of the Diamondbacks and the addition of Darvish, who we'll get to in a moment. Kershaw struggled a bit in his DS start against Arizona, giving up a pair of solo homers in the 7th, but manager Dave Roberts might have considering pulling him before 100 pitches. One Cub Kershaw definitely needs to pay special attention to is Rizzo (.357/.400/.857 in 14 ABs).
When they traded for Darvish, the Dodgers finally got themselves another ace to complement Kershaw for the first time since they had Zack Greinke. Since coming over from Texas, Darvish has a 3.44 ERA and a 3.38 FIP and he's coming off a 5-inning performance in the Dodgers' clincher where he only gave up a solo home run. Darvish doesn't have that much experience against the Cubs' offense (Alex Avila and Zobrist excepted), but he's collectively held them to a .195/.340/.244 line in limited work.
Closing out the rotation for the Dodgers will be Rich Hill (3.32 ERA, 3.72 FIP) and Alex Wood (2.72 ERA, 3.32 FIP). Hill's season wasn't quite as excellent as last year's and he struggled to stay on the mound again (135 IP), but he was still a very, very good pitcher. He pitched 6 innings in the Cubs in last year's NLCS, only giving up a couple of singles. Wood, who struggled as the season wore on, has a .222/.338/.317 career line against Cubs hitters, and he'll need to pitch very carefully to Javier Baez (.400/.500.400 in 5 ABs) and Kris Bryant (.375/.500/.875 in 8 ABs).
On the Cubs side of the ledger, their starters clock in at 10th by fWAR (11.8), with a 4.05 ERA and 4.27 FIP on the season. That's a bit removed from their 2016 World Series winning rotation (20.6 fWAR, 4th in MLB). The fWAR total would have been bolstered a bit had they gotten a full season from Quintana (4.15 ERA, 3.68 FIP, 3.9 fWAR). Quintana improved after coming over as his ERA (3.74) and FIP (3.25) dropped and those stats started to look a tad more aligned. Quintana went 5 and 2/3s in Game 3 without allowing a run and then pitched a clean 2/3s of an inning in the Cubs' clincher last night.
Kyle Hendricks (2.15 ERA, 3.20 FIP, 4.5 fWAR) was the Cubs' best starter on a per-inning basis (he only pitched 139 innings), even if he wasn't as dominant as he was last year, and earned the Game 1 nod in the NLDS. He rewarded Chicago with 7 innings of shutout work, but allowed 4 ERs in his 4 innings of work in Game 5 and forced manager Joe Maddon to bring Quintana into the game last night.
Jon Lester (4.33 ERA, 4.10 FIP, 2.7 fWAR) was Chicago's most valuable pitcher by fWAR, but that's mainly as result of him staying on the mound. Like Hendricks, his season represented a serious step back from 2016. He made it 6 innings in his Game 2 start, allowing only a run, and then was called back into service in Game 4, where he threw 55 pitches in 3 and 2/3s innings of relief, allowing one run. Lester at least has completely shut down one of the biggest bats on the Dodgers, as Turner is batting .000/.067/.000 against him 14 ABs. Assuming Curtis Granderson makes the roster after a rough DS, Lester should probably keep an eye on him, as he's .294/.345/.549 against him in 51 career ABs.
Jake Arrieta (3.53 ERA, 4.16 FIP, 2.4 fWAR) was the reason that Lester was called into action in Game 4. While he didn't allow a run, it took him 99 pitches to get through the 4th inning, thanks to the 5 walks he issued. Also, Granderson has hit .313/.351/.719 lifetime over 32 ABs against Arrieta, so, yeah, it's probably safe to say that he'll be on the roster against the Cubs (and maybe this was what the Dodgers were thinking about when they traded for him in the first place…).
One thing you might have noticed is that the Cubs used their starters in relief a whole bunch just to make it out of the NLDS. Games 4 and 5 required the use of four of their starters, and while Quintana only threw 12 pitches, Lester's situation is a bit more iffy. Whether they go with John Lackey (4.56 ERA, FIP 5.32) or heed the call of the Kershaw (aka short rest), the Dodgers are definitely in a better spot for setting up their rotation.
The Dodgers bullpen came in third in MLB by fWAR (7.5) and 4th by RE24 (51.68) with a 3.38 ERA/3.55 FIP on the season. Kenley Jansen was the best reliever in baseball this year by fWAR (3.5), ERA (1.32) and FIP (1.32). Brandon Morrow (2.06 ERA, 1.55 FIP) has also been excellent. Luis Avilan (2.93 ERA, 2.96 FIP) missed the DS due to shoulder inflammation, but he's likely to be added to the roster for the CS.
The two Tonys, Tony Watson (2.70 ERA, 3.86 FIP) and Tony Cingrani (2.79 ERA, 1.86 FIP), were also added before the deadline. So, yeah, the Dodgers' bullpen is deep. That's before you even get to the fact that the Dodgers have more starters than they know what to do with and they can roll out Kenta Maeda in relief, as they did for a couple of hitless innings against Arizona.
The Cubs' bullpen comes in much lower at 14th by fWAR (4.1) and 8th by RE24 (24.96) with 3.80 ERA/4.08 FIP in 2017. They've also got a walking problem that cost them Game 4 against the Diamondbacks. Their 4.25 BB/9 is tied with the Mets for second-to-worst in MLB. Wade Davis, has been quite good (2.30 ERA, 3.38 FIP, 1.1 fWAR), but he is a big contributor to their walk problem (4.30 BB/9) and is definitely a step down from Jansen. Pedro Strop (2.83 ERA, 3.31 FIP, 1.0 fWAR) has been about as good as Davis, but Carl Edwards Jr. (2.98 ERA, 3.40 FIP, 0.9 fWAR) is another pitcher with a walk problem (5.16 BB/9).
It's also not just the fact that the Dodgers have the better relievers on the season as a whole. As previously discussed, the Cubs had to use two of their starters in relief in the last two games just to make it this far. While we're seeing more of this and you can't argue with the results, it might not bode well that they're dipping into that pot so heavily so early in the postseason runnings.
Yasmani Grandal and Austin Barnes (who is hitting .500/.556/1.000 so far this postseason) were both among the best framers in baseball this year (3rd and 6th, respectively) whereas Contreras was one of the worst (106th out of 110). While the postseason strike zone is always a little bigger, every strike matters more in the playoffs, so that's a definite advantage for the Dodgers.
The Dodgers weren't the best team in baseball on the bases this year, with a 5.8 BSR that's good enough for 9th in MLB. The Cubs, however, were one of the worst. Their -6.6 BSR puts them 24th in MLB. Add in the fact that the Cubs' bullpen issues a lot of walks and Contreras only throws out about a quarter of steal attempts, and you have a recipe for some extra bases for the Dodgers late in games.
On paper, at least, it looks like this might finally be the year that the Dodgers can actually take home the pennant. But it's worth remembering that, while the Cubs struggled quite a bit early in the season, they were just shy of the best team in baseball during the second half. After the All Star Game, the Cubs went 49-25, which was the best in the National League. Only the Indians (with their ridiculous streak) were better after the break. The Dodgers, of course, had their own share of problems after starting it off looking like they might be the best team baseball has ever seen and then riding a ridiculous losing streak from August to early-September.
In sum, though, the Dodgers definitely look like the better team. But the better team doesn't always win, and the Cubs are definitely not to be messed around with. In fact, they're a great team. The Dodgers are, however, a better team with a lot of cards stacked in their favor. Not that that will necessarily stop the baseball gods from doing their thing. Still, my vote
- Dodgers over Cubs in 6