World Series Preview (10/24/16)
It was a foregone since their elimination last year that the Cubs would find themselves in the World Series this year. Most times, though, the randomness in baseball doesn't allow the season to turn out the way we expect. However, the Cubs continued their incredible regular season run and pushed themselves into their first World Series in over 100 years.
On the other side of the spectrum, the Indians defied all odds by overcoming a never-ending stream of injuries to their rotation to beat the Blue Jays in five games. Their bullpen has been a massive help to the rotation, especially the backend with Andrew Miller becoming unhittable.
The good news for the Indians is the Cubs are worse against right-handed pitching than left-handed pitching. The Cubs created 5% more runs (116 wRC+) than the next best team versus left-handers, but we only expect the left-handed rookie, Ryan Merritt, to pitch once in the series where he'll have a very short leash. It's not a certainty that Merritt will see the mound either.
The Cubs rank ninth in the MLB against righties with a 103 wRC+. The Indians actually have the exact same 103 wRC+ this year against righties while being just average against left-handers. Terry Francona will continue to use their switch hitters and platoon players to get favorable matchups throughout the series.
It is unclear what the Indians rotation will be with all of their injuries, but we will assume that Bauer does come back as intended and pitches Game 3 against Hendricks at Wrigley. There are some reports that Bauer could pitch Game 2 in Cleveland and Salazar may be getting closer to game speed. However, it seems more likely Salazar will be pitching out of the bullpen if he is able.
With a less than 100% Trevor Bauer, Corey Kluber remains as the only above average starter for the Indians. Nonetheless, Kluber has been phenomenal again this year, pitching to a 3.14 ERA supported by a 3.26 FIP. All he's done in his first postseason experience is give up just two earned runs on 13 hits, striking out 20 batters in 18.1 innings pitched.
Unfortunately, Kluber will also be going up against the Cubs best arm. Jon Lester has had yet another great year and great postseason. As one of the most consistent pitchers in baseball, Lester has backed up his regular season 2.44 ERA, 3.41 FIP by giving up two earned runs in 21 innings pitched in the postseason. The Dodgers were unwilling to run on Lester, despite the fact that he rarely throws over to any base, but we may see the Indians be a little bit more aggressive on the basepaths.
Jake Arrieta should get the ball next for the Cubs. Arrieta hasn't been as automatic as we've come used to seeing. In fact, he's pitched to a 3.86 ERA, 4.61 FIP since the All-Star Break. It would not be surprising to see Arrieta get knocked around by the Indians lineup. It would also not be surprising to see Arrieta turn in a great performance. He is the ultimate question mark right now.
Josh Tomlin will oppose either Arrieta in Game 2 or Hendricks in Game 3. Frankly, it's a bad situation for Tomlin to face this heavy-hitting Cubs lineup. Tomlin throws a ton of strikes but he also gives up a ton of home runs. Tomlin has surrendered a home run in 5% of batters faced this year (36 home runs); double the league average. Incredibly, Tomlin has only surrendered walks in 2.8% of his batters faced (20 walks). The Cubs led the league in walk percentage this year but they simply won't get them against Tomlin. As a huge home run hitting team, though, the Cubs should enjoy this matchup (although, theoretically, the Jays should have enjoyed their matchup with Tomlin much more than they did).
Trevor Bauer will either throw before or after Josh Tomlin. Bauer is the second-best Indians starter this series. Simply put, Bauer is average. He has average strikeout, walk, and home run rates. If the Indians want to win this series, they'll need Bauer to be better than average in his starts. Bauer's pinky finger remains a major concern going forwards though, and we may see the Indians completely re-shuffle their rotation if Bauer is unable to pitch.
Kyle Hendricks has been the most interesting pitcher in baseball this year. He has thrown to 2.13 ERA and 3.20 FIP. Even if his ERA were to match his FIP at 3.20, it would still be impressive considering his fastballs are topping out around 90 miles per hour. Hendricks isn't as good as his 2.13 ERA suggests, but he may be better than his peripherals. Hendricks' .250 BABIP in 2016 is 22 points better than his career average. This can be explained, though. Hendricks has upped his change-up usage to 27% from 19% over the last two years. His change-up happens to be his best pitch and it induces mostly weak contact, limiting his hits on balls in play. Whether Hendricks faces Bauer or Tomlin in Wrigley, the Cubs will be heavily favored in his starts.
John Lackey is another Cubs pitcher that has thrown more off-speed pitches this year to induce weaker contact. He's reduced his fastball usage by nearly 10% and has more than doubled his change up usage along with five percent more curveballs and two percent more sliders. The effect is a .255 BABIP compared to .302 career average. Many perceive this as a luck rating, which in many cases it is, but quite a few Cubs' pitchers have this exact trend.
Ryan Merritt had 11 professional innings pitched coming into the postseason where he beat the Blue Jays to send the Indians to the World Series. What we do know about him from his minor league career is he isn't going to strike out many batters, he's not going to walk many either, and he's going to need a bit of luck to hold down the Cubs lineup. The Cubs destroy left-handed batters and can stack righties along with Rizzo to go against the lefty. Merritt will be a decent sized underdog with a short leash if Francona uses him in Game 4 where we can assume the bullpen will already be taxed. He performed admirably against Toronto in the ALCS, but we're not going to draw too many conclusions from one single postseason start.
An underrated and overlooked aspect of this series is the Cubs incredible defense that limits hits and allows their pitchers to outperform their peripherals. In the advanced defensive metric era, this could possibly be the best defense we've seen. Just looking at their top three defenders during the regular season, Addison Russell has saved 19 runs on defense, Jason Heyward has saved 18, and Javier Baez saved 17 while playing multiple positions.
No matter how the Indians position their rotation of the four pitchers mentioned, they'd be decent underdogs, even with the home field advantage gifted by the MLB All-Star Game. This doesn't mean they can't or won't win, but the odds are against them. Given the pitcher matchups mentioned above, The Predictalator gives the Cubs just under a 69% chance to win the World Series. If Cleveland can somehow get some useful innings out of Danny Salazar, their win expectancy will increase, but make no mistake about it, the Cubs are the prohibitive favorites here.