October 7, 2016
NLDS Preview: Giants vs. Cubs
The thing about the playoffs is that the best teams don’t always win. That’s what makes them fun. It’s also what makes them terrible. If we were interested in crowning the best team in 2016, we could’ve wrapped this season up two months ago. The Chicago Cubs (103-58-1) aren’t just the best team in this series, they’re the best team in baseball, by a long shot. That was clear as early as August, and you could make a good case that it was clear well before that, too.
But the point of the playoffs isn’t to affirm the record of the best team in baseball. The point of the playoffs is to take baseball all the way up to 11—to crush a game best understood and appreciated, by far, in the collective memory of a hundred hot summer evenings, into a five- or seven-game series, and see what stories come out the other end. The playoffs are great, and they’re awful. They bear little relation to the way the game is played, most of the year, but somehow manage to bring out its best qualities all the same.
Two teams. Two almighty narratives. No way to predict the outcome in advance, although we’ll try. Let’s pit the San Francisco Giants against the Chicago Cubs.
The big question, as far as these lineups are concerned, is what the Giants are going to do with Eduardo Núñez. He sat out San Francisco’s Wild Card victory over the Mets with a lingering hamstring injury, and it’s not yet clear whether he’ll be on the 25-man for this series. If he is—Wild Card results aside—the Giants are probably in a much better position than they would otherwise be. Núñez hasn’t been tremendous with the bat this year, but his inclusion improves the Giants’ depth significantly, by virtue of Conor Gillaspie’s shift to the bench and Ehire Adrianza’s likely exclusion from the roster.
The rest of the San Francisco lineup is pretty much as you’d expect it to be. Brandon Belt and Buster Posey are the offensive main events, as they’ve been for the better part of the last half-decade in San Francisco, and they’re supplemented this year by strong performances from newcomer Denard Span and old hands Brandon Crawford and Hunter Pence. Angel Pagan and Joe Panik, too, have been solid contributors at the plate. Keep an eye on Belt, in particular: He’s been hot lately, and can carry the team when he’s going well. Even if he isn’t, this is a strong, long lineup without an obvious weakness—although it is bereft, too, of transcendent stars.
Not so on the other side of the field. The Cubs’ crew is led by MVP candidates Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo (Bryant will win, and it won’t be close) and supplemented by stellar performances around the diamond from Dexter Fowler, Ben Zobrist, and midseason call-up Willson Contreras. Miguel Montero, Addison Russell, and (especially) Jason Heyward have been less spectacular with the bat, but this is still an offense that put up over 800 runs during the regular season. They’re exceptionally patient, know when to wait for their pitch and when to be aggressive, and don’t get cheated. Sure, at times, they’ve shown a vulnerability to pitchers with the ability to pound the corners at the bottom of both sides of the plate, but they’re hardly unique in that.
The real question about this lineup is how it’ll interact with the Chicago bench, especially at catcher: In Game 1, David Ross will catch Jon Lester, pushing Montero to the bench as a pinch-hitting option against the Giants’ plethora of righty relievers. Meanwhile, Jorge Soler—who’s battling a hamstring injury—is unlikely to start either of the first two games against righties Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija, which means Contreras is likely in left for Game 1. In Game 2, Contreras is likely to catch Kyle Hendricks, putting Chris Coghlan in left and keeping Montero on the bench. Montero’s first start, in fact, is likely to come in Game 3, with Jake Arrieta on the mound. That game—against either Matt Moore or (if the Giants are down 2-0) Madison Bumgarner will likely feature Soler in left, and Contreras on the bench as a backup. In Game 4, Contreras likely gets the start with John Lackey pitching and a lefty on the mound for the Giants.
Point is, it’s complicated. Projecting these lineups, however, isn’t. Both groups are good, but Chicago’s is better, and it’s not close. They’ve averaged 5.0 runs a game to the Giants’ 4.4, and outpace them in on-base percentage (.343 to .329), slugging percentage (.429 to .398), and True Average (.287 to .268) as well. Once again, though: It’s the playoffs. Anything could happen. Some things will.
We’ve already touched on the Chicago bench a little by virtue of the catching carousel discussion above, so all that’s left to say here is this: Javier Báez is as important to this Chicago team as any player on the roster. His bat has been way better than expected this year and his defense up the middle has been sensational. Look for him to make appearances in pretty much every game. Also worth noting: It’s unclear which combination of Tommy La Stella, Matt Szczur, and Albert Almora Jr. will fill the final two spots. I’d give the edge to Szczur over Almora only because he has a little bit more pop, and a slightly more patient approach, but either could be dangerous off the bench.
On the Giants’ side, again, much depends on the disposition of Núñez’s hamstring. If he’s healthy enough to play, Gillaspie shifts to the bench, Adrianza shifts off the roster, and the Giants start to have a pretty solid-looking crew—have you checked out Gorkys Hernández’s numbers lately? If Núñez is out, though, things start to look a little thin here. None of the players are bad per se, they’re just not anything particularly special, and Trevor Brown is an offensive black hole masquerading as an emergency catcher. The best-case scenario for the Giants involves him never playing (if Posey stays healthy), and that means his roster spot can’t go to someone who might be able to, you know, hit.
Here, if anything, the Giants are even further behind the Cubs than they were in terms of their lineup. San Francisco doesn’t have a single bench player as dynamic as either Báez or Soler, and the Cubs’ non-rostered seventh man—Almora—would probably be the third- or fourth-best player on the Giants’ hardwood. That’s no knock on the Giants—again, this is a good team—just a testament to the extraordinary depth Chicago’s front office has built up over the last two years.
If you like starting pitching, this series is for you. If you like seeing even matchups, though, it’s probably not for you. Because Bumgarner started—and dominated—the Wild Card game against New York, he’s probably not available for the Giants until Game 4 (though if Bruce Bochy’s squad goes down 2-0 early, there’s almost no chance he doesn’t bring out his ace for Game 3). That means Johnny Cueto—who’s been good but not great all season—will have to face Jon Lester in Game 1, and Lester’s just wrapping up the best eight-week stretch of his career.
Jeff Samardzija is likely to go for San Francisco in Game 2, in what I’m sure will be a meaningful moment for him—remember when he looked, for a hot second, like Chicago’s ace of the future? He’ll be countered by Kyle Hendricks, who nobody thought would be Chicago’s ace of the future, but who’s turned out to be just that in 2016. His 2.13 ERA led the majors, and that’s the highest it’s been in a while—before a clunker against Cincinnati in his last start, Hendricks’s ERA was a cool 1.99. The DRA differential (1.20 runs per nine) suggests there’s something to the idea that the Cubs’ defense deserves a large share of the credit for Hendricks’ success, but the fact is he’s still been damn good this year. If he’s on, he’ll give the Giants fits.
Game 3 sees the Cubs’ third ace, Jake Arrieta, take on (in all probability) Matt Moore. Moore’s had an interesting season. Acquired from the Rays at the deadline, he’s thrown 68 mostly competent innings for San Francisco, with a few clunkers—on August 15, September 5, and September 21—thrown in there for good measure. The key for him is his curveball—if he’s got it going right, it’ll generate a ton of ground balls and help him roll through the innings. If it hangs, well, there’s gonna be a lot of souvenirs for the bleachers.
John Lackey, who’ll spend most of the first three games snarling in Chicago’s dugout, will take the mound in Tuesday’s Game 4. He’s had another good season after surprising everybody—except himself—with a dominant 2015 at age 36. This year, he’s moved away from his fastball a little bit (he threw it two-thirds of the time last year) and now mixes in his slider just about a quarter of the time. He’ll face Bumgarner (if the series is even or the Giants are up going into Game 3) or Moore (if Bumgarner was forced to throw Game 3 to save the Giants, and succeeded).
Who’s got the edge? I’m starting to sound like a broken record, but the answer—clearly—is the Cubs. Now that we have an entire season in the books, we can say with some confidence that this Chicago staff is one of the majors' best ... of all time. Yeah, some of the credit for that success goes to the Chicago defense—more on that later—but even if you strip out the Cubs’ fielding, these four starters have still been obnoxiously good. When the case for best pitcher in the series comes down to two of Chicago’s guys (Lester, Arrieta) and one of San Francisco’s (Bumgarner), and the other two Chicago guys are better than anyone else San Francisco has, you know there’s a clear winner.
Relief Pitchers (IP, ERA, DRA)
Ah. A (relative) weakness for Chicago. For much of the season, the bullpen was a strength for the Cubs, although it did falter enough just before the deadline that Theo Epstein and company went out and got two players to supplement it—Aroldis Chapman, from the Yankees, and Mike Montgomery, from the Mariners. Both have filled in admirably for Chicago (Montgomery has even started a few games!), but their presence hasn’t been enough to make up for increasing wobbliness of the oft-injured Héctor Rondon and Pedro Strop, heretofore two of the game’s best relievers. Both seem healthy enough now, and haven’t been bad, but this is definitely Chicago’s weakest area as a club.
The Giants, meanwhile, have had their own struggles. Santiago Casilla lost the closer job to Sergio Romo (and, later, Derek Law) by the end of the year. Hunter Strickland, though, has been solid, and lefties Will Smith, Javier López, and Steven Okert have had varying degrees of success, but all have proven their ability to pitch to the situation and get the job done. Law, though relatively untested, has shown an unusual ability to generate ground balls with every pitch he throws. That’ll play up in key situations, and Bochy has proven an ability to put his guys in a position to succeed. Still, to the degree the Giants have struggled in the second half, it’s been in substantial part because of their ‘pen.
Perhaps I overstated the contrast. Although Chicago’s ‘pen has been the weakest area of the team, by far, this year, it’s still pretty damn good, posting an NL top-five 3.56 ERA, and a 3.11 mark in the second half. Both marks are better than San Francisco’s, although the difference is small enough—and the Cubs’ pen inconsistent enough—that I’ll call this one a wash for the two teams.
This is going to be a good defensive series. On the one hand, you have the Giants, who’ve posted an 0.68 PADE (Park-Adjusted Defensive Efficiency), which is perfectly respectable and in fact comes in fifth in the National League. San Francisco does even better when measured by UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating), which puts them second-best in the majors at +42.6 runs defensively.
On the other hand, you have the Cubs, who you can reasonably argue are the best defensive team in major-league history. Their PADE—6.38—means that they turn balls into outs just about six percent more often than the league-average team. In a season where the second-best team (the Dodgers) came in at just 1.70, that’s stunning. By UZR, the results are just as stark: The Cubs’ +73.7 is 31 runs better than San Francisco. That’s just about three wins from defense alone. It’s not close.
Now, yeah, you don’t want too much stock into defensive statistics to measure the magnitude of defensive skill. Given the error involved in their calculation—not to mention the error baked into the premises upon which they are based—you’re probably better off using them to measure relative performance by team. And, by that measure, the Cubs are better—in fact, way, way better—than the Giants are at playing catch.
It shows up in the eye-test as well. For all of Heyward’s struggles with the bat, he’s still a superb defensive performer in right. Fowler has benefited from the Cubs’ positioning analytics to play a bit deeper than he used to in Houston or Colorado, which has helped his overall game (he’s not the best at getting jumps on balls over his head). Báez is a baseball miracle, pretty much wherever he plays. So’s Addison Russell. Bryant has been above average at third, though he’s still a little tall to be a true Gold Glover. Anthony Rizzo can pick it at first. The only area of real defensive deficiency for the Cubs is in left field, and even there a rotating cast of characters (Contreras, Soler, Coghlan) have been adequate, or maybe a tick below.
Once again, we find ourselves here: The Giants aren’t bad. In fact, they’re pretty good! The infield defense is very solid and the outfield defense is slow but steady. There’s nothing wrong with this ball club defensively. It’s just that the Cubs are better. By a lot.
Bochy is going to end up in the Hall of Fame. That’s true regardless of what happens over the next seven days. He’s taken two clubs to the World Series (remember the Padres in 1998?) and won three rings along the way. He’s proven, time and again, that he’s able to get the best out of his players, and he doesn’t have any egregious tactical or strategic shortcomings. Sure, he can get a bit, um, aggressive in his bullpen management, sometimes fine-tuning where a broader stroke would have worked just fine, but he’s good. Very good, in fact, and he’s managing a squad that has its energy just where he wants it—focused, alive, and hungry.
Joe Maddon has a very different challenge. His Cubs knew they’d be in this exact spot two months ago, and have been playing low-intensity games for a while now. As the team tinkered with various roster ideas for the postseason, some grumbling emerged from the Cubs’ clubhouse—centered around Arrieta and Montero—that the team was being managed like a spring-training squad. Maddon’s experienced enough—and trusted enough—to put those best-team-in-baseball blues behind him, but it’s worth wondering if the Cubs will be able to hit the mark in terms of postseason energy and intensity. Probable answer? They’ll be fine.
Maddon, like Bochy, doesn’t have any obvious weaknesses as a strategist, although—unlike Bochy, who works substitutions exceptionally well—he doesn’t have any shining strengths, either. His contribution to his club’s success will be in large part determined by his ability to get the team in the right frame of mind for each game, and manage the egos that go into the Cubs’ three-headed catching situation. There will—probably—be no problems here, but keep a close eye on the Cubs’ on-deck circle late in games. The direction Maddon goes, especially in the nexus between catcher and left, will be important. Slight edge, though? Bochy.
Well. The Cubs have a better lineup, a better bench, better starting pitching, and way better defense than the Giants. The Giants probably have a slight edge at skipper, although it’s close, and the bullpens are a wash. With those comparisons, how could any reasonable analyst pick anyone except the Cubs to win? Well, they couldn’t. If they are picking the Giants, they’re knowingly taking a chance that the unlikely answer will be the correct answer, and hoping they’ll look good in retrospect. And they just might. In the playoffs, you just never know.
The Giants have an uncanny ability to manage their roster and lineups in just the right way, come October. And whatever it is they do in that clubhouse, it’s worked for them in each of the last 12 (!) playoff series they’ve competed in (including two Wild Card games). That’s an extraordinary run, and not one dismissed lightly, even as—yes, I know—we have no hard indication that teams can prepare for playoff success. The fact is the Giants are a deep, balanced team, and they could easily go on a run.
Still, the Cubs are clearly the better team in this series. There’s no way around it. And so I’ll pick the Cubs, in four, to win this series, although I’d say there’s a 30 percent or better chance the Giants go on a tear and take this one. If they do, it’ll start—it almost has to start—with a victory in Game 1. That allows them to split Games 2 and 3 and win the thing with Bumgarner going in Game 4. If the first game goes to the Cubs, though, it’s very hard to see how the Giants come back.