Anybody that had the Chicago Cubs against the New York Mets in the National League Championship Series needs to contact me and let me know what the lotto numbers are going to be this weekend. The Cubs, a year or two ahead of schedule, and the Mets, with arguably the best young rotation in baseball, are both looking to end very long World Series droughts. The lovable loser Cubs have not won a World Series since 1908. The Mets won the 1986 World Series, with help from the infamous Bill Buckner. Not only have the Cubs not won the World Series since 1908, they haven’t played in the World Series since 1945. That’s the year that World War II ended.
There’s no question that both teams have earned the right to be in this series. The Cubs won 97 games during the season and went on the road to Pittsburgh and won the one game Wild Card playoff against the Pirates. They beat the St. Louis Cardinals, a team that won 100 games during the regular season, in the NLDS. The Cardinals were battered and beaten, but the Cubs put on an impressive power display and clinched a series win at Wrigley Field for the first time ever. Their 24-win regular season turnaround, coupled with their 4-1 postseason record, is one of the most impressive stories in baseball.
Speaking of turnarounds, people had a lot of questions about what the New York Mets had in mind when they traded Jose Reyes and RA Dickey to the Toronto Blue Jays for prospects Noah Syndergaard and Travis d’Arnaud. They can point to this series and say that it was the goal. The Mets won Game 5 on the road against Zack Greinke and the Los Angeles Dodgers and will now play in the LCS for the first time since 2006. Armed with one of the best rotations in baseball, and going up against one of the best young lineups in recent memory, this series has all of the drama that you could possibly expect. Oh, and a trip to the World Series is on the line.
The only people happier than the players and the fans of both respective teams might be Major League Baseball executives. The biggest market in baseball and one of the biggest markets in baseball are represented in this series. Add in the long-suffering history of Cubs fans and this series will be a ratings monster.
Here are the dates and pitching probables for the series:
Game 1 @ NYM: Saturday October 17; Jon Lester vs. Matt Harvey
Game 2 @ NYM: Sunday October 18; Jake Arrieta vs. TBD (Noah Syndergaard?)
Game 3 @ CHC: Tuesday October 20; TBD (Jacob deGrom?) vs. TBD (Kyle Hendricks?)
Game 4 @ CHC: Wednesday October 21; TBD
Game 5 @ CHC: Thursday October 22*
Game 6 @ NYM: Saturday October 24*
Game 7 @ NYM: Sunday October 25*
* - if necessary
The Cubs, despite starting on the road, are the -140 favorites in this series. For updated lines, check out BTB's MLB Baseball Odds.
Kris Bryant. Anthony Rizzo. Kyle Schwarber. Javier Baez. Jorge Soler. Dexter Fowler. The Cubs lineup seems almost too good to be true. Take the pitchers out of the equation and Chicago’s collection of young studs was four percent above league average and posted a .325 wOBA for the season. Add the pitchers in the equation and the Cubs posted a 96 wRC+.
No lineup in baseball struck out more than the Cubs this past regular season. They struck out in 24.5 percent of their plate appearances. Teams that focus on sabermetrics and progressive statistical thinking can overlook strikeouts as long as teams walk and hit dingers. Only the recently-eliminated Los Angeles Dodgers walked in a higher percentage of plate appearances than the Cubs. The Cubs were fifth in the National League in home runs. As you will see with the Mets, there are basically two different offseason seasons for the Cubs.
In the first half, the Cubs were carried by their pitching staff, which was supposed to be the potential weak link of the team. The hitters, pitchers included, combined for a .301 wOBA and an 88 wRC+. That wOBA ranked 22nd, alongside teams like the Atlanta Braves and Miami Marlins. In the second half, the Cubs trailed only the Mets, among NL teams, in second half wOBA, posting a .327 mark with a 105 wRC+. As the young hitters gained confidence, and Kyle Schwarber got more plate appearances, the team took off.
Similarly, the New York Mets were a tale of two halves. It was “the worst of times” in the first half, when the Mets posted a .289 wOBA and an 85 wRC+. They hit .233 as a team and they were tied for the second-lowest wOBA in the league with offensive black holes like the San Diego Padres and Philadelphia Phillies. The addition of Yoenis Cespedes, the promotion of Michael Conforto, and the return of a healthy Travis d’Arnaud changed everything.
The Mets posted a .332 wOBA in the second half. For reference, that stat includes pitchers, and the Mets were among teams like Houston, Texas, Tampa Bay, and Boston in that span. They hit 102 home runs, the most in the National League. After a 7.3 percent BB% in the first half, the Mets walked in 8.7 percent of their second half plate appearances. The individual performances are incredible. Curtis Granderson hit 13 HR with a .278/.392/.506 slash. Yoenis Cespedes bashed 17 dongs and hit .287/.337/.604. Michael Conforto posted a .270/.335/.506 slash in his first full exposure to the big leagues. Lucas Duda hit 15 home runs in just 195 plate appearances.
If you believe in momentum carrying over from the regular season, these are two of the hottest offenses in baseball. The second half similarities are really striking. People will think that the Cubs have more offensive upside, but, given the matchup, I’d give the edge to the Mets.
It was clear from the start that Jon Lester and Jake Arrieta would be at the top of Chicago’s rotation. Neither of them disappointed. Lester got off to a slow start due to some shoddy defense and some unfortunate sequencing, but he finished the year with a 3.34 ERA, a 2.92 FIP, and a 3.06 xFIP. He only had 11 wins, as run support was impossible to come by, but he was worth five wins above replacement player and easily validated Year 1 of his contract with the Cubs.
Arrieta is the star that shined brighter than the rest. In total, he was 22-6 with a 1.77 ERA, a 2.35 FIP, a 2.61 xFIP, and maybe a Cy Young Award. On June 16, Arrieta gave up four runs on three hits and walked six against the Indians. He had a 6-5 record and a 3.40 ERA. In the 20 regular season starts that followed, Arrieta gave up a total of 17 runs, 14 earned, and went 16-1. The Cubs won 18 of those 20 starts and Arrieta had a 0.86 ERA. He struck out 147 in 147 innings and walked just 27. He gave up two home runs.
Kyle Hendricks cemented himself as a quality #3 starter during the regular season and made three mistakes in his first career playoff start in Game 3. His 3.95 ERA was not at all indicative of his season, as he had a 3.36 FIP and a 3.25 xFIP. His 69.9 percent LOB% was a couple percent below league average and that’s what made the difference. The worry for the Cubs in this series is how Jason Hammel will respond when he’s called upon in either Game 4 or 5.
If you talk about the Mets rotation, you run out of adjectives. Jacob deGrom is elite in just his second full season in the bigs. Noah Syndergaard has some of the nastiest raw stuff in the game. Matt Harvey took a little bit of time to round into form in his return from Tommy John surgery. Steven Matz has excellent upside. It’s scary to think about this rotation if Zack Wheeler had been a part of it.
It will start with Harvey in this series, who, ironically, got it all turned around about the same time Jake Arrieta did. Beginning with his June 16 start, Harvey posted a 2.05 ERA with a .213/.257/.306 slash against in his final 17 regular season starts. He struck out 106 in 109.2 innings of work. After allowing 12 homers in his first 12 starts, he allowed just six in his final 17 outings.
The worst FIP of the deGrom-Harvey-Syndergaard trio belonged to Syndergaard at 3.25. That’s an embarrassment of pitching riches. Everybody misses bats at an above average level, as the Dodgers found out and as the Cubs will find out. This rotation is full of power right-handers and the Cubs are going to have an incredibly difficult time with these guys. Matz is a good change-of-pace, in the sense that he throws left-handed, but he has great stuff.
As excellent as Arrieta has been and as good as Lester can be, the Mets have the starting pitching edge in this series.
The Cubs were third in appearances, but 14th in innings pitched. Joe Maddon likes to play the matchups and really manage his heart out in these games. It will be interesting to see how he handles this series, because there are only two days off. The lack of a day off when the series is in Chicago could be a major detriment to him. The Mets, on the other hand, were 27th in bullpen innings because they got so much length from their starters. Even guys like Bartolo Colon and Jon Niese reliably worked into the sixth or seventh. Maddon and the Cubs had some issues with length in the middle parts of the season, so his key relievers worked a significant amount.
Overall, these two bullpens are very similar. There’s not a whole lot of playoff experience in either bullpen. Pedro Strop and Hector Rondon were the two most-used relievers for Maddon. Justin Grimm was extremely effective in his 62 appearances. The converted starter has never had a bullpen workload like this before, but he only threw 49.2 innings, which would suggest that he was mostly used as a right-handed specialist. Maddon has gone to Fernando Rodney in some key spots and has also used Travis Wood as the first reliever out of the bullpen.
As much flack as Terry Collins deserves for his mishandling of injured starting pitchers, like Harvey and Wheeler, he’s done a magnificent job managing the bullpen this season. He relied heavily on Jeurys Familia, who saved 43 games and threw 78 innings. No other Mets pitcher crossed 60 appearances, except for Tyler Clippard, who has a rubber arm. Clippard was the Mets big bullpen acquisition at the trade deadline.
Statistically, these bullpens are very similar. The Cubs had a 23.7 percent K% and the Mets had a 23.2 percent rate. The Mets had a slightly higher walk rate and a slightly higher home run rate, which led to a higher FIP than the Cubs. It’s tough to give an edge to either side in terms of the bullpens. This is probably a wash, with a slight lean to the Cubs because of the marginally-better peripherals.
The Cubs have a fairly sizable defensive edge in this series. They were +10 in defensive runs saved during the regular season, while the Mets were -7. This is also where the difference between Ruben Tejada and Wilmer Flores could be magnified a little bit more.
The Cubs are a much more aggressive team in terms of stealing bases. They stole 95, while the Mets stole just 51. Per Fangraphs, the Cubs were 15.8 base running runs above average and the Mets were 6.4 runs above average. The Cubs will push the issue, as Maddon is a pretty aggressive manager. Travis d’Arnaud caught 19 of 43 attempted base stealers, so it will be up to him and the pitching staff to control the running game.
“Experience” is a buzzword in the playoffs. Neither team has a whole lot of it when it comes to the playoffs. Joe Maddon has the managerial experience edge over Terry Collins, and Collins made a couple of odd choices bringing Bartolo Colon out of the bullpen last series. Experience didn’t help Texas, St. Louis, or the Los Angeles Dodgers, so don’t fall into this trap.
The Cubs won at home, while the Mets had to return to Los Angeles for Game 5. The Cubs had very short travel to St. Louis and the Mets made four cross-country flights in their series. That may have an impact depending on how deep the series goes. Adrenaline can only take the body so far.
Series Pick: Mets in 7
This should be an epic series and it could have an epic ending. The difference in this series is the starting rotation depth of the Mets. The Cubs are all but guaranteed to use Arrieta and Lester on short rest. The Mets have the luxury of keeping everybody on regular rest for the most part. That’s also a mandate from the front office because these are some prized young arms. Without big edges to either offense or either bullpen, it will come down to the starters and I’d rather go to battle with what the Mets bring to the table.