Well, that pretty much seals it. Say congratulations to the 2016 World Series champion San Francisco Giants. You have to go back to 2008 to find the last time the Giants didn’t win the World Series in an even-numbered year and their NL Wild Card Game win over the New York Mets propelled them past the first step. Standing in the way are the Chicago Cubs, baseball’s best team over the 162-game regular season. They’re also the team with the longest World Series drought. They’re also the heavy favorites to win this year’s Fall Classic.
The silver lining for the Cubs is that Madison Bumgarner will not be available until at least Game 3 after throwing a complete game shutout in the Wild Card Game. The Cubs were the only team to win 100 games this season and they actually managed to underachieve if you go by Pythagorean Win-Loss record, where the Cubs were 107-54 in the run differential-based metric. The Cubs only lost consecutive games five times after the All-Star Break. The Giants were 30-42 after the All-Star Break. It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t mean anything. Both of these teams are 0-0 for Friday’s Game 1.
Here are the pre-series odds courtesy of BetDSI Sportsbook:
San Francisco Giants +240
Chicago Cubs -280
Here is the schedule for the series:
Game 1 @ CHC: Friday Oct. 7, 9:00 p.m. ET (Cueto vs. Lester)
Game 2 @ CHC: Saturday Oct. 8, 8:00 p.m. ET (Moore vs. Hendricks)
Game 3 @ SF: Monday Oct. 10, TBD (Arrieta vs. Bumgarner)
Game 4 @ SF: Tuesday Oct. 11, TBD (Lackey vs. TBD)*
Game 5 @ CHC: Thursday Oct. 13, TBD (TBD vs. Lester)*
* - if necessary; starters subject to change
Like I did last season, I’ll break the series down into four categories: Offense, starting pitching, bullpen, and intangibles (defense, manager, HFA, etc.).
Even with adjustments for park factor, the Cubs offense was vastly superior to the Giants offense. The Cubs were third to the Boston Red Sox and the Colorado Rockies in weighted on-base average. Remember that pitchers hit in the National League and that the teams ahead of the Cubs have a combination of excellent lineups and Coors Field to drive their numbers. The Cubs also have an excellent lineup.
The top four contributors for the Cubs were all at least 24 percent above league average per weighted runs created plus (wRC+). Kris Bryant led the way with 39 dingers and a .292/.385/.554 slash. Anthony Rizzo’s slash was the same, except his SLG was 10 points lower. Dexter Fowler had a huge year and so did Ben Zobrist, two of the big offseason additions for the Cubs. The Cubs did strike out a fair amount this season, but they offset it by having the highest walk rate in baseball. Nine guys hit at least 10 home runs, so power came from just about everywhere.
Relative to overall league average, the Cubs posted a 106 wRC+. The baseline for that stat is 100. That put them third behind the Red Sox and the Seattle Mariners. Even though the Cubs only stole 66 bases, they were the fifth-best baserunning team per the Fangraphs BsR metric, as they were 15.2 runs above average by going first-to-third, second-to-home, first-to-home, and then with success rate stealing bases.
The Giants don’t have any of these impressive numbers. They were a bit below average on the bases and two percent below league average per the wRC+ metric, even when adjusted for the park factor of AT&T Park. San Francisco had a solid walk rate and put a lot of balls in play, so even though their regular season performance seemed to be lacking, their offensive profile should have a decent recipe for success in the postseason. There’s so much variance in the small sample sizes that putting balls in play is very important because anything can happen. See the Kansas City Royals, for example.
The Giants had several above average contributors, like Brandon Belt, Buster Posey, and Hunter Pence, but it wasn’t to the degree of the Cubs. One of the problems for the Giants is that guys like Joe Panik and Matt Duffy that had good 2015 seasons regressed this season. Duffy was even traded. It may not matter how Buster Posey wrapped up the regular season, but it is hard to overlook his .383 SLG in the second half. He still got on base and had some base hits, but there was no power. This feels like the type of series where somebody needs to hit some multi-run dingers for the Giants.
The Cubs have a big edge here. They are more potent and they will work a lot of counts to force the Giants into that bullpen earlier than they would like.
Because the Giants had to play the wild card game, they can only use Madison Bumgarner once in this series, at least in a starting capacity. We’ll see if Bruce Bochy is willing to pull the trigger on using him out of the bullpen if there’s a Game 5, but he’ll only make one start and it will probably come in Game 3. That’s a serious detriment to the Giants in this spot.
Johnny Cueto is an excellent starting pitcher and the Cubs will see him twice, depending on how long this series goes. Cueto actually had a higher fWAR (Fangraphs Wins Above Replacement Player) than Bumgarner this season because he posted a 2.96 FIP and FIP is a major part of the formula. Cueto finished with a 2.79 ERA and struck out 198 in his 219.2 innings of work. Cueto’s claim to fame is that he is an impeccable control artist. He doesn’t issue walks and he works all quadrants of the strike zone to induce weak contact. He’s the best hope for the Giants in this series with Bumgarner’s limitations.
We’re sure to see Matt Moore at some point in this series, probably Game 2. Moore struck out 69 in 68.1 innings after he was acquired from the Tampa Bay Rays. He was very inconsistent, though. He also walked 32 and gave up 59 hits, so he was dealing with quite a bit of traffic on the bases. Those walks are the problem for Moore, who walked 72 overall on the season. We could see Jeff Samardzija as well. Samardzija finished the season on a bit of a high note to finish with an ERA under 4.00 at 3.81, but he can be a little bit erratic as well. He gave up 40 earned runs in 58 innings over June and July, but pitched well in all the other months. We’ll see what Bruce Bochy’s level of trust is in Samardzija.
On the Cubs side, they once again have an advantage here, even though they’re going to roll four starters out in this series. It’ll start with Jon Lester, a proven playoff performer who had an excellent year. Lester posted a 2.44 ERA with a 3.41 FIP and a 3.47 xFIP. All of the Cubs pitchers really benefitted from how elite this Cubs defense was, so consider that here in all of these discussions about pitchers. Lester and Kyle Hendricks were big benefactors of left on base rates (LOB%) that were well above league average. In their defenses, both Lester and Hendricks had spectacular K/BB rates and are very good pitchers. Hendricks had a 2.13 ERA with a 3.20 FIP and he gave up just 17 runs in 91.1 innings in the second half for a 1.68 ERA.
It’s kind of insane that the reigning NL Cy Young Award winner isn’t going to pitch until Game 3, but that’s the role that Jake Arrieta slides into here for this series. Arrieta had some issues this season with his control and he didn’t miss as many bats, but he still turned in a very solid 3.10 ERA with a 3.52 FIP and a 3.68 xFIP. You have to think of it like Arrieta turned in a season that was far more repeatable than his Cy Young campaign, which was a career year in just about every way.
Veteran hurler John Lackey will get another crack at postseason play. Virtually no playoff sample size is big enough to be significant, but Lackey has worked 127.1 innings in the playoffs and his Game 4 start will be his 21st career outing. In terms of reaching points of significance, there are some stats in Lackey’s profile that have gotten to that point, like his strong K/BB rate and low home run rate.
The Cubs have the edge here once again. It would be different if Madison Bumgarner could work more than once, but the Cubs would still have an edge. It would just be smaller. Rotation depth is the biggest reason. Cueto and Bumgarner can line up with any two Cubs starters, but Moore and Samardzija are unknowns.
One thing that you absolutely have to remember about the playoffs is the importance of relief pitching. We’ve already seen it in both Wild Card games. Managers have to leverage their relievers in the right spots and then the relievers have to perform. The Giants won, in large part, because they didn’t have to go to their bullpen. Terry Collins did the right thing with his bullpen, but Jeurys Familia had a bad game at the worst time. Buck Showalter made the worst blunder in recent playoff history by not using his ace reliever and John Gibbons advanced, in part, because he deployed his relievers properly.
As far as this series goes, from a depth and performance standpoint, the Cubs have a sizable edge. It doesn’t hurt to have Aroldis Chapman, the 105 mph flamethrower. Chapman is the best relief weapon in the game and the Cubs ponied up the necessary price to get him prior to the Trade Deadline. Pedro Strop and Hector Rondon are two excellent middle relief weapons and Joe Maddon has the luxury to match up if he needs to in the late innings, say to get out a Brandon Belt in a big spot with Chapman to save Rondon for the ninth.
From a depth standpoint, the Cubs run extremely deep in the bullpen. Carl Edwards Jr. is a terrific middle relief option and so is Justin Grimm. Mike Montgomery can be deployed as a matchup guy in the middle innings or eat some length. Travis Wood is also a guy that can eat some innings if a starter falters. The Cubs have everything that you need in the bullpen to have playoff success. They have a shutdown arm that can go multiple innings if need be. They have an ex-closer that was successful in that capacity in middle relief. They have it all.
The Giants, on the other hand, lack some reliable options. Will Smith is a top-notch matchup guy and he was a fine acquisition by the ballclub. From a stat standpoint, the Giants weren’t all that bad of a bullpen, but this is a group that had a lot of problems closing out close games. The Giants blew 32 saves as a team this season. Even though the save stat is for the ninth inning, this stat also encompasses blown holds, which come prior to the ninth inning with the same criteria as a save. On 264 occasions, Bruce Bochy had a reliever that worked less than three outs, or a full inning. That was the most in the National League by a large margin, which is a sign that he was doing everything he could to cobble this thing together.
One worry about this Giants bullpen is that they don’t miss as many bats as the standard bullpen. In terms of K%, strikeouts divided by plate appearances, the Giants ranked 23rd. The seven teams below them all missed the playoffs. The next lowest bullpen K% to make the postseason was the Baltimore Orioles, who were 15th. Of the 10 playoff teams, seven ranked in the top 10 in bullpen K%.
There’s a lot of experience here, with guys like Santiago Casilla, who was removed as the closer in September, and Sergio Romo, who ended the season as the closer, but only worked 40 games. Derek Law held the closer’s role for a brief time and Hunter Strickland got a handful of opportunities as well. The Giants don’t run very deep in the bullpen and they’re more reliant on batted ball luck than other bullpens.
The Cubs have the advantage here as well.
The biggest intangible in the entire playoffs is that the Cubs have an otherworldly defense. The Giants were terrific, but the Cubs were incredible. Chicago accumulated 82 defensive runs saved and led the league in UZR and UZR/150 by a significant margin. I actually saw a stat in the middle of September that the Detroit Tigers would be 12 games better than they were from a win-loss standpoint if you applied the Chicago Cubs defense in place of their own. This could be a big factor throughout the postseason, especially in the lower run environment.
The Giants were third in defensive runs saved and second in UZR. So, they can actually compete here with the Cubs, especially in the smaller sample size of balls in play. It’s a big reason why the Giants were able to have so much success with a pitching staff that was top heavy with Bumgarner and Cueto. Good defenses can aid bad pitchers. Again, see the Kansas City Royals.
The chess match between Joe Maddon and Bruce Bochy should be a good one. These are two of the best managers in the game, so there’s not much of an edge here. Sometimes Maddon can get a little bit too fancy with what he’s trying to do and Bochy is a no-BS kind of guy, so maybe Bochy has a slight edge, but it’s very slight.
We’ll have to see what the start times in San Francisco look like, but the Giants could have an edge in that respect. The Cubs have not played a game outside of the Eastern or Central Time Zone since August 28. With San Francisco playing that Wild Card Game and then having a day to adjust to local time, that may play in their favor for Game 3, which could be a very important game. That’s something to consider.
Series Pick: Cubs in 4
Ultimately, the Cubs just have too much firepower. I’ll give the Giants either the Cueto Game 1 start or the Bumgarner Game 3 start, but that should be it for them. The offense and the bullpen are too flawed given how both units performed down the stretch. They certainly have the playoff experience and the right manager for the job, but talent should win out here.
That’s not always the case in the playoffs, where variance tends to reign supreme, but elite-level defenses can eliminate some of the variance and that’s what the Cubs are. They are historically good. We’ll have to see how things fully play out, but the Cubs should win and advance, thus ending San Francisco’s even-numbered year dynasty.