Dave Roberts and the Los Angeles Dodgers really earned it. After falling behind 2-1 in their series against the Washington Nationals, the Dodgers used Clayton Kershaw twice to advance to the National League Championship Series against the Chicago Cubs. Roberts’s ace came to him late in Game 5 and said that he wanted to go an inning. It just so happens that the inning was Washington’s last chance to tie the game and they failed, as so many have, against the best pitcher on the planet.
With that emotional series and Game 5 road win in the rearview mirror, the Dodgers have a very quick turnaround to face the heavily-favored Chicago Cubs. The Cubs have been in line to win the World Series since before the season even started. These are the two highest payrolls, by a large margin, left in the postseason, so both teams are loaded with talent and upside. Only one can advance to the World Series.
How’s this for crazy? The Chicago Cubs have qualified for the NLCS in back-to-back seasons for the first time in franchise history. To be fair, the League Championship Series round only dates back to 1969, but that is still a remarkable statistic. The Dodgers are in this spot for the first time since 2008-09 and their NLDS win is just their second playoff series win this decade. With one of the biggest payrolls in baseball year after year, that’s a disappointing note.
The Dodgers haven’t been to the World Series since 1988. The Cubs haven’t been to the World Series since 1945. A long drought will end at the conclusion of this series.
The Cubs opened a -210 favorite for the series at 5Dimes Sportsbook and are still the favorites to win the World Series.
Here is the schedule for the series:
Game 1 @ CHC: Saturday Oct 15, 8:08 p.m. ET (Maeda vs. Lester)
Game 2 @ CHC: Sunday Oct 16, 8:08 p.m. ET (TBD vs. Hendricks)
Game 3 @ LAD: Tuesday Oct 18, 8:08 p.m. ET (Arrieta vs. Kershaw)
Game 4 @ LAD: Wednesday Oct 19, 8:08 p.m. ET (Lackey vs. Hill)
Game 5 @ LAD: Thursday Oct 20, 8:08 p.m. ET (Lester vs. Maeda)*
Game 6 @ CHC: Saturday Oct 22, TBD (TBD vs. Hendricks)*
Game 7 @ CHC: Sunday Oct 23, TBD (Kershaw vs. Arrieta)*
* - if necessary, starters subject to change
Like I did last round, I’ll break the series down into four categories: Offense, starting pitching, bullpen, and intangibles (defense, manager, HFA, etc.).
The Dodgers really luck out that the Cubs can only throw one left-handed starter at them in this series because that really could have been curtains for LA’s chances. The Dodgers were horrendous against left-handed pitching in the regular season. It could come into play in the late innings with Aroldis Chapman, but Jon Lester is the only southpaw starter in the rotation for the Cubs in this series. The Dodgers were actually a few ticks above the Cubs in terms of wOBA against right-handed pitching. The Dodgers posted a .331 mark and the Cubs posted a .328 mark. The Cubs had a big edge in walk rate, but the Dodgers held a 20-point edge in slugging percentage. Adjusted for park factor via wRC+, the Dodgers were six percent better than the Cubs offensively against right-handed pitching.
That’s pretty significant. A lot of people are going to blindly accept that the Cubs are a better offensive team than the Dodgers. It’s important to break down every element of a series and a game when trying to come up with betting angles.
The Cubs were the second-best offense in wOBA against left-handed pitching and blew the field away in wRC+ against southpaws. They had the best OBP by seven points over Boston and Pittsburgh and were third in SLG. Their .347 wOBA was eclipsed only by the Arizona Diamondbacks. Adjusted for park factor, the Cubs were the best offense in baseball against lefties by five percent. They’ll see two in this series with Clayton Kershaw and Rich Hill slated to pitch.
There is another really significant advantage that the Cubs have offensively over the Dodgers and that’s in the baserunning department. Per Fangraphs’s BsR stat, the Cubs were 13.1 runs better on the bases than the Dodgers. That stat is a composition of stolen bases and taking extra bases. The Cubs were 66-for-100 in stolen bases. The Dodgers were just 45-for-71. Taking extra bases is really significant, particularly in the low run environment of the playoffs. The Cubs were third in total runs scored and the Dodgers were 14th. Park factor plays a role, but baserunning plays a significant role as well.
The Cubs are also going to work the Los Angeles starting staff, which could expose weaknesses in the bullpen. Nobody walked more often than the Cubs, who drew a free pass in 10.4 percent of their plate appearances. They also struck out 21.1 percent of the time, so, at a minimum, 31.5 percent of their plate appearances featured at least three pitches. The Cubs had six players in the top 40 in pitches per plate appearance during the regular season. The Dodgers had two.
Over a long series, with how pitchers are used and extended during the playoffs, that is a very significant statistic. Ultimately, yes, the Cubs are the better offensive team and there are a lot of underrated elements that give them the edge in this series. The Dodgers will more than hold their own, especially when they face righties.
We’ll have to see how Dave Roberts plays it, but it seems unlikely that his two best starting pitchers will be able to make an appearance in this series until Games 3 and 4. That could be a death blow. The Cubs have a healthy starting rotation and one of the deepest in the Major Leagues. They are perfectly content rolling with a four-man rotation. The Dodgers really don’t have that much depth. They’re either going to have to throw Clayton Kershaw for a fourth time in 10 days for Game 2 or push him back to regular rest in Game 3. I certainly don’t need to run down the numbers for Kershaw or Rich Hill, but Hill does have some risk factors. Obviously health is one of them. He only made it through 2.2 innings on short rest in Game 5. His stuff is still very good, but dominance is asking a lot at this stage of the season and this stage of the game.
The Cubs are in great shape. Jon Lester will go on plenty of rest against a lineup that can’t touch lefties. Kyle Hendricks is having one of the most incredible seasons I’ve seen in terms of inducing weak contact and stranding runners. More on him in a second. Jake Arrieta is the reigning Cy Young Award winner and he didn’t regress as much as people seem to believe. John Lackey is a bulldog and a veteran and a guy that you can rely on in big spots.
Hendricks is that wild card in this series for me. Hendricks had to leave his Game 2 after taking a comebacker to the forearm, so we didn’t really get to see much of him. He hung a 2.13 ERA in the regular season with a 3.20 FIP and a 3.59 xFIP. He had a .250 BABIP against and an 81.5 percent strand rate. Prior to his last start of the regular season, Hendricks had not allowed four or more earned runs in a start since May 17. He’s been on a truly remarkable run. I wonder about the sustainability of it, but the magic hasn’t run out yet, so it’s probably too presumptuous to expect it to. Just don’t say I didn’t warn you if he does struggle in this series. He’s doing things that aren’t done over a long period of time.
When it comes down to it, the Cubs have a big starting pitching edge because of the schedule for the series and what the Dodgers had to go through to get to this point. Dave Roberts deserves praise for pulling out all the stops in Game 5. You advance and then you figure it out. He did it the right way. The consequences come in this series, but it only matters if you get to that next series.
As far as I can tell, the Cubs would get Kershaw on regular rest in Game 3 and Game 7 if it went that way, though I’d be surprised if Kershaw wasn’t called upon for a short-rest start in Game 6 if it goes that far. Kershaw is Los Angeles’s only really reliable weapon on the starting staff right now and they’ll have to figure out how to maximize his potential. Depth is such a big edge for Chicago.
I told you that the offense wasn’t as big of a gap as it seems. The bullpen is definitely as big of a gap as it seems. The Cubs are stacked back there. Aroldis Chapman is the best relief weapon on the planet. The Cubs have three lefties with Mike Montgomery, Travis Wood, and Chapman, so we know that they can match up effectively. Hector Rondon, Pedro Strop, and Carl Edwards Jr. are all extremely reliable right-handed options.
Depth is another big key and a major advantage here for the Cubs. They have a lot of guys that can come out and give them a really strong appearance in a leverage situation. They also have the luxury of being able to match up with righties and lefties. There are so many ways that Joe Maddon can deploy his weapons and there isn’t a whole lot that the Dodgers can do about it. This is probably the best bullpen remaining in the playoffs. The Indians have a great one with Andrew Miller and Cody Allen, but the depth doesn’t compare and the three lefties is something that is really unmatched by anybody else.
The Dodgers have an elite closer in Kenley Jansen, who threw 50 pitches in Game 5, so he’ll be unavailable for Game 1 on Saturday, if he’s even needed. Suffice it to say that the bullpen in front of Jansen is Joe Blanton and a bunch of guys. Blanton was used extensively in that Nationals series, so we’ll have to see what’s left in his arm for this series.
Adam Liberatore could have been a weapon, but he needed surgery late in the season. Grant Dayton and Luis Avilan worked a lot and had flashes in the NLDS. This isn’t a bad bullpen, per se, but it’s not on Chicago’s level and that’s something that could have helped the Dodgers in their upset bid. With pitcher usage in the playoffs, an exceptional bullpen can hide some starting rotation questions and some other things, but the Dodgers don’t have that luxury relative to the Cubs.
The Dodgers were a solid defensive team. Nobody was on Chicago’s level from an aggregate standpoint, but the Dodgers can match up in a seven-game series. It should come as no surprise that the four remaining teams in the playoffs all excel defensively in a lot of ways. The Dodgers were seventh in defensive runs saved with 29 and seventh in UZR.
The Cubs led the league in both categories and did so by a significant margin. They had 82 defensive runs saved and a 73 UZR. The old rule of thumb is that every 10 defensive runs saved equates to one win. I saw something late in the season about how the Detroit Tigers would have been 12 games better than they were if they had the Cubs defense. It matters. It matters a lot more over a larger sample size than a seven-game series, so it may not be as big of an advantage as it seems for the Cubs.
The schedule favors the Cubs. The Dodgers had to play four games in five days with two cross-country trips in the NLDS. They celebrated a big win on Thursday night and flew out to Chicago hungover on Friday to get ready for a night game in a different time zone on Saturday. The Cubs did have to go out to San Francisco, but they’ve had some time to sit around and observe.
Dave Roberts really impressed me with the way that he handled Game 5, but Joe Maddon is a very calculated tactician. The Cubs have a managerial advantage here in this series as far as I’m concerned. I don’t know how significant of an edge it actually is, but it’s there and it has to be mentioned.
Series Pick: Cubs in 5
I don’t think the Dodgers have much left in the emotional gas tank. They’ve faced a ton of adversity all season long with starting pitching injuries and then just won a playoff series for the first time since 2009. That’s a big weight lifted off of the team’s shoulders. The fact that the Dodgers are likely going home down 2-0 without being able to use Kershaw on regular rest or Rich Hill is a problem. If they do use them and lose Game 2, they’re absolutely done. It’s a Catch-22 in my eyes and I don’t think it’s a good spot.