NLCS Preview & Prediction: Chicago Cubs vs. Los Angeles Dodgers

 

Last Updated: 2017-10-13

cubs dodgers series previewHeartbreak was the story once again for the Washington Nationals, as the Chicago Cubs advanced to face the Los Angeles Dodgers in the National League Championship Series. As a result, the Cubs get a chance to defend their first World Series title in 108 years for at least one more round. That series will begin on Saturday night in Los Angeles and Major League Baseball has gotten exactly what it wants with four enormous TV markets left standing. After all, the most populous US city is New York City, followed by Los Angeles, Chicago, and Houston. Basically, things couldn’t have gone better for the executives cashing checks. Before you @ me or comment, this is not a conspiracy theory. It’s just an observation and a statement of fact.

Anyway, here is the schedule for series and my guess on pitching matchups:

Game 1 @ LAD: Saturday October 14, 8 p.m. ET (Quintana vs. Kershaw)

Game 2 @ LAD: Sunday October 15, 7:30 p.m. ET (Lackey vs. Hill)

Game 3 @ CHC: Tuesday October 17, TBD (Darvish vs. Lester)

Game 4 @ CHC: Wednesday October 18, TBD (Maeda vs. Hendricks)

Game 5 @ CHC: Thursday October 19, TBD (Kershaw vs. Quintana)

Game 6 @ LAD: Saturday October 21, TBD (Lester vs. Hill)

Game 7 @ LAD: Sunday October 22, TBD (Hendricks vs. Darvish)

These are complete guesses. I don’t know if Lackey will get a start or not, but Joe Maddon seemed to insinuate that in his postgame presser after the win. I’m not sure how short rest will work out of if Maeda is the #4 for the Dodgers. We’ll have to see how this one plays out.

Offense

Offensively, this is a fascinating series. The Cubs got off to a sluggish start in the first half with their World Series hangover, but really turned it on in the second half and finished as a top-five offense by wOBA at .331. The Dodgers finished seventh at .330, as they scuffled and struggled throughout the second half, much like Chicago’s last opponent, Washington. The Cubs batted .255/.338/.437 as a team. The Dodgers batted .249/.334/.437 as a team. From a wRC+ standpoint, which adjusts based on park factor and is calculated relative to league average, the Cubs were one percent above league average and the Dodgers were four percent above league average.

Dodger Stadium is not as good of a hitter’s park as Wrigley Field, though we all know about what the weather can do in the Windy City to offense. It can be a big help or a big hindrance depending on which way the wind is blowing. The NL West also has a wide array of offensive environments, with Chase Field and Coors Field, which are excellent for offense, Petco Park, which isn’t the cavernous venue it used to be, and then AT&T Park, where nothing carries. In the NL Central, Miller Park and Great American Ball Park are pretty good for offense, while Busch Stadium favors pitchers and PNC Park was one of the best pitcher’s parks in baseball this season. You can see why the Dodgers are given a wRC+ bump for the game that they play 81 games in each season, so it’s all a matter of which stat you prefer to use.

The Dodgers had the highest walk rate of any MLB team this season at 10.5 percent. The Cubs were second at 9.9 percent. Neither team uses the stolen base to its advantage very often.

As I mentioned, a lot of this comes down to what you want to use to make your point. The Cubs led all of baseball in wOBA and tied for the top spot in wRC+ in the second half. The Dodgers, meanwhile, were 15th in wOBA and 12 percent worse than the Cubs per wRC+. Do you want to believe in the full sample or the performance over the second half of the year? You certainly don’t want to put too much stock into the NLDS because it was a small sample size of five games.

I’m going to side with the Cubs offensively in this situation. With Corey Seager battling injuries and the Dodgers coming back to earth from the remarkably hot start, I believe more in the Chicago offense. On the other hand, the Cubs did have a .328 BABIP in the second half to Los Angeles’s .279, which is proof that the Cubs were much more fortunate on batted balls. They even hit 12 more home runs than the Dodgers in that sample size and home runs don’t count towards BABIP. Was it a matter of contact quality? Was it a matter of luck? I’m going to side with the former and give the Cubs an edge on offense.

Starting Pitching

The Cubs posted a .333 wOBA against left-handed pitching, which ranked seventh in baseball. They were third in BB% to the Red Sox and Dodgers. But, not all lefties are Clayton Kershaw and Rich Hill. The Clayton Kershaw sample size in the postseason is not above criticism, though, as I mentioned in my Dodgers vs. Diamondbacks series preview, I’d rather look at the full body of work over his career than the small playoff sample size. With that being said, how much of this is mental now for Kershaw, who had more command problems in his Game 1 start against Arizona? I’m not sure. I don’t know how to evaluate this. The analytical side of me points to sample size bias, but Kershaw has not performed well and has not looked like himself.

When healthy, Rich Hill is great. He wrapped up the year with a 3.32 ERA, a 3.72 FIP, and a 3.88 xFIP. He, like Kershaw, had issues in his Game 2 start. He only lasted four innings with two runs allowed on three hits, with three walks and four strikeouts. The best start in the series came from Yu Darvish, who threw five shutout innings. The Dodgers kept Hill and Darvish to around 75 pitches, which could be their strategy here in the playoffs. Darvish wasn’t lifted for a pinch hitter, he was simply lifted from the game. They’re going to use that extremely deep bullpen. It didn’t work all that well for them with Kershaw and Hill, but the idea that a pitcher only needs to get through four or five innings changes the mindset for a guy. In the regular season, you’re trying to maintain velocity over six or seven innings and that changes the approach. It’s different in the playoffs and that is something worth watching in this series.

The Cubs rotation wasn’t spectacular during the regular season with a 4.05/4.27/4.10 ERA/FIP/xFIP pitcher slash. Post-injury Kyle Hendricks was terrific, though, and Jose Quintana was a two-WAR pitcher in just 14 starts with a 3.74/3.25/3.24 pitcher slash and a dramatically increased strikeout rate. The idea that the Cubs might have to use John Lackey over the weekend because of what they needed to do in order to advance past the Nationals is a bit scary. Lackey posted a 4.56 ERA with a 5.32 FIP and a 4.63 xFIP in his 169.2 innings of work. That could be a serious downgrade for this staff, but with Lester working in relief in Game 4, he may need an extra day or two to get back on track. The fact that Game 5 was needed also didn’t help matters a whole lot because it means Kyle Hendricks is likely unavailable until Game 4.

The wild card in all of this is Jake Arrieta. Arrieta didn’t allow an earned run in Game 4, but he walked five in his four innings of work and needed 90 pitches to bob and weave his way through four frames. Arrieta pitched much better in the second half, but he hasn’t been himself from either a control or a command standpoint this season. His velocity has also been down.

The Dodgers are going to have a rotation edge no matter what because they have Clayton Kershaw, irrespective of his past postseason struggles. We’ll see if he can put it together, but the jumbled nature of the Cubs rotation behind Quintana because of how Jon Lester was leveraged in Game 4 and with the series pushed back a day could wind up being the deciding factor in the NLCS.

Bullpen

The Dodgers have a decided advantage in this department in my estimation. Wade Davis isn’t the same pitcher that he once was, as heavy usage has likely worn him down. The Cubs bullpen posted a 3.80/4.08/4.11 pitcher slash during the regular season. The Dodgers posted a 3.38/3.55/3.64 and may have the world’s best relief pitcher in Kenley Jansen. The Dodgers have been sitting around and waiting since early this week for a winner to emerge from the Cubs/Nationals series, so the bullpen has gotten a lot of time to rest. Sometimes relievers don’t like that, but this deep into the season, it has to be a positive.

One of the key differences between these two bullpens was evident in the first round. The Dodgers didn’t have to push their starters. They were able to use their remarkable bullpen depth. Jon Lester had to be leveraged in relief in Game 4. Brian Duensing was the first guy out of the bullpen in Game 5 and Wade Davis had to gut his way through seven outs. Mike Montgomery has not been an asset and he should be a guy capable of multiple innings.

The Dodgers have leftover starters actively working out of their bullpen instead of guys thrown out there out of necessity. They deepened the bullpen with multi-inning weapons like former starters Tony Cingrani and Ross Stripling. They were able to have guys like Brandon McCarthy and Hyun-Jin Ryu in the pen. With the fact that Jansen is the best right-handed relief weapon in the world, the Dodgers have a pretty sizable edge here as far as I’m concerned.

Intangibles

Dave Roberts has tripped and fell in his past playoff experiences, which was supposed to be the difference between him and Don Mattingly. There is a ton of pressure on the Dodgers in this series. The Cubs got theirs last year. They’d obviously love another one, but this Dodgers team is an expensive roster with only one acceptable outcome. It is World Series or bust for this group, as money has been poured into bringing a World Series to the organization for the first time since the late ‘80s. That type of pressure, those types of expectations can be a real detriment. Just ask the Cleveland Indians.

One of the biggest edges that the Cubs had over the field last year was their fielding prowess. The Dodgers ranked second in defensive runs saved in Major League Baseball and were among the league leaders in UZR. The Cubs were fifth in DRS and a little bit better in UZR than the Dodgers. It will not be a big advantage in this series like it was in the last series for the Cubs, which is notable with Dodger Stadium’s dimensions.

Series Pick: Chicago Cubs

While I think that the Dodgers win the series, there are two reasons to take the Cubs at +165. The first is that they have the better offensive ballclub and this has been a year of offense. The second is that the Dodgers simply need to prove it to me. If they can prove me wrong, if they can prove that they deserved to be a 65.5 percent favorite in this series, then I’ll tip my cap and move right on to the next thing.

I don’t know that for sure. I don’t know that Clayton Kershaw can straighten out his playoff problems. I don’t know that the Dodgers offense will do what it should do. I will say that the Dodgers do have that clear bullpen advantage and that is what keeps me from taking a stronger stance on this side. From a value standpoint, this is the right way to go.

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