Last Updated: 2017-10-04
For the first time since 2011, the reigning World Series champion has qualified for the playoffs. The Chicago Cubs will start their title defense on the road against the Washington Nationals in the best-of-five National League Division Series. The St. Louis Cardinals were the last team to qualify after winning the title, but they had to persevere in the first year with the new Wild Card rules. The Cubs avoided that one-game situation and will get a best-of-five in hopes of advancing.
At BetOnline Sportsbook, the Nationals are a modest -130 favorite with the home field edge and the Cubs are checking in at +110 on the other side.
Here is the schedule for the series and the pitching probables:
Game 1 @ WAS: October 6, 7:31 p.m. ET; Hendricks vs. Strasburg
Game 2 @ WAS: October 7, 5:38 p.m. ET; Lester vs. Gonzalez
Game 3 @ CHC: October 9, TBD; TBD vs. Quintana
Game 4 @ CHC: October 10, TBD; TBD vs. Arrieta
Game 5 @ WAS: October 12, TBD; TBD
There are a lot of similarities between these two offenses. The Nationals hold a very big edge on the bases, with 108 steals compared to just 62 for the Cubs, but there are so many similarities that it is crazy. The Cubs slashed .255/.338/.437 as a team with a .331 wOBA. The Nationals slashed .266/.332/.449 with a .331 wOBA. The Cubs had a 101 wRC+ and the Nationals had a 100 wRC+. The Cubs scored 822 runs and the Nationals scored 819. My guess here is that perception bias with the bigger names in the Cubs lineup may skew some people’s opinions of these two ballclubs, but the only discernible offensive advantage that I can see is that the Nationals are more adept at stealing bases and that is largely because of Trea Turner.
There is one other difference that we can point to that could have a bit of an impact on how this series is played. The Cubs were one of the worst offenses in baseball against sliders per PITCHf/x linear pitch type weights. The Nationals really struggled with changeups, while the Cubs were slightly above average. With so much focus paid to finding edges at the margins, those look like two areas that these respective ballclubs can exploit. That’s why the status of Max Scherzer is so important because his slider is one of the game’s most dominant weapons. It’s a pitch that he can throw at a very high rate and likely have a lot of success in this series. Similarly, a guy like Kyle Hendricks suddenly becomes a bigger weapon for the Cubs because of the depth to his changeup.
Neither team hits an absurd amount of fly balls, so if we do get weather conditions that are favorable for balls hit in the air at Wrigley, it’s hard to find a big advantage offensively. Overall, I’d consider this area a wash.
Handicapping the pitching staffs in this series is a real challenge. The Cubs have four good options in Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks, Jose Quintana, and Jake Arrieta, though all four have had bumps in the road or injuries this season. Lester has struggled mightily down the stretch, but still takes the ball as the Game 2 starter. It is a tad surprising to see Jose Quintana pushed back to Game 3 with Hendricks going in Game 1, but it is similar to the Indians with Trevor Bauer in that getting Hendricks with a full bullpen could be a boost. The option is always there to start Lester on short rest in Game 5 and bypass Hendricks.
Hendricks has been terrific since he came back from injury on July 24 with a 2.19 ERA, a 3.38 FIP, and a 3.50 xFIP. Command and control guys can have significant success in the playoffs, even more so than stuff guys. There are a lot of examples of this, with Hendricks being one in last year’s playoffs or a guy like Josh Tomlin. Think of others like David Price or Clayton Kershaw that have struggled. Hendricks hasn’t allowed more than three runs in a start since coming back. In essence, he’s a “safe” pick. The only other option here was Quintana, who has a 3.74 ERA, with a 3.25 FIP and a 3.24 xFIP in his 14 starts with the Cubs.
The biggest edge now goes to the Cubs with the hamstring injury for Max Scherzer. Scherzer did not throw a bullpen on Wednesday, as the team had hoped, so we have to assume that he cannot be used until Game 3 at the earliest, which is next Tuesday. That means Stephen Strasburg in Game 1 and then Gio Gonzalez in Game 2. Gonzalez has been a fade candidate for a while to me. He posted the lowest BABIP against and highest LOB% of his career this season, but his fortunes reversed in September and he hasn’t worked more than five innings in a start since August. That will put some strain on the Washington bullpen, though Gonzalez probably wasn’t going to work all that deep anyway. Either way, without Scherzer’s services twice in a series, what was Washington’s biggest strength is no longer there.
Strasburg has certainly had a dynamic season and has been almost every bit as good as Scherzer, but the supporting cast is not going to inspire a ton of confidence. Strasburg wrapped up the regular season with a 2.52 ERA, a 2.72 FIP, and a 3.27 xFIP. Gio Gonzalez, as mentioned, is a guy I’d look to fade. Tanner Roark is a personal favorite, but his body of work this season has been unspectacular, though a lot of that has to do with a 66.3 percent LOB%. With Mad Max down to one start, the Nationals are facing a disadvantage here.
The Cubs bullpen isn’t what it was last season. It is still solid, but it is lacking something at the top. As the season has gone on, Wade Davis’s numbers have declined. He still amassed a 1.1 fWAR season with a 2.30/3.38/3.57 pitcher slash, but his K% dropped in the second half while his walk rate skyrocketed. Pedro Strop and Carl Edwards Jr. are very solid, but Justin Wilson and Mike Montgomery have had serious control issues. The Nationals don’t have a ton of left-handed sticks, but shutting down the ones that are there is essential. Hector Rondon and Koji Uehara have experienced command issues.
The Nationals made some enormous moves to acquire Ryan Madson and Sean Doolittle to bolster their bullpen. Doolittle and Madson had a huge impact, accounting for 1.9 fWAR in just 50 combined appearances. I would have to be worried about the recovery time of both guys to pitch in these high-stress environments and come back the next, for the third time in four days, or the fourth time in five days. Depth is a bit of a worry behind them with an overachieving Matt Albers and a couple lefties in Enny Romero and Oliver Perez. Brandon Kintzler is a good pitch-to-contact arm and could induce some big double plays, but I have an inherent problem with relievers that don’t miss bats in this environment.
I don’t think either bullpen has a big advantage here. A case could be made for the Cubs to have a small advantage with more trust in Joe Maddon than Dusty Baker to deploy his weapons properly, but usage is out of the players’ control.
One big intangible is exactly that. Dusty Baker. He’s not a good manager. He’s good with players and a good personality to lead a ballclub, but his in-game skill set is lacking. Joe Maddon may be a little bit over the top and unconventional at times, but he tends to deploy his players properly.
The Cubs also had a platoon advantage in 60 percent of their plate appearances. The Nationals only had that 54 percent of the time, though they will face two left-handed starters in this series, so that could be fairly beneficial.
Series Pick: Chicago Cubs +110
Without Max Scherzer’s arm twice in this series, the Nationals are at a disadvantage in my estimation. They have home field, but that hasn’t meant anything. The team with the better record is just 24-24 over the last seven years, with one series that featured two teams with the same record.
I’ll take the Cubs offense, as well, which has been better in the second half. Washington did some big stat padding earlier in the year and has trended downward, while the Cubs have trended upward.