Being something resembling a serious analyst essentially requires an immediate surrendering of your “fan card.” It is for good reason, as fans tend to see things through their own biased lenses, failing to care about rational analysis during emotional moments. At BP Wrigleyville, the majority—but not the entirety—of the staff are Cubs fans. We aren’t asked to remove ourselves from our fandom, but a lack of objectivity won’t get us very far under the auspices of the Baseball Prospectus label.
The goal of objective analysis is becoming harder to achieve as the season wears on. The Central Division has been effectively over for six weeks, and paranoia is beginning to creep into my brain. Delineating between the rational, analytical part of my brain, and the crazed fan portion is starting to feel akin to something out of Mulholland Drive. Perhaps if I put my fears on paper, it will help…
Doesn’t scare me: The Mets’ starting staff
My goodness gracious. A year after looking completely and utterly infallible (Daniel Murphy’s Barry Bonds impersonation didn’t hurt, either) in sweeping the Cubs in four games in the NLCS, the Mets’ pitching staff is an absolute shell of itself. Terry Collins has witnessed one stud after another go down this season, providing further affirmation of Theo Epstein’s belief in building a sustainably competitive franchise through great offense, rather than great pitching. Now, a semi-healthy Noah Syndergaard is still intimidating, and Seth Lugo and Bartolo Colon have pitched admirably in the stead of their missing cache of fireballers. However, Syndergaard-Colon-Lugo certainly isn’t going to cause opponents to quake in the box like Harvey-Syndergaard-Degrom-Matz did last year. Murphy is gone. Harvey is gone. Degrom is gone. Matz is gone. The intimidating nature of playing the Mets has left right along with them.
Scares me: The Giants’ starting staff
Madison Bumgarner is one of the best pitchers in baseball, and will contend for the National League Cy Young. We’ve seen what he’s capable of in the playoffs, and I am not terribly excited about the thought of watching him do it again. Beyond Bumgarner, the Giants boast arguably the best number two starter in the game in Johnny Cueto. The Cubs only faced Cueto once this season, getting shut down for just one run over seven innings. He’s savvy, durable and simply not someone I am comfortable facing twice in a short series. Beyond those two, you’ve got Jeff Samardzija for two games and likely Matt Moore for one. Samardzija has had his struggles, but he’s capable of shutting any opponent down on a given night. If we know anything about Jeff, we know he’ll also likely have a huge chip on his shoulder should he face the Cubs. Moore has been streaky this season, but he’s a capable fourth starter if needed. Despite their befuddling struggles in the second half, the Giants—my preseason pick to win the World Series—and six games of Bumgarner, Cueto and Samardzija are simply not something I want to see the Cubs face when October rolls around.
Doesn’t scare me: The Texas Rangers
Don’t get me wrong, the additions of Jonathan Lucroy and Carlos Beltran make this offense a force to be reckoned with. They are most likely going to finish with the best record in baseball, while securing home field advantage throughout the playoffs. What these facts fail to mention, is that this team is a staggering 36-11 in one-run games. They have a run-differential of just +9, and have outperformed their pythagorean record by a whopping 82 percentage points—leading the league by a long shot. Basically, this is a .500 team masquerading as a beast. Known for their offense, their pitching leaves plenty to be desired. Their team ERA of 4.44 is 14th in the American League, bettering only the woeful A’s staff. I like Yu Darvish at the top, but his bat-missing, pitch-heavy approach doesn’t match up well with the Cubs’ patience at the plate. This dynamic was on full display when Darvish faced the Cubs on July 16th, when eight of the first nine outs he recorded were strikeouts. His stuff was utterly untouchable, but the Cubs recognized this early and managed to force him out of the game before the end of the fifth inning. Their bullpen is an even bigger issue than their starting staff, as they carry a team ERA of 4.63, good for 26th in baseball. If their good luck manages to carry them all of the way to the World Series against the Cubs, I’ll feel optimistic about the Cubbies getting it done.
Scares me: The Boston Red Sox
The Red Sox are incredibly fun to watch. Something about playing them in the World Series makes me want to throw up. Their 845 runs scored are 90 runs more than the second place Cubs (Rockies don’t count) have scored, while the addition of phenom Andrew Benintendi does nothing but make their lineup stronger. The group consisting of Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, David Ortiz, Dustin Pedroia and Jackie Bradley Jr. have been outstanding all year. Add in Benintendi and Hanley Ramirez’s scorching bat (1.035 OPS since June 23), and you have yourself a terrifying offense. Their pitching hasn’t gotten much press, but their team ERA of 4.08 is actually good for fourth best in the American League. David Price has been mildly underwhelming, but his 4.93 K/BB and 3.34 FIP suggest there might be some bad luck playing a role. He’s still not a guy I would be excited about possibly facing three times in a seven game series. Beyond Price, Rick Porcello has quietly put together a phenomenal year, and he currently has a streak of 11 consecutive quality starts. Knuckleballer Steven Wright is Boston’s third best starter; a solid option as well. Beyond the formidability of the team on the field, I also simply don’t want to see this matchup on a personal level. There are too many franchise ties, front office overlaps and general storylines that I really would rather not detract from the Cubs being in the World Series. Oh, and I can’t stand Big Papi.
Doesn’t scare me: The St. Louis Cardinals
What is this team? Brandon Moss? Jedd Gyorko? Randall Grichuk? Jeremy Hazelbaker? The collection of players on their roster is not impressive. The Cubs have the positional advantage at arguably every position but catcher. Their starting staff is better at every spot in the rotation than the Cardinals’ staff. The bullpens aren’t comparable either, after the Cubs’ addition of Aroldis Chapman. The Cubs’ defense is clearly superior. It’s hard to find any areas in which the Redbirds have a demonstrable advantage over the Cubs (except the fans, of course). This team simply isn’t intimidating. If they happen to make the playoffs and win the Wild Card game, the NLDS should go just as swimmingly as it did last year for the Cubs.
Scares me: Losing to the St. Louis Cardinals
Moss and Gyorko have combined for 50 home runs! As a team, they set a major-league record with 15 pinch-hit home runs this year. Manager Mike Matheny says: “a lot of work goes into being ready for those pinch-hit at-bats and we take a lot of pride in it”…so it must be a thing the Cardinals have figured out (it isn’t). They’ve also clearly got God on their side (maybe not). If the Cubs do face the Cardinals, it’ll be in the awful five game series native to the NLDS. Absolutely anything can and will happen in a five game series. Also, the Cubs are merely 8-8 against St. Louis this year; where is that huge advantage I just assured you existed? Can you imagine how bad life would be if the best Cubs team of our lifetime loses to the Jedd Gyorko-led Cardinals? I am literally losing sleep over the possibility of this nightmare scenario.
Doesn’t scare me: The Cubs’ perceived inability to hit good pitching, deliver in clutch situations, move the ball when necessary
The narrative last year was that the Cubs tendency to strike out didn’t match up well with power pitching. The Mets’ staff pretty much cemented the validity of the claim. This year, folks seem to think the Cubs can’t hit quality pitching, but I can’t find anything other than anecdotal evidence that this is true. The point is, no team hits quality pitching well. That’s what makes it quality pitching. The inability to put the ball in play is another story, or at least it was last year. The 2016 version of the Cubs is subtly but importantly quite different from the 2015 iteration. Kris Bryant strikes out way less often, while getting on base more. Ben Zobrist rarely strikes out, and gets on at a 38 percent clip. Javier Baez’s strikeout rate is 24 percent, down from 30 percent last year. Jason Heyward consistently makes contact, even if they haven’t gone for hits as often as he would like this season. Jorge Soler’s strikeout rate is down to around 25 percent, after whiffing 30 percent a year ago. The Cubs’ .343 team on-base percentage is second in all of baseball, behind only Boston’s mark of .351. They are on pace to strike out 1,342 times this season, compared to the record-breaking 1,518 whiffs they collected last year. They are also on pace to walk about 80 more times than last season. In short, this year’s team is much more adept at moving the baseball and getting on base than last year’s team.
Scares me: The National League’s preponderance of aces
No matter how much evidence stacks up in your favor, the playoffs represent an opportunity for one hot starting pitcher to end your season. Bumgarner’s phenomenal postseason run in 2014 is a perfect example of this. The National League sports a dizzying array of starting pitchers capable of pulling something like this off. Bumgarner, Cueto, Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer, Noah Syndergaard and Jose Fernandez are all capable of shutting a team down two or three times in a series, no matter how good or hot a given offense may be. The Cubs will most likely have to win series against two different teams featuring this group at the top of their rotation. Get out the Mylanta.
Doesn’t scare me: A four day break before the NLDS
Folks love to talk about how being hot entering the playoffs is all that matters, while pointing out stats about the teams with the highest winning percentage rarely win the World Series. Once again, these suggestions appear to be mostly anecdotal. I have a high degree of confidence in Joe Maddon to maintain the sense of urgency in his team. I also believe the makeup of the clubhouse is such that the extended break won’t cause any complacency. For what it’s worth, the only such break (the All-Star break) the Cubs had this year, came immediately before a 20-6 stretch that solidified the Cubs’ grasp of the NL Central. The break also means they will be able to set up their pitching to their exact preference, while their opponent will likely burn their best starter in the Wild Card game. Finally, the break will allow their bullpen to rest and gain full health.
Scares me: Baseball
For as much as we try, the game of baseball simply cannot always be explained. Wild Card winners do seem to be on a roll, winning six of the last 20 titles. Does this have anything to do with momentum, possibly carried over from thrilling late season playoff races? Further, for as dominant as this Cubs team has been, every playoff series is still only slightly weighted in their favor. BP has them at 26 percent to win the World Series, while Fangraphs comes in at just 17 percent. In other words, there is a 75-80 percent chance this ends in heartbreak. Lovely.
Doesn’t scare me: 108 years of championship futility
Curses. Goats. Black Cats. Bartman. It’s all hogwash. This team doesn’t care about any of that. The past is simply that, the past. History has absolutely no bearing on the outcome of this season.
Scares me: 108 years of championship futility
Right? Or does it? Did the 2003 team collapse under the weight of the Wrigley Field faithful when the tide began to turn against them? Did the 2007 and 2008 teams simply not have the fortitude to overcome the inherent pressure of suffocating expectations? Just as soon as I’ve convinced myself that the boogeyman doesn’t exist, my paranoia overwhelms me. Such is the life of a Cubs fan.
Lead photo courtesy David Banks—USA Today Sports.