This piece, written by BP Wrigleyville’s Henry Druschel, forms part of our in-house coverage of the Cubs in the playoffs, “Second City October”. Additional NLDS coverage, written by Rian Watt and originally run on the main site’s series “Playoff Prospectus,” can be found here.
They’ve been a long, long time in coming, but the real playoffs are finally here. The Cubs literally clinched a spot in the NLDS when the Cardinals lost on September 16, but it’s been a probabilistic certainty for a lot longer than that. After starting the season with odds of making the LDS of just under 80 percent, per BP’s simulations, Chicago hit 100 percent on August 18 and never fell back down. And really, ever since this team started the season 25–6, there’s been a warranted expectation that they’d make the playoffs. Today, that expectation is fulfilled.
Waiting all year for the postseason to start, however, means that expectations are a little different for the Cubs. Instead of looking like an opportunity to triumph, the LDS seems more like an opportunity to fail. If the Cubs do lose this series, they’ll have advanced no further than they have been expected to since May. The same is not true of, say, the Giants, their opponents in this series, who nearly missed the playoffs altogether and had to win a single-game Wild Card against the Mets just to make it here. To them, and to most teams in the playoffs, they’ve already passed assumption territory, and have entered hope. Instead, the Cubs will play this series, and their fans will watch, under the weight of expectations.
But there’s one nice thing about this series for the Cubs. They’re not just playing to advance to the NLCS; they’re playing to eliminate the Giants, and stamp out the even year “magic” that has resulted in San Francisco winning the World Series in each of 2010, 2012, and 2014. I think the rest of baseball has pretty much agreed that this is annoying as heck, and will root for nearly anyone over the Giants as a result. If the Mets were the knight that heroically tried to slay the dragon but was tragically devoured, the Cubs are looking to be St. George. This is one of the only ways a 103–58–1 team can feel like an underdog, so enjoy it.
Because the Cubs have been quasi-locked for the postseason for so long means most of this is probably familiar to you. The rotation, the bullpen permutations, the lineup, the bench; we’ve had a lot of time to imagine it, and now that the moment is here, it pretty much matches our expectations. If you want to read about the Cubs side of things in more detail, you’re welcome to read Rian Watt’s main site preview here. In the meantime, let’s talk about the Giants, and what it means to the Cubs to have them as an opponent.
Johnny Cueto – R/219.7/2.79/3.54
Jeff Samardzija – R/203.3/3.81/4.37
Matt Moore – L/198.3/4.08/4.93
Madison Bumgarner – L/226.7/2.74/3.25
A defining feature of the Cubs’ rotation this season has been the depth. The likely playoff starters–Lester, Hendricks, Arrieta, and Lackey–finished the season with DRAs only a run apart. The same is not true of the Giants, and that leads to some uncertainty about who the Cubs will face and when.
Johnny Cueto is certain to start Game One, coming off of a very good season that saw him beat his career norms in strikeout rate, walk rate, innings, and WARP. He only faced the Cubs once this year, on September 4th, throwing seven innings with five strikeouts, one walk, and one run. Cueto’s no stranger to the playoffs, either, and while he famously seemed to wilt under the pressure of the 2013 Wild Card game, he’s several years and teams removed from that appearance, and has picked up a World Series ring in the meantime.
The game after him is a bit of an unknown, since neither of the Giants options are particularly encouraging. Old friend Jeff Samardzija seems the most likely to get the start, and after a dismal year on the South Side in 2015, he’s rebounded decently in 2016. He’s certainly not the quasi-ace he was from 2012–14, though, which is why it’s possible Bruce Bochy could give the start to Matt Moore instead. Moore, acquired from the Rays at the trade deadline for Matt Duffy, is a bit of an enigma. He moved through the Tampa Bay system as a prospect with significant sheen, never quite lived up to his potential, missed almost all of 2014 with Tommy John, and thrown 261 1/3 lackluster innings with a 4.40 ERA since his return. The enigma, however, is whether anything has truly changed over Moore’s career, since his DRA has never been below 4.80 in a season. I suspect Bochy goes with Samardzija’s superior 2016 numbers and experience, but if he does deploy Moore (perhaps because he wants a lefty), he could be exposed as the mediocre pitcher DRA seems to think he is.
Then, of course, there’s Madison Bumgarner. After throwing a beautiful game against the Mets, he won’t be available to start until Game Three, but Bochy has demonstrated a willingness to use the Giants ace nontraditionally and aggressively. Especially if the series goes long, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Bumgarner enter a game in relief in an attempt to stave off elimination. The Cubs have been better against lefties in 2016–a .357 OBP/.449 SLG, versus a .338 OBP/.421 SLG against righties–though the depth and flexibility of the roster means that the difference isn’t particularly pronounced. Bumgarner is a talented enough pitcher, too, with four very good pitches in his repertoire, that it’s hard to imagine handedness playing an oversize role in this series. In two starts against the Cubs in 2016, Bumgarner threw 13 2/3 innings, with 16 strikeouts, 2 walks, and 2 runs. Good!
Santiago Casilla (R/58.0/3.57/3.31)
Sergio Romo (R/30.7/2.64/3.64)
Hunter Strickland (R/61.0/3.10/3.88)
Will Smith (L/40.3/3.35/3.58)
Javier Lopez (L/26.7/4.05/5.26)
The Giants bullpen is not bad, but there’s no standout pitcher who Bruce Bochy can really turn to when he needs an out. There’s a reason Madison Bumgarner threw all nine innings on Wednesday. (It’s because he’s really good, but also a little bit because of the bullpen.) Given how short the samples are, and how unpredictable relief outings can be, I don’t think there’s much point in breaking down how individual relievers might match up against the Cubs’ lineup.
One thing worth noting, however, is how light the Giants bullpen is on capable lefthanders. Will Smith, acquired from the Brewers at the trade deadline, is pretty good. But 39-year-old Javier Lopez is not, not really, and the other lefthanded options are pretty slim. There’s Steven Okert, owner of 14 major league innings, and Josh Osich, with two years of experience but a career 5.03 DRA. The Cubs have multiple lefties the Giants will probably want to face with the platoon advantage as much as possible–Anthony Rizzo (.873 OPS vs. righties, .775 vs. lefties), Jason Heyward (.809, .650), and Miguel Montero (.787, .648) most notably–but that might be difficult given their bullpen composition. It’s possible those hitters will end up facing some righties, or the Giants lefthanders will end up facing some intervening righties, either of which would be a very good thing for the Cubs.
Buster Posey (R/614/.289)
Brandon Belt (L/655/.316)
Joe Panik (L/526/.256)
Conor Gillaspie (L/205/.273)
Brandon Crawford (L/623/.280)
Angel Pagan (S/543/.274)
Denard Span (L/637/.264)
Hunter Pence (R/442/.304)
The Giants lineup isn’t the most formidable imaginable, but it’s deep, with only Denard Span and Joe Panik having below-average TAvs in 2016 (and that only by a little). Again, I don’t think it’s worth going into the individual matchups too much, but what’s obvious is that the Giants have a ton of lefties. They don’t have that many righties to pinch hit with, either; it’s basically Gorkys Hernandez and Kelby Tomlinson. You don’t need to look up their career numbers, probably, since you know their type: near-replacement, with enough positional flexibility to justify a roster spot.
Past their starting nine, the Giants don’t have any potent bench threats, so should an excellent lefthanded Cubs reliever (such as Aroldis Chapman) come in against a particularly lefty-heavy section of the Giants lineup, there won’t be too much Bruce Bochy can do to counter. The incredible amount of depth the Cubs possess at essentially every section of their roster, and the relative lack the Giants have, means that, from a tactical perspective, this series will mostly be Joe Maddon taking an action and Bruce Bochy responding, if he’s able. The Giants just don’t have the flexibility to get too creative, and that certainly gives the Cubs yet another advantage.
When you break down the two teams like that, it sure looks good for the Cubs. The Giants have two excellent starters in Bumgarner and Cueto, and some very good position players–I glossed over their lineup somewhat, but Brandon Belt, Buster Posey, and Hunter Pence are a formidable trio. Past that, however, the Giants don’t have much. The Cubs, on the other hand, have starters that are similarly excellent, backups that could start most places, and backups to those backups that aren’t too bad themselves.
Still, at the end of the day, this is a five game series, which means virtually anything can happen. I think most fans have internalized just how nutty a one-game playoff is, but a five-game playoff really isn’t that different. Say the Cubs are 60% to win every game; clearly the better team. They’d still be 40 percent to lose a one-game series (obviously), and unintuitively, that chance of losing would only fall to 32 percent in a five-game series. The Cubs are really, truly excellent, and the Giants, to be frank, are not. That only matters so much in the postseason, however, so steel yourself for the unexpected.
Lead photo courtesy Neville E. Guard—USA Today Sports.