The offense remains the story, and that story remains melancholy.
You know the numbers. The scoreless streak has stretched to 18 innings, a Cubs franchise record for the postseason. In Games 2 and 3, the Cubs went down 1-2-3 in 11 of those 18 innings, and produced just one extra base hit. During the regular season, by contrast, the Cubs were shut out seven times, and never back-to-back. In fact, the closest occurrence was 11 games apart.
The power outage is ill-timed, but it was portended slightly by the season’s final month plus. While it’s not a perfect measuring stick due to their big lead in both the division and for home field advantage, but the Cubs did not finish the regular season on the strongest note offensively. In September and October, their team power faded dramatically, as among NL teams, the Cubs ranked seventh in ISO, eighth in home runs, and tenth in slugging percentage and home run to fly ball ratio. They still ranked fourth in the NL in runs scored, but averaged a half run per game lower than they did in the season’s first five months.
However, Clayton Kershaw’s and Rich Hill’s starts notwithstanding, the Cubs were very good against left handed pitchers this season, even during their late season mini-slump. They ranked in the top three in the National League in doubles, home runs, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, OPS, and ISO against left-handed pitchers.
First, breathe, because, as John Smoltz reminded viewers time and again during Game 3, the series is young and can change in a moment. Perhaps Fowler’s eighth inning double might get him jump started at the top of the order. Or maybe Rizzo’s third inning walk (an impressive eight pitch battle) and exploding-bat infield single in the ninth signal the end of his funk. The point is, there’s so much baseball left to play, so let’s see how Game 4 breaks down.
The Pitching Matchup: John Lackey vs. Julio Arias
John Lackey did not face the Dodgers in the regular season, but this match-up is fascinating. Since the All-Star break, Lackey has relied primarily on his fourseam fastball (38 percent) and slider (29 percent), as they have been far and away his best pitches. Since mid-July, opposing batter’s are slugging .227 against the fastball and .233 against the slider, and .500 or higher than his other three pitches (sinker, change, and curve). The Dodgers likely starting lineup, however, has been outstanding against those two pitches from right handed pitchers this season:
|Player||SLP vs. 4-Seam from RHP||SLP vs. Slider from RHP|
Will Lackey stay with what’s been working and make it matchup of strength vs. strength, or will he change it up? Overall, the Dodgers excelled against right handed pitchers in the regular season, ranking, among AL teams, first in home run to fly ball ratio third in ISO, third in slugging percentage and OPS, fourth in home runs and on base percentage, and had a team OPS .150 points higher than against left handed pitchers.
The Cubs offense will get their third look at Julio Urias this season, which is pretty amazing considering he’s making just his 20th appearance of the season (including the playoffs). He was bad in his June start in Chicago (Game Score of 32), and good in his August start in Los Angeles (Game Score of 62). While Urias was four-seam heavy in both starts (58 and 52 percent, respectively), in the second one he threw a season high 18 changes, which continued an August-October trend in which he has increasingly went to his offspeed pitch.
The southpaw, who at 20 will become the youngest pitcher ever to start a postseason game, has been basically as effective against left handed batters (.725 OPS) as he has been against right handed batters (.740 OPS). Overall, Urias attacks right handers and left handers roughly the same (about 55-58 percent fourseam fastball usage), while mixing in his slider and curve, but he ditches his change against lefties.
The differences come early and late in counts. Against left handed batters Urias will jump his slider and curve usage early, but against right handed batters, he’ll look to his curve to get ahead in the count and forget about his change and slider. With two strikes, the Cubs lefties should be ready for the slider and curve, while the righties should be prepared for the change and slider.
What to Watch For
You want some statistics that appear encouraging but are likely meaningless today, October 19, 2016? Well, then you, loyal BP-Wrigleyville reader(s), need look no further than Lackey’s LCS history. It has been his best round of the playoffs, as in six starts across five League Championship Series, Lackey owns a 3.41 ERA, 1.16 WHIP, and a strikeout rate (20.4 percent) nearly four times his walk rate (5.3 percent). In his most recent LCS starts (with Boston in 2013 and St. Louis in 2014) he has gone almost exclusively to his fourseam and slider, while largely abandoning his sinker and change.
In terms of the lineup, I’m not sure what Joe Maddon can further do to shake things up. Wilson Contreras is likely to get the start against the lefty Urias. He could bat six or seventh, with a struggling Addison Russell penciled into the eighth spot. Javier Baez has already been moved up to fifth in the order, and while it seems highly unlikely he would jump him above Anthony Rizzo, maybe Ben Zobrist? Baez homered off Urias in June, as did Jason Heyward.
The other option, of course, is you hope the team’s proven, but slumping hitters have the law of averages on their side. Patience in these situations can often be a virtue. For example, the 2004 Boston Red Sox scored 939 runs, with Johnny Damon (.857 OPS, 61 extra base hits) and Mark Bellhorn (.817 OPS, 57 extra base hits) batting first and second for the majority of the season. Both, however, faltered considerably in the ALCS, as in Games 1-6, Damon went 3-for-29 and Bellhorn 2-for-23. Terry Francona, however, stuck with what got him there, perhaps too stubbornly, but was rewarded in Game 7, as Damon smashed two home runs and knocked in seven runs, and Bellhorn had two hits, including his second home run in as many games. Sometimes staying the course and not freaking-the-f***-out can pay dividends, even if when it’s frustrating and rage-inducing in the moment.
The Cubs hitters should break out, and if they do, they can keep Randy Newman at bay after Game 4.
Lead photo courtesy Jon Durr—USA Today Sports.