Have you heard? Kyle Schwarber might be back. It’s not often that the final slot on a roster gets quite this much attention, or inspires quite this much excitement. It’s the World Series, so every decision will be analyzed over and over again, but it’s the World Series, so you’d think there’d be a more important story for Cubs fans, national media, and the baseball world at large to latch on to. There’s clearly something different about this 25th man.
When Kyle Schwarber went down with a knee injury in April, table-topped by a lunging Dexter Fowler in only the second game of the season, it was horrible. The 23-year-old was one of several unlikely heroes of 2015’s NLCS run, with two particularly memorable home runs against the Cardinals, and Chicago was eagerly anticipating his sophomore campaign, waiting to see how he would follow up on his stellar opening salvo and how Joe Maddon would incorporate his skillset into a roster stuffed with talent. Watching his pain on the field, and seeing the sadness shared between him and his teammates as the extent of his injury became clear, was heartbreaking.
In the weeks after Schwarber’s injury, the Cubs rocketed off to a 25-6 start, so it wasn’t exactly a time of sackcloth and ashes. But in the darker parts of one’s soul, imagined scenarios lurked: where Schwarber’s injury was the first of many, where he never recovered fully, where none of the Cubs young players lived up to their potential, where the team that looked like it could be a dynasty instead turned into a series of what-might-have-beens. None of those scenarios were likely, in any sense, but fans predisposed to darkness could act the haruspex, and see a foreboding omen outlined in Schwarber’s injured knee.
Now, the imagined scenario is about as far from that dark timeline as possible. Schwarber is rumored to be making his triumphant return, just in time for the Cubs final push toward a World Series title, and it’s difficult not to envision some type of postseason heroics at his hand. Indulge, for a moment, in a vision of Schwarber, standing on the left side of the plate late in Game 7. Andrew Miller, who has seized the mantle of this playoffs’ end boss, needs only more out. The camera zooms in in Schwarber’s knee as he waits for the pitch, and when it comes, Schwarber displays his full recovery, sending the pitch up and out of Progressive Field and into the annals of history. The Cubs long time in the desert comes to an end at the hands of their young, prodigal hero. I mean, boy, that would fit, wouldn’t it? That would be a heck of a thing.
But. But: It would’ve also been a heck of a thing for Clayton Kershaw, the best pitcher of this age, to drive a stake through the heart of the narrative that has unfairly dogged him by leading the Dodgers to their first championship in 28 years. It would’ve been a heck of a thing for the Rangers to finally erase the legacy of their lost 2011 championship, and win the first World Series in franchise history. It might still be a heck of a thing when Ryan Merritt, the unlikeliest hero in all of baseball, earns his spot on Cleveland’s roster again, and brings that city its second major-sport championship in four months after 42 years of drought.
The mere presence of a compelling narrative isn’t enough. Compelling narratives are everywhere in the playoffs. You can’t sneeze without sending four compelling narratives flying. So while we can imagine all the various ways, good and bad, this 2016 postseason might end, the way it actually will is almost totally unpredictable ahead of time, and will seem like it was completely inevitable after.
We talk a lot about the randomness of the playoffs, and with good reason. It’s good to be the better team, of course, and the Cubs are, almost without any doubt, the better team in this series.
The rotation is staffed by Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks, Jake Arrieta, and John Lackey (two Cy Young candidates and a former Cy Young), and while Cleveland’s starters have looked outstanding this postseason, they seem unlikely to be able to match that Cubs group. Corey Kluber is excellent, the winner of the 2014 AL Cy Young, and while he’s stepped back from that campaign somewhat, he’s still a legitimate ace. It drops off rapidly after him, however. Trevor Bauer is one of those high-velocity guys (his fourseamer sits around 95 MPH) who never seem to fool hitters, and his pedestrian 4.12 DRA reflects that. He’s also dealing with a nasty drone-induced finger injury, literally, so there’s that.
Following him is Josh Tomlin, owner of a miniscule 2.8 percent walk rate in 2016 but a similarly low 16.3 percent strikeout rate. Thus far in the playoffs, Tomlin has been living by BABIP and home run suppression, and he’ll need to do the same against the Cubs to be successful. He’s not going to miss any bats, so the question is not if the Cubs will make contact against, but what will happen when they do. And finally, there’s Ryan Merritt, who has only 11 major-league innings under his belt and is a bit of a mystery as a result. His minor league career makes him look not dissimilar from Tomlin, but being able to pitch to contact against Triple-A opposition is a lot different than doing it successfully against the Cubs. It worked against the Blue Jays—it was behind his 4.3 IP, 6 H, 0 BB, 3 K performance that Cleveland clinched—but no one would describe Merritt as dominant. (Fun fact: his #6 comparable player, per PECOTA, is 2014 Kyle Hendricks.) Without Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar, this rotation is not the force it was in the regular season.
On the other side of the ball, Cleveland also looks outgunned. Carlos Santana, their unorthodox leadoff hitter, is quite good, and Tyler Naquin, their rookie outfielder, had a surprising debut with the big-league club. Jason Kipnis continues to be an underrated in his perennial All Star-dom, and Francisco Lindor is electric. I don’t mean to minimize the strength this roster does possess—those are some very good players, and this is a lineup that can score some runs. There’s a reason they’re here. That said, they have nobody approaching the quality of a Kris Bryant, or an Anthony Rizzo, or a Dexter Fowler, or a Ben Zobrist. In fact, if you set a 100 PA minimum, there are 9 Cubs with a higher TAv than Tyler Naquin, Cleveland’s leader, including Tommy La Stella and David Ross. This is a lineup that could get stifled in a heartbeat.
But I would be remiss not to mention Cleveland’s bullpen, the breakout story of this postseason. Headed by Andrew Miller and Cody Allen, relievers have thrown a whopping 46 percent of Cleveland’s innings this season, and Miller and Allen have combined for 19 1/3 innings with no runs, five walks, and thirty-three strikeouts. They’re great, and if Terry Francona can steer his team into the sixth or even just the fifth with a lead, they’ll make any comeback incredibly difficult. For the aforementioned reason—the Cubs’ apparent dominance in starting and hitting—that’s a big “if.” As Ben Lindbergh wrote on Monday, if Chicago can jump out to early leads, it doesn’t matter how dominant the Allen-Miller combo is; the onus will be on Cleveland to come back, and the Cubs bullpen is excellent by its own right.
As you may have heard, however, this is the playoffs, and there’s a reason we talk so much about randomness. It matters! A lot! Cleveland was probably worse than both the Red Sox and the Blue Jays, too, but that didn’t stop them or even slow them down. X-factors lurk around every postseason corner, threatening to derail these next seven games from the orderly track of our simulations and send them spinning off into the unknown.
That’s one reason why it was so good to see Chicago celebrate so fervently this past weekend. There are a few possible mindsets a fanbase can have during the postseason, and I think the most common one, especially for a team that’s supposed to have the advantage, is terror. Humans are wired to be loss averse, and prefer not gaining something than losing something. Better to have not loved at all than to have loved and lost. When your team is in the playoffs, and you know they’re great, hugely talented and the rational choice to win, the fear of the possible loss can start to drown out everything else. If your team got lucky to even make the playoffs, then everything that follows is gravy. Losing will still hurt, but it won’t fester in the same way that a loss when your team is as advantaged as the Cubs appear to be. It’s like losing a lead in the bottom of the 9th; it sticks with you longer than is healthy.
Fear, followed by either absolute misery or, at best, relief, is not a pleasant way to go through life or baseball. Cubs fans, with both a century-long drought and enormous expectations hanging above their heads, seemed like one of the most likely groups ever to fall victim to that unpleasant playoff experience. On Saturday, though, after Kyle Hendricks danced his way through the Los Angeles lineup, the Cubs fanbase demonstrated pure, unadulterated joy, and only (“only”) because they reached the World Series!
I’m a transplant to Cubs fandom; I don’t know its deepest, darkest corners, and yet I still know it has extraordinary capacity for neuroticism and doubt. It is very possible that, before next Wednesday, it will have been wracked by some of this fear. But between the transcendent, ineffable happiness demonstrated by players and fans alike on Saturday, and Kyle Schwarber’s early return, it’s hard not to feel excited about the next week and a half. Nervousness will never go away, but if you find yourself slipping toward terror, just imagine travelling back in time to April 7, 2016, back to moment after the collision, and telling yourself that Kyle Schwarber would be playing in the World Series that October. There’s no way to know what’s coming next; all we know is that what’s already happened is special.
Lead photo courtesy Ken Blaze—USA Today Sports.