World Series Preview: Forget the curses. Buckle up for a close Fall Classic
Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but it’s been a long time since either the Cubs or the Indians have won the World Series. Indeed, the last time either franchise stood as baseball champions, the concept of writing contrived articles trying to contextualize how long it has been since either franchise won the World Series had yet to be invented!
Those were dark times, indeed. It was a time when superstition stood prominent over reason and we were so backwards that we believed in black magic and curses and things. So glad we stand now, at the vanguard of human history, not believing in such nonsense any longer.
OK, I guess a lot of people still like that stuff. We’ll allow it for now, we suppose, and we’ll do our best to bite our tongues when someone who is smart enough to know better decides that curses about goats and 60-year-old trades and comparative anachronism have more to do with who will win the 2016 World Series than the relative merit of a bunch of guys born in the 1980s and 1990s do. Enjoy baseball however you need to.
In the meantime, we’ll be over here thinking about this year’s Fall Classic as a competition between two excellent teams who themselves are not likely thinking about history.
Let’s break ‘em down:
The Cubs had the second best offense in the National League, but I prefer not to count the Coors-inflated Rockies’ offense against the Cubs. They scored 4.99 runs a game and hit 199 homers on the year. While that was a nice show of power, their real offensive strength was getting on base, leading the NL in on-base percentage at a .343 clip. The Cubs take their walks and bash the heck out of the ball. Other than the pitcher’s slot and, when he’s starting, the curiously and perpetually-slumping Jason Heyward, there are no easy marks here.
The Indians offense a bit of a different beast. They too were second in their league in run scoring, but were far down on the AL home run list. They were third in average, fourth in OBP and fifth in slugging. It was a pretty balanced attack overall, with good totals in most categories. Their key advantage over the Cubs -- and everyone else in baseball for that matter -- is on the base paths. The led the AL in stolen bases and had the lowest caught stealing percentage. They likewise shine when it comes to taking the extra base, going first-t0-third and that sort of thing. Not that they’ll have to rely on small ball, however: Cleveland has hit 11 homers in the postseason to the Cubs’ 12.
As is always the case, the DH rule will work to the AL team’s disadvantage. The Indians have the home field advantage but in 2-3 games in Chicago, they will have to sit either Carlos Santana or Mike Napoli while the pitcher bats, playing the other at first base. The Cubs, meanwhile, can add any bat they choose while in Cleveland. Some have suggested that maybe Kyle Schwarber will be that bat. Even if it’s not him, though, the NL team never loses a key player in the AL park.
The Cubs have had the deepest rotation in baseball all season long. Jake Arrieta won the Cy Young last year and Kyle Hendricks and Jon Lester will likely both finish in the top three this year. John Lackey has been less-than-stellar this postseason, but he certainly is capable and experienced. The Cubs had the best pitching in the NL this year and it wasn’t particularly close. And that’s before you remember that they have Aroldis Chapman waiting to lock things down late.
As with offense, Cleveland’s pitching is a varied attack. Corey Kluber is an ace and has seemed to find another gear this postseason. Beyond him, however, things get kinda interesting due to injuries and inexperience. Trevor Bauer’s cut finger and the stitches thereon are question marks, but he’s had several days off now and should be OK for Game 2. Josh Tomlin, the Indians’ third starter, has had his moments but he is homer-prone. The X-factor for the Indians may be rookie Ryan Merritt, who was strong in Game 5 of the ALCS against the Blue Jays. The Cubs aren’t as weak against lefties as a lot of teams, but they are more vulnerable against southpaws than righties, so Meritt’s slow junk which has not been heavily scouted as of yet might give them some trouble.
The real key for the Indians pitching, of course, is the bullpen. Particularly Andrew Miller, who manager Terry Francona has shown he will call on at virtually any time and whom he will ride for a couple of innings even on back-to-back days. With a couple of days off built in for postseason travel and the “there is no tomorrow” vibe of the World Series, look for Tito to call on Miller and closer Cody Allen early and often and look for the Indians pen to shorten games in a manner not seen in baseball for a long, long time. That is, if the Indians can snag early leads. Either way, Cleveland’s bullpen is clearly superior to Chicago’s. They’ve struck out 41 batters in 32.1 innings this postseason, with Miller being damn nigh untouchable.
A lot of the Indians’ improvement this season over last came by virtue of an improvement in their defense. Depending on which measure you use, Cleveland’s D was either excellent or merely good, but they were top five or ten by most metrics. The Cubs, meanwhile, were fantastic with the leather by every measure, leading all of baseball in both defensive efficiency and Defensive Runs Saved. If you’ve been reading this site for a while you know that we’re somewhat skeptical of a lot of defensive stats and aren’t super conversant in others. We do, however, give respectful, holistic nods to what both the stats and they eyeballs tell us and it’s hard to argue that Chicago has not been superior defensively in 2016. Neither team is likely to make major mistakes or blunders, but if one does, it could make a big difference because the odds of both teams showing up with iron gloves are extremely low.
Two of the best in the business go at it in this series. Joe Maddon has gotten more press than Terry Francona over the past couple of years, but Francona has built a Hall of Fame resume leading the Red Sox to two World Series titles and leading the Indians back to the postseason this year. Each are willing to be unconventional at times -- Francona’s aggressive use of the pen has been notable this year -- and neither shoot themselves in the foot. There are a lot of moving parts to a baseball game and any number of ways a team can win or lose, but it’s not likely that one of these teams prevail because either manager out-managed the other.
There is a consensus that this is the Cubs’ World Series to win. I tend to think they will as I tend to think they’re the better overall team, but it’s by no means a given. Partially because no possible outcome in any World Series is a given in light of the small sample size of games. The 1954 Indians won 111 games in a 154-game season and got swept out of the World Series, after all, and there are countless other examples of favorites losing and putative teams of destiny failing to fulfill theirs.
But it’s also the case that these two teams aren’t as unevenly matched as some have suggested. As we see above, the Cubs have the better offense, but the allegedly small-ball Indians have socked homers this postseason. The Cubs have a clear rotation advantage, but the Tribe’s bullpen has been a total game-changer. The Indians run like mad and could pressure those Cubs starters in ways no one has pressured them thus far in October. Each club has a fantastic manager. Anything can happen in a seven-game series and the Indians seem better prepared to give the Cubs fits than either the Dodgers or the Nationals did in the NL playoffs.
But if I have to pick one, I’ll go with the crowd and pick the Cubs. I think it’ll take everything they have however, and if the Indians do win this thing, it will by no means be an historic upset. For now, though: Cubs win in seven games.