I spent the better part of Friday night on Fangraphs looking for a story in the stats. It’s sort of what I do. I like stats. I like numbers. I like facts. I like interpreting them and telling a story.
There weren’t a lot of good stories in the stats for this series. I found a couple I’ll get to toward the end of this post but really, the great storylines were in other places. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t places where the Cubs have an edge, they do, but I’m just going to be really honest about the numbers I was looking at: In many places the teams are close, in most places the Dodgers have an edge. By far the most interesting point of comparison is that the Dodgers numbers are padded by an unbelievable start and the Cubs numbers are padded by an almost as impressive finish.
The more I looked at pitcher comparisons, bullpen comparisons, and starting lineups, the more I found myself thinking the most important component in this series isn’t in pitchFx data, it’s in expectations and pressure. With that in mind, and in no particular order, here are five things I think will matter during this series.
The Dodgers are under a lot of pressure to win. They are under at least as much pressure to win as the Nationals were in the NLDS, maybe even more. They haven’t won since 1988. I mean, Tommy Lasorda threatened to kill himself if the Dodgers don’t win this year. No, really:
“Thank you for the honor,” Lasorda said to the gathering of mostly Dodgers fans. He then added, courtesy of ABC 7 in Los Angeles, “May God bless each and every one of you — and if the Dodgers don’t win this time, I think I’m gonna kill myself.”
I mean, admittedly he’s exaggerating, but it encapsulates something important about the Dodgers: They have spent more money than any other team in Major League Baseball to build a juggernaut of a team that has made the last five postseasons, and they have yet to make it to a World Series.
That pressure was ultimately too much for the Nationals, will the Dodgers be able to channel it differently?
Last year I was one of a few thousand Cubs fans deliriously walking around Wrigley Field after game six. It was a glorious crowd of fans that clogged the streets for a few hours after the game.
That crowd also kept the Dodgers in the visitors’ clubhouse at Wrigley for hours. They sat and watched the entire celebration because their busses couldn’t get out through the crowd.
For several hours, the traffic around the ballpark prevented the Dodgers’ team bus from leaving the premises. The players huddled inside the antiquated visitors clubhouse and stewed and commiserated — and plotted to retake this stage a year later.
“It was a little salt in the wound,” pitcher Alex Wood said. “It was terrible, because our season was over.”
Closer Kenley Jansen said: “It was tough, man, to see how the fans got on us.”
To add insult to injury, the Dodgers were also scheduled to play the Cubs during their home opener this year. That means they also had to sit through the banner raising ceremony, and the ring ceremony.
I don’t know if they’ll be able to channel that anger productively, but it’s certainly lurking behind the scenes.
This series is a matchup of excellent managers. In fact, it’s a matchup of the last two National League Managers of the Year: Joe Maddon won in 2015 and Dave Roberts won last year. Last year’s NLCS was a brilliant chess match between two men who are clearly at the top of their games, and I’m looking forward to this rematch.
Roberts is cautious with his young team, especially where injuries are concerned. He’s twice pulled pitchers Joe Maddon would have probably left in: Ross Stripling at exactly 100 pitches during a no-hitter, and Rich Hill amid recovery from blister problems during a perfect game. The Dodgers just left All-Star Corey Seager off the NLCS roster due to back problems that emerged during the NLDS.
That caution is aligned with the Dodgers’ long term plans. They know they have a steady stream of talent, the best pitcher in baseball, and a long window, but watch for it in key decisions throughout the series.
Joe Maddon is a bit more willing to try anything and take a chance. In discussing Wade Davis’ seven-out save he gave a window into his thoughts: “What’s really the difference between six outs and seven?” He experiments with bunt strategies and pitchers playing left field for an out or two to maximize his bullpen. He’s been incredibly candid that years of working through the minors allowed him to experiment in ways many managers haven’t. One of those managers who never had the ability to experiment in similar ways? His counterpart, Dave Roberts.
Last year old age and treachery was victorious over youth and skill, will Maddon emerge on top again?
Kershaw vs. the Cubs
Okay, so maybe a little bit of math.
Clayton Kershaw is the best pitcher on the planet. Every now and again for a month or two another pitcher rises to his level (2016 Max Scherzer & Kyle Hendricks, 2015 Jake Arrieta and Zack Greinke) but let’s be honest, those other pitchers all revert to a mean, but not Kershaw. His mean is their outlying greatness.
And yet, the Cubs have had some success against Clayton Kershaw. Willson Contreras and Albert Almora Jr. have done well in limited at bats against Kershaw. Anthony Rizzo in particular has done well against the lefty across a larger sample.
The Cubs are probably going to have to face Kershaw at least twice to get this done. Here’s hoping they can continue to over perform against the best pitcher in the game.
The Cubs Starters
I already posted extensively about the Cubs top four starters in anticipation of the NLDS, and the only thing that’s changed there are the matchups. Well, that and the NLDS.
The Cubs rotation was outstanding in the NLDS. In a postseason where it seems like every starting pitcher has struggled, the Cubs rotation did the exact opposite. Check out these numbers:
Cubs Starting Pitching NLDS
Now, there is clearly some room for improvement. It would be nice to get more than four innings out of Arrieta, and the walks are high - but with the exception of one inning against Kyle Hendricks the Cubs rotation was lights out against one of the best offensive lineups in baseball.
They will need to do that again to win the NLCS, and they will certainly need more help from the pen in this series. Quintana and Lester as middle relief isn’t an viable strategy for another playoff series.
These are the key things I’ll be keeping an eye on as get started tonight at Chavez Ravine. What are you looking for in this series?