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A Cubs fan’s guide to the 2021 AL Wild Card Game

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Stats and matchups and superstitions, oh my!

Kyle Schwarber celebrates a double in the final game of the regular season
Photo by Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

The playoffs are here and for the second time in seven years the Cubs will not be part of it. To say this feels different than when they missed the playoffs in 2019 seems like a colossal understatement. The Cubs’ front office took a beloved core who finally hoisted the Commissioner’s Trophy at the corner of Clark and Addison just five years ago and traded all of them to playoff contenders in return for young prospects who might make it to MLB by 2023 or 2024 if fans are really lucky.

I guess we can be a tiny bit thankful we’ll get to see Anthony Rizzo, Kyle Schwarber, Kris Bryant and Jon Lester do cool things in other laundry this fall.

Before we hunker in for the rebuild, or retool, or whatever Jed Hoyer is calling it these days, we can all distract ourselves by watching some of our favorite Cubs in the postseason. So without further ado, here is one Cubs fan’s guide to the postseason. I’ll start today with the American League Wild Card Game and have a similar post before each series. While these posts are stat-informed, I’m a person, not a robot, so there will definitely be some projections that include my hunches, predictions and, frankly, personal preferences. Your preferences will probably differ but I hope you’ll share those cheering priorities and plans in the comments.

AL Wild Card: Yankees vs. Red Sox

There is a little bit of poetic justice in MLB’s favorite matchup being relegated to a one-game playoff on a Tuesday night. To be clear, when I say this is MLB’s favorite matchup, I am not speaking for the fans. I mean the league, TV network and front office types who insist all of us care about the most East Coast centered rivalry in baseball. But even if you begrudge the Yankees and Red Sox all of the extra coverage they get for existing close to the centers of power, this promises to be an entertaining game between two storied franchises. Let’s dig into the numbers a bit.

Projections Smojections

The Red Sox won 10 of their 19 games this season against the Yankees, so tonight’s game will be hosted at Fenway Park (or Pahk, for the locals). The Yankees were predicted to win the division by most analysts at the start of the season, but they got off to a slow start. You can see their roller coaster route to the playoffs in this graph by FanGraphs:

2021 AL East Playoff Odds
FanGraphs

Meanwhile the Red Sox and Rays (we’ll talk more about them later this week) are the surprise teams in this division. But despite a roster that looked pretty similar to their 2020 crew, the Red Sox prospered in 2021. They absolutely dominated the Yankees in the first half of the season, going 6-0 against the Bronx Bombers in June. That all evened out at the season went on, but the Red Sox did win five out of eight games at Fenway. I’m sure Yankees fans will point out that they swept the Red Sox at home in late September. I’ll point out that there was this rainbow over Fenway during that series and rainbows over Fenway are obviously good luck:

New York Yankees v Boston Red Sox
A rainbow over Fenway during the last Yankees series of the season
Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

Pitching

Red Sox ace Chris Sale pitched for the Red Sox in game 162 against the Nationals. He was pulled after 2⅓ innings after giving up two runs and walking back-to-back batters in the third. Sale is not on the Red Sox Wild Card roster tonight as former Yankee Nathan Eovaldi will toe the rubber for tonight’s win or go home game against Yankees ace Gerrit Cole. You can see season-wide and team specific stats for both below:

Eovaldi and Cole Comparison

Player GS IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 AVG BABIP ERA FIP xFIP
Player GS IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 AVG BABIP ERA FIP xFIP
Eovaldi Season 32 182.1 9.63 1.73 0.74 .252 .326 3.75 2.79 3.48
Cole Season 30 181.1 12.06 2.03 1.19 .221 .305 3.23 2.92 2.93
Eovaldi Yankees 6 34.0 9.00 1.10 1.30 .279 .340 3.71 3.61 3.62
Cole Red Sox 4 22.0 12.70 3.70 2.00 .279 .365 4.91 4.53 3.50
FanGraphs

One of the benefits of division rivals matching up in the postseason is that we have a lot of starts to evaluate and in this case it seems pretty clear that while Cole has had a much better season than Eovaldi, he’s also struggled more against the Red Sox. With both guys averaging five to six innings a start it also looks like the bullpens will get a chance to make a difference in this game and that could be really interesting.

Matt Barnes had been closing for the Red Sox for most of the season, but he really struggled with a 13.50 ERA and a .510 wOBA against in August. The Red Sox have played around with both Adam Ottavino and Hansel Robles in the closer role, however, when it really counted in game 162, starter Nick Pivetta got the ball for the save. Watch for manager Alex Cora to be creative and decisive with his pitchers in this game.

On the other side of the field the Yankees bullpen has been a source of strength. They have the fourth best ERA in the league and lead MLB in xFIP. The Red Sox are slashing .244/.334/.365 with a wRC+ of 96 against the Yankees pen this season.

Hitters

Both teams can hit and the Red Sox are led by Xander Bogaerts and Rafael Devers, who are both having outstanding seasons. Bogaerts ended the year with a .295/.370/.493 slash line and a 130 wRC+. Devers hit 38 home runs on route to a .279/.352/.538 year with a 134 wRC+. Both men have stayed hot in the final month of the season with Bogaerts slashing .271/.393/.443 in Sept/Oct and Devers putting up a .303/.372/.495 line during the same period. They are joined on the “who’s hot” list by Bobby Dalbec with his .247/.318/.610 slashline with a wRC+ of 141 in 85 plate appearances and our old friend Kyle Schwarber who put up a .262/.398/.476 slash line with a 139 wRC+ over 103 plate appearances for Boston.

The hottest hitters for the Yankees in the last month were mashers Aaron Judge with his .243/.312/.559 slash and a 131 wRC+ and Giancarlo Stanton with his .275/.310/.587 line and a wRC+ of 139. Those numbers are in line with their season numbers. and both men have over 30 home runs for the Yankees this season (39 for Judge and 35 for Stanton).

The Rosters

The Yankees added two players to their 40-man roster in advance of today’s game to put outfielder Greg Allen and catcher Rob Brantley among players available tonight. Allen had nine home runs and a wRC+ of 140 over a small sample of 48 plate appearances this year. They also have former Cubs captain Anthony Rizzo slated to get the start at first base. After a hot start with his new team Rizzo is slashing .249/.340/.428 with a wRC+ of 113 in bizarro pinstripes.

Aside from the unavailability of Sale the only other question mark in the Red Sox roster for tonight’s game was the availability of designated hitter J.D. Martinez. Martinez sprained his ankle in game 162 and I imagine they will use former Cubs masher Schwarber in that spot tonight and put a more experienced defensive first baseman, Dalbec in the lineup. While Schwarber’s defense in left field has improved over the years, Fenway provides its own complications there due to the Green Monster and I imagine Cora would rather avoid those possible adventures tonight.

I’ll be back with a closer look at the NL Wild Card Game tomorrow but in the meantime I’ll leave you with one of my favorite memories. The single play I can’t stop thinking about today is the last time Kyle Schwarber faced off against Gerrit Cole in a Wild Card game:

Poll

Who are you cheering for in the American League Wild Card Game?

This poll is closed

  • 79%
    Red Sox
    (94 votes)
  • 20%
    Yankees
    (24 votes)
118 votes total Vote Now