2016 World Series Preview: 5 Things to Know
The Chicago Cubs haven't been in the World Series in a while. In fact, it's been so long that when Dexter Fowler steps to the plate as the Cubs' leadoff hitter in Game 1 Tuesday night in Cleveland, he will become the first black Chicago Cub player ever to play in a World Series.
That's because, the last time the Cubs were in the Fall Classic, it was 1945. Jackie Robinson didn't break the Major League's color barrier until 1947.
However, if we lived in a Cubs-less world, the Cleveland Indians would have bragging rights as the longest-suffering franchise. Sure, they've been to a few World Series since African Americans were allowed to play in baseball, where they lost in 1995 in six games to the Atlanta Braves and a heartbreaker in '97 to the Florida Marlins in a grueling Game 7, but they have quite a country song of their own going.
Chicago has not won a World Series since 1908. Cleveland has not won since 1948.
Needless to say, the fanbases are pumped. Some tickets for Wrigley Field's Game 3 are going for as much as $15,000. Even if the series stinks, it's going to be historic.
But will it stink? On paper, the Cubs are heavy favorites. They won 103 games in the regular season, 9 more than the Indians' 94. But the Indians showed a bunch of spunk in the ALCS, beating the Toronto Blue Jays in a surprisingly easy five games.
So, as two cities prepare to get nothing done for the next week or so, here are the five main things to know entering this year's epic Fall Classic.
1. The Indians' Bullpen Is a Great Equalizer
As the postseason has been teaching us for years, you can get by with a less-than-robust starting rotation if you have a great bullpen.
The Indians are proving that axiom. Corey Kluber is a stud, and you really do need at least one stud starter to get you through these five- and seven-game series. But it is the 'pen and, specifically, the outstanding work of ALCS MVP Andrew Miller and closer Cody Allen, who have been most responsible for Cleveland reaching the World Series.
In the regular season, the Indians had the better bullpen as well, with an fWAR of 4.9 compared to Chicago's 3.1. Cleveland had the fourth-best reliever ERA (3.45), but the Cubs weren't far behind, in eighth, at 3.56. And the Indians had the better Adjusted Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP-), 86-to-94. That means, when adjusted for park factors, the Indians' relievers were 14% better than a league average bullpen, the Cubs were 6% better.
However, the Cubs' bullpen did have the best batting average against in baseball (.208), while the Indians were eighth (.231), and the Cubs also had a slightly better strikeout to walk ratio.
Despite Chicago's excellent bullpen, the most dynamic weapon in the playoffs has been Miller, a shut-down reliever capable of going two to three innings on a given night. He has covered up for the injuries to the starting rotation, which was supposed to be the strength of the team. He alone is a huge difference-maker and could once again by the key to the entire series.
2. Returning Injured Stars
Each team is hoping an injured superstar will be able to contribute this week.
Chicago outfielder/catcher/designated hitter Kyle Schwarber is playing in a few Arizona Fall League games in the hopes of being able to rejoin his team in time for Game 1 in Cleveland. You'll remember that Schwarber tore his ACL in the team's third game of the season in this collision with Fowler.
You could argue the Cubs don't really need him at this point, seeing as how they've scored 23 runs in their last three games. But Schwarber is a difference-maker, as everyone saw last postseason when he hit a franchise record five dingers.
Cleveland may be ready to get an even more important piece back. Danny Salazar, who was 11-6 in 137 1/3 innings with a 3.87 ERA and a 10.55 strikeouts per nine innings this season when he injured his elbow in early September, threw three innings of a simulated game over the weekend and is hoping to be available out of the bullpen at least.
That would be huge for a rotation that does have Kluber and Josh Tomlin but is without the outstanding Carlos Carrasco and is uncertain what they will get with Trevor Bauer and his drone-fixin' pinkie finger.
3. You Need the Power
If you hate small ball and love the dinger, then the 2016 postseason has been for you.
So far in the playoffs, the team that has out-homered their opponent in each game has gone 25-2. And so far in the playoffs, the Cubs have hit more homers (12) than their opponents (4), as have the Indians (11-5). For Cleveland, 55.6% of all their runs this postseason have come via the dinger, while for Chicago, that number is 41.7%.
For the Indians, Coco Crisp, Carlos Santana, Jason Kipnis, and Francisco Lindor all lead the team with two homers, while Anthony Rizzo and Addison Russell lead the Cubs with two as well. Rizzo has been especially hot after a frustratingly slow start to the postseason.
In the regular season, the Cubs hit more long balls than the Indians (199-185) and outscored Cleveland as well (808-777). But the Indians are no slouch offensively, finishing fifth in MLB in runs scored, with the Cubs were two spots higher in third.
Because pitching is so much better in the playoffs, stringing lots of hits together to form long rallies is especially difficult. And when you add in the specialized use of relievers, it gets even harder. That's why the home run ball has been such a weapon in this year's postseason.
Whoever out-homers the other in this series will likely end up as the more effective offense.
4. Cleveland's Run Game versus Jon Lester
The Indians don't have as dynamic an offense as Chicago, and their starting rotation, given their spate of injuries, doesn't measure up either. But in addition to an advantage in the 'pen, Cleveland is also the much better team on the bases as well.
According to FanGraphs, only two teams this year added more runs to their teams' total on the bases, the San Diego Padres and Arizona Diamondbacks. The Cubs weren't far behind, in fifth. However, the Indians stole 134 bags this year, 4th-most in baseball, while the Cubs totaled just 66, which was tied for 20th.
And now those speedy Indians will get to face Jon Lester, he of the utter inability to throw the ball to the bases. In case you weren't aware, Lester doesn't make pick-off throws. Here's why.
The Dodgers tried to play some mind games with Lester in Game 5 of the NLCS, but that didn't exactly work, with Lester pitching seven innings of one-run, five-hit ball. Overall, Lester is 8-6 with a 2.50 ERA in 19 postseason games (17 starts), and in three starts this season, he is 3-0 with a 0.86 ERA. He has struck out 14 batters, walked 2, and allowed just 14 hits. Opponents have batted .189/.211/.257 for a .467 OPS this year against him.
So if Lester isn't letting anyone on base, this is all moot. But when a Cleveland batter reaches base against him, things could get real interesting.
5. Lots of Leather
You're going to see a ton of defense in this series.
No team in baseball flashes the leather better than the Cubs. They led the league in defensive runs saved (DRS) with a staggering 82. The next closest teams were the Houston Astros and San Francisco Giants with 51 and 50, respectively. However, the Indians weren't far behind, in ninth, with 17. Both teams cover a ton of ground in the field as well, with the Cubs leading MLB in Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) at 73.0, while Cleveland was fourth, at 35.6.
The Cubs had five players with a Baseball Reference defensive WAR (dWAR) of 0.8 or higher: Kris Bryant (0.8), David Ross (1.1), Jason Heyward (1.3), Javier Baez (2.0), and Addison Russell (2.7). The Indians had four: Yan Gomes (0.8), Roberto Perez (0.9), both of whom are catchers, Jason Kipnis (0.9), and Francisco Lindor (2.7).
Clearly, the Cubs are the better defensive team, especially in the middle of the field, where Fowler, Baez, Russell and Ross are among the most dynamic fielders in the game.
What Will Happen?
It says a lot that the Cubs have managed to get to the World Series despite losing Schwarber three games into the season and suffering such a bad season from their $188 million free agent signee, Heyward, that they had to replace him in the starting lineup with Albert Almora Jr. in Game 6 of the NLCS.
It also says a lot about the Indians that they have gotten this far despite getting 2/3 of an inning from Bauer in the ALCS, a loss from Kluber, and a start in the deciding Game 5 from rookie Ryan Merritt, who had one Major League outing under his belt before that night.
According to our projections, the Cubs' odds of winning the title stand at 63.49%, with the most likely outcome winning in five games, at 19.23%.
Chicago is the more talented team and should win. But Cleveland has been tough to kill and will be a difficult out over the next week and a half.
Whoever wins, one thing is for sure.
It will be historic.