National League Wild Card Betting Preview: Cubs vs. Rockies
The MLB postseason is finally here.
After 6 months and 162 games of the marathon that is the Major League Baseball season, the fate of two teams, the Chicago Cubs and Colorado Rockies, comes down to just one game. The winner of tonight's NL Wild Card Game moves onto the National League Division Series to take on the top-seeded Milwaukee Brewers, while the loser goes home. It's baseball at its most dramatic.
The Cubs come into tonight having taken the top wild card spot but lost their Game 163 matchup at home yesterday with the Brewers sending them to a play-in game against the Rockies, who fell to the Los Angeles Dodgers. Now, both teams are fighting for their lives, and oddsmakers have installed the Cubs as the favorites (-138), though it's not by a wide margin.
Let's check out how these teams match up ahead of tonight's pivot clash.
Cubs Starter vs. Rockies Bats
Toeing the mound for Chicago tonight is their ace left-hander Jon Lester, who had what appeared to be an effective regular season. His 3.32 ERA was a full run below last year's (4.33), but his 4.39 FIP was actually higher (4.10); as was his xFIP (4.43 to 3.85). Fangraphs has his Wins Above Replacement (fWAR) for this season at 1.6, substantially fewer than the 2.7 fWAR he put up a season ago.
Lester also saw his strikeout rate drop from 23.6% in 2017 to 19.6% this season, while his walk rate increased from 7.9% to 8.4%. His hard-hit rate jumped from 28.1% to 31.9%, his soft-hit rate fell from 21.4% to 18.5%, his line drive rate increased from 21.4% to 25.8% and his ground ball rate sunk from 46.2% to just 37.7% in 2018. None of these trends are in Lester's favor.
However, the veteran has a history of coming through in the postseason.
Jon Lester will make his 3rd career winner-take-all game start, with his 3rd different team (Cubs, Red Sox, A's).
The only other pitcher to start winner-take-all games for 3 or more franchises is Roger Clemens: for the Yankees, Red Sox and Astros.
— Sarah Langs (@SlangsOnSports) October 1, 2018
In 25 career playoff appearances (21 starts), Lester has a 2.55 ERA in 148.0 innings, so it's the guy Chicago definitely wants to have out there in a big spot. He'll be opposing a Rockies offense that tied for seventh in team wOBA this season (.325), scored the seventh-most runs, and had the sixth-best isolated power (.179 ISO) in the game.
They are led by MVP candidates Nolan Arenado (.391 wOBA, 38 home runs, 104 runs, 110 RBI) and Trevor Story (.384 wOBA, 37 homers, 88 runs, 108 RBI), as well as one of the best leadoff hitters in the game in Charlie Blackmon (.368 wOBA, 29 homers, 119 runs). However, Colorado is by far a better home team than away team, with an MLB-best .362 wOBA in Denver and a .289 wOBA on the road, which is fourth-worst in baseball. The offense struggles to perform outside the hitter-friendly environment of Coors Field, which should give Lester the home field advantage he needs in this contest.
Rockies Starter vs. Cubs Bats
Kyle Freeland comes into the game off one of the best seasons by a Colorado starting pitcher in team history. The second-year lefty had a 2.85 ERA, 3.67 FIP and 4.22 xFIP in 202.1 innings this season, all while pitching in the homer haven that is Coors Field. He gave up a staggeringly low 0.76 home runs per nine innings all while not striking a ton of guys out (just a 20.5% rate).
Still, opponents hit just .237 against him this season, with a solid ground ball-to-fly ball ratio of 1.33 -- 26th out of 57 qualified MLB starters this year. Colorado is going with Freeland to start this game on short rest, a move that some say is a bit risky.
@Rockies taking big risk on Kyle Freeland. Teams going w/starter on short rest vs. fully rested starter are 20-40 in the postseason since 1997. Historically it's been baseball's biggest sucker bet. @Cubs @Rockies
— Phil Rogers (@philgrogers) October 2, 2018
Freeland has only started on three days rest once in his career, so there's no telling how he will react. He'll be facing a Cubs lineup that has been solid this season, with a .321 team wOBA that is 11th-best in baseball, scoring the 9th-most runs in the Majors. However, their .152 team ISO is only 22nd in the game, and they haven't been all that much better at home, with a .325 wOBA that ranks 11th at Wrigley Field, compared to a .317 wOBA that is 13th away from the Friendly Confines.
Kris Bryant has dealt with injuries all season and hit just 13 home runs in 102 games, but Javier Baez took his place as the lineup's true masher, with a team-best .366 wOBA and 34 dingers, 101 runs and 111 RBI. Anthony Rizzo (.359 wOBA, 25 homers), Ben Zobrist (.355 wOBA) and Kyle Schwarber (.343 wOBA, 26 bombs), also had solid, if unspectacular, seasons.
As important as the starters are, the bullpens are often the key to advancing in the playoffs these days. Managers will pull each starter at the first sign of trouble, so which ever team has the edge in the bullpen matchup could hold the keys to victory tonight.
On paper, it would appear that advantage clearly goes to the Cubs, who have the second-best ERA among relievers this season (3.35), while Colorado has the fifth-worst (4.62). However, according to fWAR, the two 'pens are neck-and-neck, with Chicago and Colorado both coming in with an fWAR of 4.0. Rockies relievers have the 10th-best strikeout rate (23.7%) while the Cubs are 18th (22.6%). The Rockies also have the superior strikeout-to-walk ratio (13.9% to 11.7%) from their bullpen arms.
And while Colorado's closer Wade Davis has had an up-and-down season and enters the playoffs with a 4.13 ERA and a 3.65 FIP, as well as 10.74 strikeouts per nine innings (K/9), the Cubs are without their effective closer Brandon Morrow, who is out for the season with a bone bruise in his elbow. That's going to force manager Joe Maddon into a closer-by-committee approach that could hurt the team in the later innings.
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