National League Division Series Preview: Chicago vs. St. Louis

One of baseball's greatest rivalries gets the October treatment. Which team is in the best shape to advance?

Red Sox-Yankees. Giants-Dodgers. Cubs-Cardinals. These are the rivalries that define baseball.

Tonight, one of those rivalries gets elevated to the next level when St. Louis, the NL Central champs with a 100-62 record, takes on division rival Chicago (97-65) in a five-game National League Division Series showdown for the ages. 

Consider that since 1901, the Cubs and Cardinals have played each other 2,241 times. For Chicago, they've played more games against the Redbirds than any other opponent, and for St. Louis, only Pittsburgh (2,246 games) has been a more frequent foe. In their all-time series, it is the Cubs with the advantage at 1,127-1,097 (.507 winning percentage). 

But with all this history, and all those games, this is the first time these two clubs have ever met in the playoffs.

The Cubs come in red-hot, winners of nine straight, including their Wild Card Game victory over the Pirates on Wednesday night, and have outscored their opponents 38-9 in those nine wins. The Cardinals, meanwhile, are 3-6 in their last nine. That is decidedly less hot. As for the season series, the Cubs had the upper hand, going 11-8 (.579) and outscoring the Cards 84-79.

Pitching Matchup

Jon Lester 11 12 32 205 9.09 2.06 3.34 2.92 5
Kyle Hendricks 8 7 32 180 8.35 2.15 3.95 3.36 3.4
Jake Arrieta 22 6 33 229 9.28 1.89 1.77 2.35 7.3
Jason Hammel 10 7 31 170.2 9.07 2.11 3.74 3.68 2.4

John Lackey 13 10 33 218 7.22 2.19 2.77 3.57 3.6
Jaime Garcia 10 6 20 129.2 6.73 2.08 2.43 3 2.8
Michael Wacha 17 7 30 181.1 7.59 2.88 3.38 3.87 2.3
Lance Lynn 12 11 31 175.1 8.57 3.49 3.03 3.44 3.1

The Cardinals will definitely miss one of their best starters, Carlos Martinez, who is out for the entire postseason with an injury. And their ace, Adam Wainwright, has been relegated to the bullpen after rushing back from an Achilles injury at the start of the season that was supposed to keep him out until 2016. Still, St. Louis has enough arms to get the job done.

In Game 1 they'll send their $500,000 man John Lackey to the hill, who had a remarkable season pitching for the league minimum (due to a contractual agreement based on a previous injury). His 2.77 ERA was his lowest since, well, ever. In fact, Lackey had never before finished a season with an ERA below 3.01. He'll oppose Jon Lester, the Cubs' huge free agent pick-up with a long postseason resume. Despite losing the AL Wild Card Game last year, giving up six earned runs in 7 1/3 innings to the Royals, Lester is 6-4 in 14 playoff games (12 starts) with a 2.57 ERA in 84 innings. 

The Cubs will send Kyle Hendricks up against Jaime Garcia in Game 2. Garcia missed the first part of the season with an injury but has returned to his previous form with a 2.43 ERA in a solid second half. Hendricks was good as a back-end starter with a 3.95 ERA in 32 starts for the Cubs, but the match-up probably favors the Cardinals in this one.

In Game 3, Chicago gets the most dominant pitcher in the game back, Jake Arrieta, who is writing quite a story here in 2015. He appears to be this year's Madison Bumgarner after twirling a historic complete game, 11-strikeout, no-walk shutout against the Pirates in the NL Wild Card Game. 

He'll be opposed by Michael Wacha, the 2013 NLCS MVP who has struggled in his previous two postseason outings. Still, even if the reincarnated spirit of Cy Young were to come to Wrigley Field for Game 3, it's hard to see anyone beating Arrieta right now.

And in Game 4, Jason Hammel will likely get the start against Lance Lynn, with the edge going back to the Cardinals in that particular match-up.

Hitting Match-up

Cubs 689 (6) 171 (5) .253 (6) .321 (T-5) .398 (7) .719 (T-6) .313 (T-6)
Cardinals 647 (11) 137 (11) .244 (T-13) .321 (T-5) .394 (9) .716 (8) .311 (8)

Offensively, these two teams do things very differently. The Cubs hit lots of homers, strike out a ton and were fifth in the National League in runs scored this year. The Cardinals are more of a pitching-first team but know how to get on base and had a slightly lower OPS (.719 to .716) than the Cubs. Still, they were just 11th in the NL in runs scored in 2015.

If the Cardinals are going to get anything done offensively, they're going to be led by their all-world lead-off man Matt Carpenter, who slugged a surprising 28 home runs to go along with a .272 batting average, .365 on-base percentage and .505 slugging percentage. This is a guy who went deep a mere 8 times last year and 11 the season before. Jason Heyward had a terrific, six-win season for the Cardinals after coming from the Braves in a trade in the off-season. They'll need his .293/.359/.439 bat at the top of the order to help set up a middle of the order that is not very deep. 

The big question hanging over the entire series is the health of Yadier Molina, who is trying to play through torn thumb ligaments. He had a down year at the plate when healthy (.270/.310/.350, wRC+ 80), but is still an essential piece of the Cardinals' machine. If he can't go or is limited, it could be a serious blow to a team that doesn't score a lot of runs to begin with.

Chicago is led by their young collection of mashers, including likely National League Rookie of the Year Kris Bryant and slugging first baseman Anthony Rizzo. Dexter Fowler has been terrific out of the leadoff spot for the Cubs this year (.346 OBP, 102 runs scored) and had a big game against the Pirates in the Wild Card game, as did rookie slugger Kyle Schwarber, who hit 16 homers in just 61 games as a late-season call-up. He's a special player.

The Cubs are clearly the more dangerous offensive team.

The Bullpens

Like the rotation, the arms coming out of the St. Louis bullpen have been among the best in baseball this year. They have the second-lowest ERA among relievers (2.82), but the Cubs aren't far behind with the fourth-best ERA in the NL (3.38). Cubs relievers were a bit better at striking guys out (8.94 K/9) than the Cardinals (8.65 K/9), and the Cubs relievers also allowed fewer walks per nine innings (3.20) than the Cardinals (3.40). Those numbers largely held true for the second half as well.

For Chicago, Hector Rondon turned out to be a terrific choice for closer. He saved 30 games with a 1.67 ERA and 2.68 fielding independent pitching (FIP) and locked down the ninth inning for the Cubs all year long. Pedro Strop, Travis Wood and Justin Grimm all finished with ERAs under 3.00, and Chicago also has former Cardinals closer Jason Motte in the 'pen as well.

The Cardinals have one of the most dominant closers in all of baseball, Trevor Rosenthal, who collected 48 saves with a 2.10 ERA while striking out 10.88 batters per nine. Kevin Siegrist and his 2.17 ERA were a big help in the later innings, and don't forget about their potential ace in the hole, Wainwright, lurking in the 'pen. Who knows when he'll appear?

St. Louis has a slight edge here as well.


Last week, I wrote about how the Cardinals, despite winning 100 games, would be the underdog heading into the playoffs. Our numbers bear that out, giving St. Louis a 42.26% chance to reach the next round, while the Cubs, despite three fewer regular season wins, are at 57.74% to advance.

However, I've learned to stop picking against the Cardinals, at least this early in the playoffs. I don't think they'll get to the World Series, but they didn't win 100 games by accident.

I'm picking the Cardinals in five.