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Should Cubs Fans Root for the Dodgers or Mets?

The Cubs are undefeated against the Mets this year, but in the NLCS, they would be facing a much better New York team than the one they played in May and July.

Cubs fans at the Cubby Bear during the Wild Card game earlier this month   Photo: Armando L. Sanchez/Chicago Tribune

There are a lot of ways to think about it. From a pure pleasure standpoint, it’s hard to root against seeing more Dodgers games, seeing as they have two pitchers in a photo finish for this season’s Cy Young Award against Jake Arrieta—one pitcher who’s more electric (slang for “better peripherals") in Clayton Kershaw, one pitcher with a better ERA in baseball-nerd-hero Zack Greinke (seriously, what baseball stats fan doesn’t geek out when Greinke gets in the weeds of his own record?)

From a narrative perspective, it’s hard to root against the Mets, who weren’t expected to be serious contenders this season, against a very good Dodgers team that’s nonetheless mildly underperforming considering its $300 million payroll.

From a practical perspective: Who would be easier to beat? The Tribune editorial board is confident!

The Mets need your support! It would be a shame for the Dodgers to crush the Mets’ hopes of winning the World Series.

That’s a job for your Chicago Cubs.

So root, root, root for a Cubs-Mets matchup — and not just because, on paper at least, the Mets would be easier to beat. The Cubs are 7-0 against the Mets this year and 3-4 against the Dodgers.

Yes, the Cubs went 7-0 against the Mets this year. But that was a different, inferior Mets team. (Stop me if you’ve heard this before.)

The Cubs played four games against the Mets in May and three in July, both series before the All-Star break. After that last game, on July 2, the Mets were a .500 team that had been outscored 296 to 277, with an even worse .470 Pythagorean record (baseball nerd talk for how many games your team should have won, according to a somewhat wonky formula). The Cubs, meanwhile, were a .545 team that had outscored their opponents 304 to 289, with a Pythagorean record of .523.

At the end of July, the Mets were “on the periphery of serious contention” for the postseason, according to baseball statistics site FanGraphs. And that’s when the team took a huge risk and acquired Yoenis Cespedes, a talented if inconsistent outfielder previously with the Detroit Tigers and Oakland A’s. And, in the 57 games left in the season, he was arguably their best hitter.

Around the same time, after a few Mets players had suffered some injuries throughout the season, FanGraphs blogger Jeff Sullivan wrote this:

There’s a sense of urgency, as people want the Mets to upgrade [their players] so that they don’t waste the pitching they’re getting. Due in part to all those injuries, the lineup has struggled. The Mets could use a bat, and in left field, they’ve got an aching Michael Cuddyer and a handful of backups.

Suddenly the team called up Michael Conforto, a young outfield prospect who’s been very good in left field, easily one of their top five offensive players in the second half of this season.

Not surprisingly, the Mets have been a much better offensive team in the second half. Below is a table of their five best position players by Wins Above Replacement in each half, with weighted on-base average, or wOBA, an advanced hitting metric, thrown in for fun. According to FanGraphs, a .320 wOBA is average, with .340 being great and .370 being excellent.

Take a look at the top Mets players by Wins Above Replacement. The second and third best players weren’t even on the team when the Cubs played them.

Top Five Mets Players by Wins Above Replacement, April 6 to July 13

Top Five Mets Players by Wins Above Replacement, July 17 to October 4

Meanwhile, the Dodgers’ best position players have changed, and not for the better.

Top Five Dodgers Players by Wins Above Replacement, April 6 to July 13

Top Five Dodgers Players by Wins Above Replacement, July 17 to October 4

Catcher Yasmani Grandal, an unusually good hitter at a typically weak position, has been injured for most of the second half of this season. He was an All-Star player, hitting .282 with 14 home runs; after the All-Star break, he hit .162 with two home runs. Center fielder Joc Pederson, a very top, very young prospect, had a ton of luck early on and regressed.

Overall, the teams switched fortunes at the plate (the Dodgers were a better pitching team in both halves of the season, though the Mets have a deeper bullpen, a weakness for the Cubs).

In the end, the Mets played a bit better than the Dodgers in the second half of the season, going 43-30 after the All-Star break versus 41-31. At FanGraphs, Sullivan ran the numbers based on projections weighted by playing time and favors the Dodgers, but concluded: “The Dodgers look like the best, but they’re probably not much better than the Mets or the Blue Jays.” FiveThirtyEight likes the Dodgers better too, but not by much—52 percent versus 48 percent to make the NLCS as of October 9, 24 percent versus 21 percent to make the World Series, and 11 percent versus 10 percent to win it all. (Of course, that same day, they gave the Blue Jays, down two games to zero, a 15 percent chance of advancing to the ALCS. The Blue Jays instead flew to victory last night.)

“On paper, at least,” the Mets might look like a much more favorable matchup. Online, with a lot more data available, it looks like more of a tossup.


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