Last night the Cubs got beaten soundly by three of the best pitchers in baseball, not for the first time in the playoffs. Against the Dodgers they were shut out by Clayton Kershaw, arguably the best pitcher in the NL, and Kenley Jansen, arguably its best closer. Last night it was Corey Kluber (if not the best starter in the AL, very close), Andrew Miller (ditto for relievers), and Cody Allen (a very good reliever staked to a six-run lead). In fact, Baseball Prospectus had the odds slightly in the Indians’ favor in Game 1, but heavily in the Cubs’ favor (62 percent to 38 percent) in Game 2.
By the numbers and general agreement, the Cubs are the better team. It’s not a guarantee they’ll win; as White Sox fans will recall, if not the national media, a good-but-not-great team can get hot and win all three series in a near-sweep of the playoffs. So far the Indians have had the fifth-best playoff pitching performance of the Wild Card era. Then again, the best is… the 1995 Indians.
But the Cubs are good enough that we’re likely to get a lot of baseball to watch, and with it a lot to learn about the details of the game. And the coverage of it is as good as I’ve read in a lifetime of reading sports writing.
Last night wasn’t as bad as it looked.
As The Athletic’s Sahadev Sharma points out, the Cubs went 1-11 with runners in scoring position, and came within a David Ross check-swing of walking in a run against Andrew Miller. They also pushed Miller, who’s struck out 24 in 13.2 innings in the playoffs and yielded no runs, to a season-high 46 pitches in just two innings. Kyle Schwarber, whose batting eye was a concern after missing basically the entire season, made Miller throw 11 pitches in two at-bats.
It wasn’t just Corey Kluber.
August Fagerstrom lays out how Kluber dominated the Cubs, particularly with his two-seam fastball, the movement of which completely fooled Dexter Fowler and Kris Bryant. But he also mentions how Roberto Perez is one of the best pitch framers in baseball, and how last night he made “close pitches look like great pitches.” I wrote about that at the beginning of the season—about the value that Miguel Montero brought to the Cubs in his ability to catch borderline pitches in a way that makes them look like strikes, and Montero was the best at it in baseball in 2016. The emergence of Willson Contreras, combined with Montero’s offensive deficiencies, have found him behind the plate less often, but it’s a tradeoff of skills. Contreras is behind the plate tonight, perhaps because of Trevor Bauer’s reverse-platoon splits, but it leaves Montero’s glove on the bench again.
The managing in this series is worth watching.
Mike Gianella points out at Baseball Prospectus that Cleveland is sitting two outfielders, Rajai Davis and Brandon Guyer, for Coco Crisp and Tyler Naquin, in order to play the platoon advantage. Francona’s team hit with the platoon advantage 70 percent of the time in 2016. I’ve written before that, to the extent we can value a manager’s skills, Joe Maddon seems to be very good. Expect a compelling matchup of tacticians, including the drama of Francona potentially using multiple starters on short rest.
Can Aroldis Chapman be effective before the 9th inning?
The Yankees started the season with three top-tier relievers; the rest of the team wasn’t very good, so they put them on the market. The Cubs tried to get Andrew Miller, but the Yankees wanted Schwarber or Javier Baez, so they “settled” for Chapman, a more dominant pitcher but a short-term rental. The Indians got Miller, whose adaptability as a reliever has been crucial to their postseason success.
Baseball writers, and to a certain extent teams, have explored the possibility of using great closers earlier in games. Could we see Chapman in a critical situation in the 6th or 7th inning? Probably not. At The Athletic, Rob Arthur made a fascinating finding: for the past few years, Chapman has thrown a bit slower when he comes in before the 8th inning. This year, three miles an hour slower. It might be mental; it might be Chapman’s warmup routine, which involves a heavy baseball. That difference—Miller’s flexibility, Chapman’s specialization, and the market that led to them facing each other in the World Series—are among the little things that can add up to a crucial difference in a short series.
What makes Trevor Bauer good and Jake Arrieta great?
They have similar arsenals; they’re both extremely intelligent pitchers who have made comebacks from uneven performances as top prospects. Eno Sarris gets deep into the physics of why Arrieta is so much better.
Can the Cubs get an early lead?
An interesting finding from Ben Lindbergh at The Ringer: the Indians are much better than your average team at winning after they’ve taken a lead, but not much better than average when they’re behind. By Win Probability Added, Kluber has been the most valuable player this postseason; Miller’s number two; Cody Allen is number four. The Cubs’ most valuable player has been Lester at number six, followed by Baez in seventh. The earlier the Cubs can get ahead, the more likely they are to take two of the Indians’ three best weapons off the table.
Why is Kyle Hendricks so good?
Jon Lester was supposed to be the Cubs’ best pitcher; then Jake Arrieta turned into Sandy Koufax for a season and a half. Around that time, Kyle Hendricks looked like a “a perfectly acceptable #3 starter;” then the Cubs picked up John Lackey, a good number-three starter, making Hendricks a good number four starter, giving them incredible rotation depth. Then Hendricks went out and slightly outpitched Lester this year. Earlier this month, Sahadev Sharma did a deep dive on what changed; the obvious answer is that he mixed his pitches and became less predictable, but it’s a compelling look at how even an intelligent pitcher like the Professor can require help in understanding his tendencies and a push to change them against his own instincts.
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