Friday, October 9
3:30 pm PT on TBS
Chicago Cubs (97-65) @St. Louis Cardinals (100-62)
In the preseason, I compiled standings projections from eight sources: Clay Davenport, Sports Illustrated, Fangraphs, PECOTA, Bleacher Report, Rant Sports, The Sporting News, and Eastside Sports. The Chicago Cubs were projected to finish with a record of 83-79 by an average of all the sources I used. The Cardinals were projected to win the NL Central by all sources with an average record of 89-73. Both teams far exceeded expectations, with the Cubs coming in at 14 more wins than expected and the Cardinals winning 11 more than the experts thought they would.
The Cardinals finished the year at +122 in run differential and allowed the fewest runs of any team in baseball. The Cubs scored 81 more runs than they allowed.
The Cubs runs scored and runs allowed suggests they are closer to a 90-72 team than the 97-65 record they actually had. The Cardinals were not quite the 100 win team they appear to be, as their runs scored and runs allowed suggests they were more likely a 96-66 team. Still, both teams were very good in the run differential department.
How They Got Here
Before this season, the Chicago Cubs hadn’t made the playoffs since 2008. From 2010 to 2014, the Cubs averaged 69 wins per year. They bottomed out with a 61-101 season in 2012. Over the last few years, they developed a very good farm system and most baseball analysts expected the Cubs to be a good team in the near future, but not this near. Much like the Astros, the Cubs had success very much ahead of schedule.
The Cubs were over .500 for most of the first few months of the season, but they really took off in July. On June 28th, the Cubs were 39-35. From that point forward, they went 58-30 and easily ran away with the second wild card spot. Their best stretch was a nine game winning streak in August.
In the wildcard game to determine who would advance and who would go home, the Cubs got a terrific game from ace Jake Arrieta and a key two-run home run from Kyle Schwarber to beat the Pirates, 4-0.
The Cardinals are one of the most successful franchises in baseball history. They’ve been especially good lately. Since 1996, the Cardinals have made the playoffs 13 times in 20 years and won two World Series titles in that stretch. They are currently on a run of four straight League Championship Series appearances and this is the third year in a row they’ve won the NL Central.
The Cardinals came out strong in 2015, going 15-6 in April. They took over first place on April 16th and never looked back. Their biggest lead of the season was on June 28th, when they led the NL Central by nine games. The Pirates tried to make it a contest late in the season, getting to within three games in late September at the start of a three game series between the two teams. The Cardinals took two of those three games and held on to win the division by two games.
Hitting, Pitching, Fielding Rankings
Rankings are based on Fangraphs statistical data. For offense, I used the metric wRC+, which means “weighted Runs Created Plus.” This looks at how a team’s offense compares to league average and takes ballpark effects into account. I used Fangraphs pitcher WAR (Wins Above Replacement) for starting pitchers and relief pitchers. The defensive rankings are based on Fangraphs’ metric for defense.
Matt Carpenter of the Cardinals had a surprising season with the bat and was the team’s best hitter. Carpenter had been a very good on-base guy in his first four years in the major leagues, but he suddenly discovered his power stroke in 2015. His 28 home runs this year were one more than his total over the three previous seasons combined. Along with Carpenter, a couple of young Cardinals hit very well. Randall Grichuk had 17 homers and a .548 slugging percentage in 103 games. Stephen Piscotty came up from the minor leagues to hit .305/.359/.494 in 63 games. Unfortunately, Grichuk has been playing with a bad arm lately and Piscotty had an ugly collision in the outfield recently, so there health is a question mark. An even bigger injury issue is Yadier Molina, who injured his thumb on September 20th and hasn’t appeared in a game since. He is on the post-season roster.
The Cubs’ starting pitchers led baseball in WAR. As a group, they had a 3.36 ERA (3.26 FIP) with a strikeout rate of 8.8 batters per nine innings. The top dog was Jake Arrieta, of course. Arrieta had a mind-boggling 1.77 ERA and walked fewer than two batters per nine. Jon Lester was the nominal ace at the beginning of the season, but Arrieta passed him by. Still, Lester had a good year. He only won 11 games but his 3.34 ERA (2.92 FIP) and strong strikeout and walk rates showed him to be a good pitcher. Kyle Hendricks and Jason Hammel round out a good front four.
The Cardinals’ pitcher with the best stuff is Carlos Martinez, but he has been shut down for the remainder of the season with a shoulder strain. With Martinez not available, it will come down to John Lackey (2.77 ERA, 3.57 FIP), Michael Wacha (3.38 ERA, 3.87 FIP), and Lance Lynn (3.03 ERA, 3.44 FIP) to hold down the fort. Lackey has been strong throughout the year but Wacha and Lynn have had their troubles at times. The wild card for the Cardinals is Adam Wainwright, who missed most of the year with an injury. Wainwright made it back to pitch in three games in relief at the end of the season. It will be interesting to see if the Cardinals can rely on him in big leverage situations.
There was only a half-win difference between the bullpens of the Cubs and Cards. The Cubs’ closer is Hector Rondon. He had 30 saves and a 1.67 ERA (2.68 FIP). He isn’t a big strikeout guy like some closers, but he has very good control and gets ground balls. He’ll be set up by Pedro Strop, Justin Grimm, and Travis Wood.
Trevor Rosenthal was the Cardinals’ closer and he had a big year, saving 48 games. He has more strikeout stuff than the Cubs’ Rondon, but less control and he gives up more fly balls. Kevin Siegrist is the team’s best left-handed reliever. We should see some Siegrist—Rizzo matchups in this series late in the games.
On defense, these teams rank very close to each other. The Cubs made more errors but also had more range. They could make big plays and botch the easy ones in this series.
It’s never a good idea to pick against the Cardinals considering their success over the years, but these Cubs look young and hungry. They would be better off if Arrieta could start game one, but he should be out there for game three. If the Cubs can take one of the first two in St. Louis, Arrieta will likely give them a 2-games-to-1 lead after his turn on the hill. I think that will drive the rest of the series and give the Cubs the victory.
My Prediction: Cubs over Cardinals, 3 games to 2