That both Wild Card games were decided by late three-run homers was little more than coincidence, but the fact that Wednesday night’s winner came against Jeurys Familia certainly added a poetic twist. One losing manager refused to pitch his stud closer in a tie game on the road, the other put his stud closer in with the score tied at home. In the latter instance, unlikely power source Conor Gillaspie came up big for the Giants, who made the first step toward another even-year World Series parade and further cemented Madison Bumgarner’s folk hero status.
The Giants now head to Chicago to take on the 103-win Cubs in a matchup that has been the cause of much hand-wringing. The anxiety is actually less about the opponent than it is Cubs’ fans general desire to watch some meaningful games for the first time in a month or so, but San Francisco does seem to pose more problems than the Mets would have. They also serve as quite the foil for the flashy team calling Wrigley home.
While the Cubs have a front office that hangs out in the bleachers like they’re at a bachelor party, the Giants have a low-key operation that I don’t think I could name more than one member of. They’re sort of this vanilla franchise that just grinds forward and has a great combination of skill, knowledge, intuition, and luck. What’s the secret? They’re not telling, but it’s sure worked out well over the last several years.
The Cubs are led by billboard-friendly young players like Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo, while the Giants are replete with dudes who look like they bit the 90’s-era Phillies’ style and drove to the park in their T-top Camaros.
Chief among the Bayside stars is Hunter Pence, a guy who looks like the child of Edward Scissorhands and Shaggy from Scooby Doo going through a hippy phase. He’s a whirling dervish of appendages and facial hair who manages to find himself in the middle of the action time and time again. It’s my sincere hope that the Cubs can do to Pence what fellow Chicagoan Kevin McAllister did to the outfielder’s doppelganger, Marv the Wet Bandit.
Then you’ve got Paul MadBumyan, the larger-than-life North Carolina country boy who twirls postseason shutouts with an aw-shucks demeanor that belies about as much personality as his hometown’s namesake. Dude is hard as hickory too, though, and there’s no denying that he’s able to take his game to a new level when it comes to the playoffs. Throw in Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija and you’ve got a trio that is capable of matching up pretty favorably with the Cubs’ rotation.
Put like that, it sounds as though I’m making a case for San Francisco to continue their cyclical October ride. But here’s the thing: the Cubs didn’t win 103 games by accident and they’re still the best team in baseball. Best rotation, best defense, a lock-down bullpen, and a bench that runs both deep and wide. That doesn’t mean this will be a walkover, though, as the Cubs are still going to need to do things right in order to move on.
As such, I wanted to examine a few areas they’ll need to exploit, some weak sections in the armor that shields the Giants’ soft underbelly. Let’s start with…
If we look at fWAR, Cueto was more than half a game higher than his counterpart (5.5 to 4.9) and is walking a career-low 1.81 batters per 9 innings. His numbers on the road are generally better than those at AT&T Park, too, which bodes well for the Giants.
Aren’t you supposed to be writing about how the Cubs can win?
Don’t worry, I’m getting there.
While Cueto’s overall numbers are a little better, he walks more players as a visiting pitcher. It’s not much (2.29 to 1.40), but that’s enough of a crack for the Cubs to wedge in their crowbar of a patient approach and jimmy away. Crucial to that strategy will be the lefty batters, with whom Cueto usually has a little more trouble. While righties are OPS’ing only .601 against him this season, lefties are at .670. That number jumps to .693 when he’s pitching on the road.
Conventional wisdom holds that you want to wear a guy down and make him throw a lot of pitches, get as many looks at him as possible. With Cueto, however, I’d suggest the opposite is true, at least for those lefty batters. In his first time through the order, the dreadlocked righty allows a .695 OPS to left-handed hitters. That number jumps to .758 the second time through, but then drops to .548 on the third. Right-handed hitters do fare better as the game goes along, for what it’s worth.
Likewise, Samardzija has pitched better away from home. His R/L splits are much more pronounced, though, as he’s allowed a .781 OPS to lefties (.807 on the road) against only .640 to righties. As with Cueto, a key for the Cubs will be to jump the Shark early and maintain that nice .769 OPS he allows the first time through the order. It drops to .623 on the second go-round, but then bounces back to .756 on the third revolution.
I can already tell this piece is gonna run long, so I’ll spare you a redux of Jon Lester and Kyle Hendricks breakdowns I’ve done elsewhere. Suffice to say they’ve been phenomenal at Wrigley this season, and that looks really good as they face a Giants team that is just over .500 in road games.
Then we’ve got Jake Arrieta, about whom much has been written regarding his inability to recapture last year’s magic. From the second-no hitter of his career in April to a late-season swoon that sees him lined up as the Cubs’ third starter, Arrieta has been anything but consistent. Even so, the State Farm pitchman can still pitch, man, and that’s why I love him going to the bump for Game 3 in San Fran to face MadBum.
I can’t blame you for not being hopeful about that duel after watching the latter ace add to his legend Wednesday night in Queens, particularly with the way Arrieta has been pitching. Thing is, Arrieta’s every bit as capable of doing the same thing. And all great runs, whether they be of scoreless innings or even-year success, must come to an end. Why not kill both this coming Monday?
Not to contradict myself, but maybe it would be good for the Cubs to chase the Giants’ starters and get into the pen as quickly as possible. Come to think of it, that’s not really a contradiction a all. If the hitters, particularly the lefties, can go to work on Cueto and Samardzija and pile up a few runs, the relief corps isn’t scary at all. Definitely some potential to exploit a weakness, though it’s largely predicated on getting out to quick starts rather than grinding the games out.
If you were to cobble together a bespoke lineup that perfectly fit what the Cubs’ pitchers and defense like to do, it’d probably be the Giants. They have an excellent walk rate (9.1%, 3rd in NL) and their 17.7% strikeout rate is tops in the league, which might scare some folks. It’s what they do when the put the ball in play, however, that fits the Cubs like a glove. And, like, the gloves they want to wear, not Anthony Rizzo being forced to trade out his mitt for a standard issue model when he’s playing up against a bunt and Ben Zobrist is covering first base.
Only the Braves (122) and Marlins (128) hit fewer home runs than the 130 the Giants tallied this season, which means, despite Gillaspie’s heroics, the longball isn’t something you really need to worry about with this team. Their 20.2% soft-hit percentage is third-highest in the NL (that’s bad) and their 29% hard-hit percentage is second from the bottom (also not good), both of which set up very nicely for Cubs pitchers who rank 1st (Hendricks, 25.1%), 3rd (Arrieta, 22.9%), and 17th (Lester, 18.9%) in the NL in terms of generating soft contact.
For what it’s worth, Arrieta (25.2%), Hendricks (25.8%), and Lester (26.8%) rank 2nd, 3rd, and 5th in terms of allowing the least hard contact too. And that’s where the Cubs historically-good defense comes into play. Pitching and hitting can be pretty fickle, but defense is a much more stalwart aspect of success in both small and large samples. If we look at park-adjusted defensive efficiency (PADE, a weighted measure of how likely a given team is to turn balls in play into outs relative to an average team playing in the same parks), the Cubs are far and away MLB’s best.
Their 6.38 score is not only nearly four times better than any other team this season, it’s better than any other team in history. Like, ever. For all time. Pay no attention to the fact that the team right behind them on that list is the 2001 Mariners, to whom the Cubs have been repeatedly linked when lazy examples of great teams that didn’t win are thrown out.
Could the Cubs come out and absolutely shart themselves over the next few days, fading into futile notoriety with a cacophony of molten-hot takes screeching a hellish dirge all the while? Sure. But they could just as soon steamroll the Giants and move on to face either the Nationals or Dodgers in the next round. San Francisco has a nice team, but the Cubs have the advantage at every single turn and need only play their game if they want to win.
If the Cubs pitch, hit, and field as they’ve done all season, they’ll move on with what I’m guessing will be a 3-1 series victory. Knowing that, I’m sure you’ll all be able to settle down and watch the games with no anxiety whatsoever, right? Yeah, me neither.