By Charles Jay
The story has been done to death about how long fans of the Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Indians have been waiting for their teams to win a World Series. The Cubs’ franchise has gotten a lot more fanfare in that regard, and deservedly so; at least the Indians have gotten close to winning a World Series in the last 60 years, as they pushed the Florida Marlins into extra innings in the seventh game of the 1997 Series. But just in case you’re not familiar with it, here is the scorecard: the Chicago Cubs have not won a world championship since 1908, and the Cleveland Indians have not done it since 1948. This is also the first World Series the Cubs have reached since 1945.
Certain things have to be noted here, namely that the Indians, despite having the “inferior” record to the Cubs, who won 103 games, will have the home field advantage in this World Series because the American League won the All-Star Game. Whether or not you agree with that product of the Bud Selig era, that is exactly the way it is.
The Cubs are the more powerful team, if you measured it by home runs, as they had 199 during the regular season, but Cleveland’s lineup has been more dominated by the homer during the post-season, with 55.6% of their runs coming that way.
Here’s an interesting tidbit, if you like World Series history – if the Indians win this, they will, in all likelihood, become only the second team to win a World Series championship with their leadoff hitter also being the team leader in home runs. Carlos Santana tied for the team lead with 34; the only other team I can think of where that has been the case was the 1969 New York Mets, who had Tommy Agee in the top spot in the lineup.
If you look at this objectively, you would have to give Chicago something of an edge in terms of the depth within their lineup. In other words, when you go up and down the batting order, you probably have more people who are dangerous than do the Indians. And the Cubs have the better starting rotation; even a Cleveland fan would have to admit that. I mean, when you can trot out the guy who is the reigning Cy Young Award winner (Jake Arrieta), along with Kyle Hendricks and Jon Lester, who finished first and second in the National League in earned run average, plus John Lackey, the fourth starter, who has 22 post-season starts and has won the seventh game of the World Series before (and as a rookie no less), you can legitimately say that any opponent has a major challenge going up against whatever starting pitcher the Cubs put on the mound.
The Indians’ starting rotation, by contrast, is a little more of a disaster area. Once you get past Corey Kluber, the former Cy Young winner, you have some questions, to be certain. Trevor Bauer screwed up his pinky on a drone, of all things, and he was bleeding all over the place when he started in the American League Championship Series. Josh Tomlin has very good control, but he is susceptible to the home run, giving up 1.7 round-trippers for every nine innings pitched. Then there is Danny Salazar, who has just been added to the roster but has not pitched in about six weeks (he’d be on a short pitch count, for sure). The Indians might also have to start rookie Ryan Merritt, who we admit came through with a nice outing in the clinching game of the ALCS.
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So that would, on the surface, appear to point very strongly in the direction of the Cubs, wouldn’t it? Well, not so fast.
Because the Indians have this home field “advantage,” it is well worth looking at how they did offensively at home, as compared to when they went on the road. We do admit freely that with a .236 batting average and .300 on-base percentage, they are going to be vulnerable at Wrigley Field. But when they play at Progressive Field, they are much more of a run-scoring machine, with a .827 OPS, compared to .691 as the visitor. And their batting average is 52 points higher.
Another thing that absolutely cannot be ignored is the fact that Cleveland is the team much more likely to run the bases with success. They have stolen 134 bases on the season, while being caught only 31 times. That is a stunning 81% success rate, and that beats all sabermetrics that would warn about the perceived value of the steal. When we say that, we mean that a team would have to steal somewhere between 68% and 75% of the bases they attempt to make it worthwhile, when you compare the benefit of scoring a run as a result of the stolen base with the detriment that is attached to getting caught. So Cleveland is well above average in this category, and in fact has the best success rate in the American League. The Cubs’ catchers have thrown out opponents attempting to steal only 22% of the time, and even their best guy in that regard, Wilson Contreras, who might not even play all that much at the position in this series, is at 37%. If you watched the playoffs, you saw how they talked about Jon Lester’s inability to hold runners on base, and even though he was fabulous in the championship series, that is something that could come back to haunt him here. After all, if this goes seven games, he could conceivably be the starting pitcher in three of those games (that remains to be seen).
Remember another thing as well; the Indians have the better bullpen, on balance, because they might just have more dominant guys that can come out of there. They also have a closer in Andrew Miller who can go more than one inning. We’re not sure Aroldis Chapman can do the same with nearly as much effectiveness.
So even though the Indians are an underdog, we think that at the very least, they can stretch this series seven games, and we would think that they have a pretty good chance of perhaps stealing one (pardon the pun) at Wrigley Field and winning it, which, needless to say, is going to account for a lot of heart-broken Chicago Cubs fans. It’s good for them, however, that Theo Epstein and Joe Maddon are minding the store, because it’s likely they will be back again, and again.