We arrive at the 2016 NLCS after two thrilling division series, with the Cubs' historic comeback in Game 4 and the Dodgers’ wild win in Game 5 capping dramatic victories over the Giants and Nationals, respectively. This one may not be so tense. Chicago is a heavy favorite in the best-of-seven matchup with Los Angeles, which starts Saturday night at Wrigley Field.
Meeting Of The Minds
Cubs manager Joe Maddon is thought to be among the smartest people in baseball, and for good reason: His moves are designed to put his players in position to be successful, and he doesn’t care how unconventional they are. Some of his ideas are one-offs—his intentional walk of Josh Hamilton with the bases loaded while Rays manager in 2008 did not become a pattern—but others, like using regularly players at multiple positions, are still a part of his strategic approach. There were 71 major league players this year who spent at least 150 innings at more than one spot on the field; the Cubs had five of them (Javier Baez, Kris Bryant, Willson Contreras, Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist). Between his ability to play matchups defensively and his expert bullpen management—Chicago finished first in OPS-against in high-leverage situations, suggesting that Maddon is deploying his pitchers such that they neutralize a threat when it’s at its highest—Maddon is likely to give the Cubs their best chance at winning.
Rookie manager Dave Roberts of the Dodgers has had an eye-opening season as well—one in which he has also avoided hewing to tradition. In April, he removed rookie righty Ross Stripling from a chance to be the first pitcher in 124 years to throw a no-hitter in his debut after 7 1/3 innings and 100 pitches. In September, he pulled 36-year-old lefty Rich Hill from a perfect game after seven innings and 89 pitches. In both cases Roberts was focused on the pitchers’ health going forward: Stripling was two years removed from Tommy John surgery and had thrown only 70 innings the year before; Hill had already missed more than a month with blister problems that were showing signs of recurring in that outing. In both cases, the pitchers were preserved for the postseason.
Roberts's unconventional tactics hit a new high point in Thursday’s winner-take-all NLDS Game 5 against Washington. First he yanked Hill, his starter, in the third inning with the score 1–0 when he showed signs of getting hit hard. In the fifth, Roberts brought in his No. 3 starter, 20-year-old lefty Julio Urias, for two scoreless innings, then turned to his closer, Kenley Jansen, in the seventh. After Jansen got eight outs, Roberts called for his ace, Clayton Kershaw—who had started Game 4 on three days' rest and whom he had said before the game would “absolutely not” be available that night (“I need to work on my definition of ‘absolutely not,’ Roberts joked later)—to finish the game and the series. So Maddon will not be the only maverick in the dugout this series.
The Case For The Cubs
Chicago has the edge in every facet of the game. The Cubs ranked ahead of the Dodgers in wins above average (note that WAA is not the same as WAR, which looks at value over a theoretical replacement player rather than the league mean) from every spot on the diamond but one, and even there, Chicago shortstop Addison Russell (2.7) wasn’t far behind Los Angeles' Corey Seager (3.9). The Cubs’ rotation is deeper, if less top-loaded, and their 3–games-to-1 win over the Giants gives them time to set it up. Chicago's bullpen had the second-best ERA (3.11) and strikeout-per-nine rate (10.60) in baseball after the All-Star break, which loosely correlates to when closer Aroldis Chapman joined the team. The versatile defense finished with 95 Defensive Runs Saved, 36 better than the next-best club. And the offense can flat-out hit: It had an OPS of .807 against lefties and .759 against righties; .763 at home and .776 on the road; and .784 in day games and .762 at night.
The Case For The Dodgers
Some of the argument here has to rely on the idea that anything can happen. Chicago, which won 103 games compared to L.A.'s 91, is pretty clearly the superior team, but tell that to the last 15 teams that led the majors in regular-season wins. Of those, only the Red Sox in 2007 and '13 and the Yankees in '09 went on to win the World Series. The rotation is likely to be shaky, especially given that the Dodgers’ top three pitchers all appeared in Game 5 and will therefore probably be out until Game 2 of the NLCS at the earliest. But Los Angeles will be helped for an upset by its bullpen, which has so far struck out 28 in 22 1/3 postseason innings and stranded 18 of 22 inherited runners. If the lineup and the rotation can keep the Dodgers in the game, the relief corps can close it out.